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Conference pays homage to Queen’s legend

There’s often an urge to exaggerate the accomplishments of our forebears, embellishing their successes and abilities to the point where they become more legend than reality.

For a person like George Whalley though, overstating the volume and breadth of his achievements is nearly impossible. He was a war hero who took part in the sinking of the Bismarck during the Second World War, an inventor of a naval navigation beacon, helped found the Kingston Symphony, was head of the Queen’s English Department for two terms and wrote multiple books of poetry and literary criticism. It’s a long list, but still doesn’t record all his accomplishments.   

George Whalley
The life and career of George Whalley will be the focus of a three-day conference  being hosted at Queen’s by the Department of English Language and Literature from July 24-26. (Portrait by Elizabeth Tatchell Harrison)

To celebrate the centenary of Whalley’s birth, a three-day conference is being hosted at Queen’s by the Department of English Language and Literature from July 24-26. Rather than a strictly academic conference, the event will be just as multi-faceted as Whalley’s life. Its first day will focus on Romanticism and Aesthetics, Whalley’s primary academic focuses, the second will focus on the man himself and his legacy, and the third day will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Canadian Writer’s Conference, which was held in 1955 at Queen’s. 

“One conference on one subject wouldn’t be enough to cover everything that Whalley achieved and what he meant to Queen’s,” says Shelley King, head of the English Department. “The scope of his intellectual endeavors was something that resonated not just with other academics, but the broader public as well. A recognized man of letters, he was a public intellectual in the 1960s when higher education was starting to expand and there was extraordinary popular support for university work.”

Open to a wide audience of academics, writers and interested members of the Kingston community, the conference will have heavyweights of Canadian literature as well. Famed Canadian author and Queen’s grad Michael Ondaatje (MA’67) will be present as well as Giller Prize-winner Elizabeth Hay. Ondaatje studied at Queen’s while Whalley was a professor and Hay was inspired by Whalley’s work on John Hornby during the writing of Late Nights on Air. Both authors will be presenting on the conference’s second day.

Though the conference is being hosted at Queen’s, much of its organization has been handled by Michael DiSanto, associate professor and head of the Department of English and Film at Algoma University. Dr. DiSanto has for some years now been working with Whalley’s poetry and essays, is writing a biography of Whalley’s astonishing life and wishes the work of this prominent Canadian was better known.

“Seemingly everything he chose to do, he did very, very well,” Dr. DiSanto says. “He was an exceptionally thoughtful and accomplished Canadian, and I see him as part of a trio that includes Northrop Frye and George Grant.”

Along with the conference’s presentations will be a number of social events. A chamber music performance will be held at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on the evening of July 25 and a dinner will be held at the HMCS Cataraqui where Whalley was commanding officer in the early 1950s.

More information about the conference can be found at GeorgeWhalley.ca.