The late Canadian author, environmentalist, self-promoter, and shit-disturber Farley Mowat was born on this day in 1921. Nearly ninety-two years later, on May 6 of 2014, he died. Between those dates Mowat led a legendary life. A polarizing personality, he was widely loved and yet frequently reviled.
It’s Mowat’s storytelling that will remain his greatest legacy, and drew his most vociferous criticism. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” was his mantra, and Mowat was duly dubbed “Hardly Know It” by many serious scientists, experts, and ordinary folk—especially Northerners—fed up with his penchant for myth-making. Saturday Night magazine depicted Farley Mowat as Pinocchio in a cover story that catalogued his errors, exaggerations and outright fibs.
For his part, Mowat claimed his wildly popular books—he sold 17 million of them, all over the world—brought much needed attention to serious causes: the starvation of the Ahalmuit (People of the Deer); the demonization of wolves (Never Cry Wolf); the plight of whales (A Whale for the Killing), seals and other marine life (Sea of Slaughter).
The factuality of Mowat’s work may often be sketchy, but his skill as a storyteller is undeniable. As Up Here noted in a reevaluation in 2009, (Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?) the North has been hard on its writers at the best of times, and Hardly Know It might well have been reviled for his unpopular stance even if he’d been a stickler for accuracy.
Certainly, if history judges his books by their emotional substance, Farley Mowat’s legacy will be a favourable one. Sympathy for wild creatures was once considered sentimental. Criticism of British and Canadian patriarchal authority in the North was weak-kneed. And advocacy for the Inuit way of life was anything but common when Farley Mowat first put pen to paper.
These were ideas Mowat introduced, and stood by, early on in his career. All are clearly in evidence in his Top of the World Trilogy. This compendium of old explorer’s journals, spanning several centuries, edited with commentary by Mowat, is well worth re-reading now: it’s vintage Mowat, and yet, published in 1973, it was well ahead of its time.
Favouring overlooked, underdog explorers like Samuel Hearne, Francis McClintock, and Captain Thierry Mallet, Mowat’s selections and commentary subvert the typical hero narrative, heaping scorn on hapless colonizers of the North acting on orders from far away, including the otherwise iconic Sir John Franklin.
Such views are common, if not dominant today, even in the South. Would that be the case without Farley Mowat? Clearly his most egregious missteps and misstatements will not stand the test of time, nor should they. But on what would have been his ninety-fourth birthday, perhaps we can admit that on some subjects, at least, Farley Knew It after all.
Editor’s note: the late Farley Mowat travelled as a special guest aboard Adventure Canada expeditions in 1995 and 1997. Among his many contributions he taught us invaluable lessons about garnering cheap publicity.