Accession MSS 037 - Dorothy Livesay fonds

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Dorothy Livesay fonds

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CA UMASC MSS 37, PC 43, TC 31-MSS 037

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  • 1907-1983 (Creation)
    Livesay, Dorothy

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16.5 m of textual records

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Biographical history

Dorothy Livesay was born in Winnipeg in 1909 and moved to Toronto with her parents at the age of ten. Her father, J.F.B. Livesay, was the first general manager of the Canadian Press, a war correspondent during World War I, and author of Canada's Hundred Days (1919). Her mother, Florence Randal Livesay, was a poet of distinction and a pioneer in the field of translating verse from Ukrainian into English. Dorothy Livesay studied at the University of Toronto and the Sorbonne, afterwards becoming a welfare worker, then a newspaper reporter, and finally a teacher. She taught Canadian Literature at the University of Victoria for two years. At the University of Alberta, she taught Canadian Literature and Creative Writing. She also taught in the United States and Zambia, the latter as a UNESCO field specialist. Known chiefly as a poet, Dorothy Livesay won the Lorne Pierce Medal in 1947 for distinguished service to Canadian literature. During the 1940s, she was twice honoured with the Governor-General's Award for Poetry. Some of her best-known poetry publications include Green Pitcher (1928), Call My People Home (1950), Ice Age (1975), Right Hand Left Hand (1977), The Woman I Am (1977), The Phases of Love (1983), and Journey With My Selves: a Memoir, 1909-1963 (1991). She died on December 29, 1996.

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Scope and content

The collection consists of biographical material, correspondence, drafts, and versions of Livesay's writings of all genres. Over half of the Livesay collection consists of papers that are strictly non-literary yet directly related to her life and work. This material is divided into five categories: autobiographical, biographical, bibliographical, business papers regarding her writing and her personal business papers. The remainder of the manuscript collection consists of plays, reviews, poems, short stories, essays, talks and addresses, and memoirs.

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The "Autobiography" files come under the following separate headings: a) interviews with Dorothy Livesay, and her autobiographical statements and essays; b) journals of the writer consisting of entries in note-form on separate sheets of paper; c) Livesay's diaries and calendars, or schedules; and d) notes to herself, which she jotted down and kept for numerous reasons and purposes. To some extent, this is the most intimate and unguarded section of the Livesay Collection, and has to be studied with some care for clues to a deeper understanding of the author. There is great value in the "Autobiography" files for scholars who wish to challenge Dorothy Livesay's public and formal statements about herself and her work, statements which are repeated and left unchallenged in most Livesay interviews to this date.

"Interviews and autobiographical statements and essays" contain three types of material. The first consists of interviews with the author, taken by freelance interviewers, journalists, and radio commentators. The Collection contains both published and unpublished copies of interviews. The researcher can measure the extent to which Dorothy Livesay's statements have been edited by comparing the published copies to their manuscripts, and also the quality of Livesay's answers to interviewers by comparing similar statements in different interviews. A second type of autobiographical material is a selection of autobiographical statements the writer has penned, both published and unpublished. A third kind are essays of an autobiographical nature. These essays are perhaps the most sustained of the comments on herself in the Collection as a whole, and may have been intended for eventual publication. The essays are source material for some of Livesay's work, and provide insights into the development of Dorothy Livesay's work.

Not all of the published interviews with Dorothy Livesay are in this Collection, but there are enough to show the nature of the questions that concern interviewers, and the quality of Livesay's answers. Three kinds of concerns surface in the interviews- -political, literary, and social. Since Livesay was an active socialist and writer in the Thirties, some interviews reflect her political bias, her knowledge of Canadian socialist history, and the function of the writer in relation to politics. Others search out Livesay's comments on the art of writing, the climate for writing in Canada, and on her own work. The social concerns expressed in these interviews have to do with feminism, an issue on which she became more vocal during the Seventies. Livesay makes statements about all these subjects, but repeats herself from interview to interview, without ever probing deeply into any given issue. Publicly, Livesay proposes a set of opinions, but seldom an analysis. Often the interviews will show more of the interviewer's position than the interviewee's personality. (The same problem emerges in the clippings on Livesay and in newspaper articles written by journalists.) A typical example of this common problem is an introductory comment in an interview from The Manitoban, October 28, 1976, entitled "Dorothy Livesay and CVII, The Canadian Poets' Friends." The interviewer states that "before my eyes the sweet little old lady poet had turned into a huckster, albeit a huckster for the muse," because Livesay showed her a copy of Contemporary Verse II. Similarly, in The Fulcrum, March 2, 1977, she is described as having "all the grace and warmth of a communal grandmother."

Among the manuscripts of interviews are several fascinating conversations. Most notable are an interview by Mike Heenan, probably for CBC Radio in 1975, and a 1967 interview by Robert McNutt, also likely for radio, or perhaps from a class situation. The transcriptions of radio interviews read like conversations and show the way Dorothy Livesay interacts with people. The Heenan interview, for example, contains a good deal of humour on the interviewer's part, which Livesay seems to miss or does not respond to in kind. The McNutt interview is also refreshingly lively, but there Livesay appears more in tune with her questioner. The rapport between the two speakers in all the interviews is the central matter of importance, and the manuscripts show when such rapport has been edited into the piece for publication, and when that is not the case.
Among the manuscripts are complete copies of a 1975 interview by Bernice Lever, published in the Canadian Forum, and an interview by Alan Twigg, published in the NeWest Review. There is also a manuscript in this file of a 1947 radio interview by Ellen Harris, on Livesay's observations of Britain when she was a European correspondent for The Star in 1946. The researcher can get a good sense of the young Dorothy Livesay's clear-headedness from this piece, and her level-headed responses show her keen observational skills and facilities as a journalist. Livesay is far more direct and to the point in this early interview than she is in the later ones, where she often wanders off the point under discussion. One characteristic of the later interviews, the scholar will find, is Livesay's ability to sidestep a question, or create a new issue out of a query. She reserves the right, in the later conversations, to provide answers that do not correspond to the questions, leaving the interviewer with the task of circling back to the original point.

The file of published copies of Livesay's autobiographical statements is very small and serves as an example of what remains of her essays and notes once they have been edited for publication. The researcher will find that Dorothy Livesay has been an avid editor of her own writing all her life, and many drafts of any given work exist. This is especially true of her autobiographical pieces, and the bulk of her essays, lectures, poems and stories are autobiographical in nature. It is as if the writer is unable to decide what kind of self-portrait to draw, what emphasis to place on events in her life, and what opinions she should have of what has transpired. In this file there is an early documentary-style piece by Livesay on her parents (mainly her father) who influenced her greatly. She provides examples of the writings of both parents and includes her own poem "Lament." This piece, published in The Canadian Bookman, provides an early example of Livesay's interest in "pot-pourri" essays, where documents are quoted without processing or bridging of the texts. Another statement in this file is "Notes from a Diary," from The Canadian Review, 1977. Here is an example of the kind of prose fragments Dorothy Livesay has been jotting down all her life. This one concerns an encounter with a cab driver and the prejudice older people have to face in society.

The unpublished autobiographical file contains both brief and longer pieces by Livesay on herself, her life, and her work. Some of these notes and reflections could be considered journal entries, but are filed here because apparently they are meant for publication as essays of a kind. For example, there are Livesay's notes on her childhood, and her relationship with her father. Here she quotes from the Diary of Anne Frank Anne's thoughts about her father and her feelings of inadequacy, words which may well echo Dorothy Livesay's feelings about her own father. Another note tells of Dorothy's childhood fears and nervous illnesses. She would lie in bed with imagined terrors, and her father would come and massage her legs to help her relax. "Nowadays this sounds highly suspicious," she writes, "but I am sure that he was careful to play the role of the doctor. He had healing hands and in a few minutes I would fall asleep." Here as elsewhere in the Livesay collection, the researcher will find that Dorothy Livesay has written a great deal about her father and his influence on her life and work, and much of what she reveals is contrary to what she would like her reader, and herself, to believe. The Livesay papers as a whole provide a wealth of material on the father-daughter relationship and its connection to a woman's creativity. The "Autobiography" files, along with the correspondence, offer the best examples of this.

Other statements include a description of the author's home on Galiano Island, some comments on love and marriage, and notes on her relatives in England. Among them is a manuscript headed "Prologue to Ch. I," possibly meant for her autobiography (or Darnel), dealing with Livesay's childhood and adolescence in Toronto and relationship with boys. A prefatory remark in this essay summarizes neatly the writer's autobiographical impulse, which is so evident in all her writing. She claims that ". . . the desire to 'make a story' of one's life is one of our most human characteristics. Human beings are not scientists. Memory plays us false; yet memory reveals more than statistics. The truth is a many-sided prism and all one person can do is flash the daylight on some of the walls he knows best." (p. 1)

Of the autobiographical essays a few are concerned with Dorothy Livesay's childhood and youth. Others relate to her experience in New Jersey, her impressions of France, her time in Africa, and two are essays of a general nature on "being in love," and "entertainment." Those essays that deal with Livesay's childhood are to some extent carried over from her short stories (which culminated in A Winnipeg Childhood) and other autobiographical works. Evidently, Dorothy Livesay rewrote the same material many times over the years, as if she had selected only a few recollections that could serve as samples of a larger truth. An instance of such rewriting occurs in the essay "Winnipeg made me," which is the text for a lecture?reading given at the University of Manitoba in January 1970. Here she retells of her coming into consciousness as a child in Winnipeg, using scenes from her story "A Prairie Sampler," Another interesting example of the development of Livesay's work is to be found in an untitled essay or letter dated July 2, 1972 in which the writer describes a winter journey into rural Manitoba, a recollection which became the basis for the poem "Thumbing a Ride." By comparing the essay and the poem, some insight can be gained into Livesay's poetics.

A fragment of an essay on Dorothy Livesay's experiences in New Jersey shows the same persistence with rewriting that is evident in the childhood pieces. Any given fragment on that episode says more or less the same thing, often in the same words, and finds it culmination in Right Hand Left Hand.

The essays on France, however, provide a different view of Livesays' writing. These pieces are more lyrical than the others, more descriptive, and generally more linguistically passionate than most of the author's prose. There is a hint of Dorothy Livesay the journalist in the French articles, with detailed descriptions of the setting and lengthy interviews. The same journalistic trend may be found in three pieces on Africa, including a short story, "Not on My Verandah," which describes, more fully than a regular essay would, what the writer makes of the African experience. Dorothy Livesay can be seen here, as in her New Jersey fragments, empathizing with the natives and others who suffer discrimination. "Not on My Verandah" is one of Livesay's finer stories, where she is able to display her creative talent and journalistic skills to equal advantage.
The two remaining essays in this file, "On Entertainment" and "On Being in Love," are examples of the writer's reflections on her own life and family, and what she culls from those reflections when seeking to understand herself.

Dorothy Livesay's journals occupy a separate box in the autobiographical section of the collection. The journal entries contained therein range from notes she made at the age of fourteen, in 1923, to those penned in the Eighties. Written on loose sheets of paper, there is no overall coherence to the entries. It is likely that the entries here, noted down over a lifetime of writing, are only scattered fragments of the whole of Livesays' journals, with the exception of the very early entries (1923-1928.) The various notes have therefore been grouped by subject rather than date, especially since dates are not always indicated. Entries fall into four general subject categories: Africa; England and France; her parents; and finally reflective jottings of a general nature.

The journal writing Livesay did on her travels abroad is of a specific nature. She speaks mainly of three separate visits to Britain: one while she was studying at the Sorbonne, to attend a Press Conference with her father; another, when she was European correspondent for The Toronto Star, immediately after World War II; and a third when she took training for a job teaching in Africa on behalf of UNESCO. The bulk of the entries concern Livesay's first journey to Europe, where she describes in detail the voyage itself, people on the ship, her impressions of the wide range of social classes she encounters, and her sense of adventure and excitement. Some of the writing is an apparent attempt at fictionalized autobiography, and the Livesay student may discover that the writer used these journal entries as (hopeful) drafts for prose writing. Included in the travel sketches is a make-shift book fragment titled "Touch and Go," a title that reflects both Livesay's uncertainty with life and experience at that time (1950's perhaps), and her convictions about human sexuality. Curiously enough, in the travel entries Dorothy Livesay is doing exactly what her mother, Florence Randal Livesay, did, whose detailed diary about her travels to Africa is also available in the Livesay collection (see "Biography".)

Two prevalent and somewhat contradictory characteristics pertinent to Dorothy Livesay's writing are evident in her travel-sketch journals. In one sense, the reader can see Livesay in the act of finding a form for her autobiography, and for her prose-impetus in general. She tries to dramatize and colour what she observes, often with an odd lack of conviction. In the other, the author functions as a journalist, attempting to remain faithful to the reality she is confronted with, not willing to add or detract for aesthetic purposes. The conflict between Livesay the journalist and Livesay the creative writer continually surfaces and is particularly evident in the few sheets she has concerning Africa. As a teacher and a journalist, as well as a writer concerned with social(ist) activism, Dorothy Livesay tackles all issues and disciplines at once. She cannot entirely dramatize, for she is concerned with the social injustices evident in Africa, particularly the problem of race relations. Nor can she be entirely journalistic, for the dramatist in her, and the autobiographer, nags at her to colour the situation she describes with her own brand of human interest. To the Livesay scholar, there is much to find here when considering the position and problems of the narrator.

The journal entries under the "General" heading cover a wide variety of subjects, although all of them centre the narrative self within a complex of observations and reflections. In these notes, Livesay describes conversations with people, sometimes a dream, and reflects on ideas and historical matters. A small segment of these entries concerns the Thirties, and many provide a useful index to a study of Right Hand Left Hand, as well as the Thirties poems. A few interesting comments may be found scattered among the notes, such as a recorded conversation with her husband Duncan Macnair, about whom there is relatively little material in the collection as a whole. In this segment, Dorothy admits to her husband that being married is "all right for a while," but she imagines she will want something different when she is fifty. Later she considers, after his death, that she has "failed him many times over." The researcher may find that such direct statements are rare in the Livesay papers. The reason for the absence of such unflinching honesty may be found in another entry from this group of papers, which concerns honesty in autobiography. Here she speculates, "who wants to admit the truth about oneself to others? Who even can bear to admit those truths to himself?"

Those entries concerning the influence of Livesay's parents on her writing contain some noteworthy comments, particularly for the student of the writer's memoirs. One entry expresses very lucidly the impetus behind her autobiographical strain, and especially her apparent obsession with her father. Contrary to her assertions elsewhere, in interviews for example, here she speculates that she had no encounters with literary people when she was growing up, and therefore her memoirs cannot be of interest. It should be noted, however, that elsewhere Dorothy Livesay makes much of meeting her parents' friends, such as Mazo de la Roche and Raymond Knister and of the effect these meetings had on her. Her childhood autograph book attests to her having some encounters with famous literary people through her parents, for there she has letters from Edmund Gosse, Frederick P. Grove, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Mazo de la Roche, among others. (See "diaries and calendars".) However, Livesay reflects that only by emphasizing her father's influence on her own career and outlook can an autobiography of hers become universally interesting. Such a work would probe the depths of female creativity and the father complex. "The problem then," she states, "is to make the inner relationships interesting enough."

Finally, the diary fragments from her early youth (1923-1928) to some degree attest to Livesay's emotional sensitivity as a child, and justify her parents' early interest in their daughter's creative abilities. Often Dorothy Livesay complains of being pushed into writing by her parents, but other times she is grateful, It is this relationship which the author can be seen probing, inverting, and analyzing for herself throughout the Livesay collection, and it was obviously of central importance to her. The key to all of Dorothy Livesay's notes, journals, diaries and autobiographical statements may be her entry for September 13, 1970 in which she resolves "not to write many letters to friends or relative, but to make notes each day on the themes I wish to touch in 'the adventures of a writer.'"

One file in the "Journals" category contains descriptions of dreams. Many of the entries are dated (some as early as the 1940's) and contain a description of circumstances in Livesay's life that might have caused her to dream as shown. It is probable that the author wrote down her dreams so she might use them in her writing sometime later. Whether or not Dorothy Livesay actually did base poems or stories on dreams is an open question, one that provides the scholar with a potentially fascinating study. Dreams were recorded as part of the reality she seeks to transform into art, in the same way that her journalism notes provide her with data for her creative work.

The diaries in the collection are distinguished from the journals in that Dorothy Livesay kept diaries intermittently throughout her life, and wrote in them sometimes every day for a stretch of time. The Collection contains relatively few diary books, but enough to determine several points concerning Livesay's life and work. There are diaries from the Twenties, Thirties, Sixties, and Seventies, and then some daily calendars and schedules that show her activities at certain times. The earliest diaries, dated 1929 and 1930, show the young writer in conflict with her own ambitions. "I am suddenly afraid of ambition," she writes on February 23, 1930; "Success does not bring an understanding of life . . . Art no longer matters: I must not let it matter," On March 22, 1929,she writes "I am afraid of exaggeration- -especially in the practical test of storywriting," and on March 9 of that year she comes to the un-Livesayan conclusion that "the question of woman as an artist: it cannot be. This is a fearful truth to accept, but it ought to knock the conceit out of me. . . . Remarks such as these indicate Livesay's reluctance to express herself totally in her work, and show a certain fear of honesty which runs counter to the autobiographical impulse in her writing.

In the diaries, as elsewhere in her papers, the researcher will find an urge on the writer's part to discover the origins of her own inner conflict in the difference between her mother and father. She often hints at a form of repression coming from her parents, and in September 1930, back in Clarkson from France, she writes, "Now I feel alert, very much awakened. Yet already being home closes me up. Already there's a hand against my mouth." That "hand against my mouth" is variously her mother's or her father's in the autobiographical writings, and in the later diaries it becomes the hand of her husband, Duncan Macnair, as well. The Livesay student will find fertile soil in this conflict for an analysis of all aspects of the author's work. The later diaries, 1977 and 1978, provide much insight into Dorothy Livesay's relationship with Duncan Macnair. In the diary she speaks frankly at times of his attitude to her work, their sexual life, and, on October 24, 1977, she recalls "all the scoldings I endured from my father and then from my husband." All of these entries are an index to her sense of repression, and explain to some extent why she spent so much of her life in an effort to be free, both from social convention and from her own emotions.

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Finding aid created by staff of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections (1986). Finding aid encoded by Brett Lougheed and Julianna Trivers (March 2002). Revision History: July 26, 2005 - MSS 37 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
Revised by N. Courrier (July 2019).

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