Fonds MSG 698 - Dorothy Duncan fonds

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Dorothy Duncan fonds

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  • 1907-1972, predominant 1930-1957 (Creation)

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Physical description

0.54 m of textual records
527 photographs (525 black and white, 2 colour)

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Biographical history

Born in East Orange in 1903, New Jersey, Dorothy Duncan spent her formative years in the United States. She grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, with a Christian Science background. She received a Bachelor of Science in Botany from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1925 and worked as a journalist in the Chicago area for a number of years. In 1932, she made a trip abroad and on the return from England aboard the S.S. Penfield, she met Canadian Hugh McLennan. They fell in love, but McLennan’s father insisted that he should be financially independent before marrying. As a result, he wound up spending three unhappy years at Princeton doing graduate studies in Classics before he could look for a job, which was made more difficult by the Great Depression. They married in 1936 at her home in Wilmette, Illinois, and settled in Montreal, where MacLennan found work teaching at Lower Canada College. While Duncan was often addressed as Dorothy MacLennan in her correspondence, she published under her maiden name.

Duncan’s published works include “You Can Live in An Apartment” (1939), “Here's to Canada!” (1941), and “Bluenose: A Portrait of Nova Scotia” (1942). In 1944, she published a biography of the Czechoslovakian-Canadian Jan Rieger, entitled “Partner in Three Worlds,” for which she was awarded the 1946 Governor General’s award for creative non-fiction. Duncan was a member of the Authors’ League of America and the Canadian Authors’ Association. She was also the director of the North Hatley Library Association, the organization that ran the library in the small Quebec town where she and MacLennan summered.

Duncan encouraged MacLennan with his writing, and urged him to write about Canada rather than the United States or Europe, which were the settings for his first novels. While he had trouble finding publishers for those first books, he found success after following her advice with “Barometer Rising,” his first novel set in Canada. She often proofread his books. The character of Catherine Martell in Hugh MacLennan’s “The Watch That Ends The Night” is largely based on Dorothy Duncan.

In the late 1940s, Duncan’s health deteriorated, a result of rheumatic fever she had suffered during her youth. After her doctors advised her to stop writing, she took up painting, with some public success. Her health declined, however, and she died on Easter Day, April 22, 1957, two weeks before her solo gallery show was to open in Montreal.

Custodial history

Dorothy Duncan collected the materials fonds during her lifetime. The fonds was acquired by McGill Library's Rare Books and Special Collections in two accessions. The date of the first accession is unknown; the second accession occurred in 1992.

Scope and content

The fonds documents Dorothy Duncan’s personal and professional activities as an American-born Canadian writer and painter, primarily between 1930 and her death in 1957. Duncan’s career as a writer is represented by scrapbooks, clippings, and photographs related to her published works, two unpublished manuscripts, and contracts and correspondence with publishers and her literary agent in New York. Her activities as a painter are documented in clippings, lists of paintings, and contracts with art galleries. The fonds also contains personal correspondence, including letters from friends, family, fans, and a significant number of letters from her husband, Hugh MacLennan. Duncan’s notebooks and diaries also attest to her personal and professional activities. They document her early adulthood in Illinois and her later life in Montreal, and include notes, agendas, and a ledger. The fonds also contains two albums of personal photographs.

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The fonds is arranged in the following series:
-Series 1 Personal records (1907-1961)
-Series 2 Correspondence (1930-1972)
-Series 3 Literary and art works (1938-1956)
-Series 4 Unpublished manuscripts (1933-1935)
-Series 5 Notebooks and diaries (1931-1957)

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  • Ancient Greek
  • English
  • Latin

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Associated materials

Hugh MacLennan papers, MS 466

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This finding aid was put together by Shannon Viola and Aeron MacHattie as part of McGill’s School of Information Studies course GLIS 641. Revised by Prof. Gordon Burr on Nov. 24th, 2019.

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