The Methodism in Their Madness

THE GLOOMY AND ALOOF Masseys have long been objects of amusement. Remember B.K. Sandwell’s lines: “Toronto has no social classes/Only the Masseys and the masses”? Many of us know little about Vincent Massey except that his name is attached to a famous report and that he was our first Canadian-born governor-general. One of the things we do know is that he was snob enough to ask his younger brother Raymond what name he would use when Raymond announced he was going to be an actor.

But as a sympathetic television biography of the family points out, there’s much more than that to the Masseys; indeed, their story tells us a great deal about English Canada over the past century and three-quarters. No one who watches the two one-hour programmes, The Masseys: Chronicles of a Canadian Family, produced by Vincent Tovell, himself the son of a Massey, will find it quite so easy to laugh at them again.

There’s a great deal of Methodism to be found in the particular kind of madness this remarkable family suffers from. And the excess of Methodism leads to an enormous amount of grief. So driven are they by a desire to do what they perceive to be God’s will that several early Masseys literally kill themselves trying to live up to the high standards they’ve set for themselves. For the Masseys, life is not to be enjoyed but endured; their story is powerfully moving — like something out of a Greek tragedy or the Old Testament.

Daniel and Rebecca Massey are inspired by Jehovah early in the nineteenth century to move from Watertown, N.Y. to the Anglican-dominated promised land of southern Ontario. (The Masseys had originally come to the New World — to Salem — in 1630.) Their oldest son, Daniel, becomes a successful farmer. In his eagerness to free his children and others for the better life that John Wesley has taught Methodists to believe in (“Make all you can! save all you can! and then give all you can to the community! In the name of God”), Daniel devotes much of his time and energy to making labour-saving farm implements. He actively supports William Lyon Mackenzie’s movement for free and equal rights.

Daniel’s son Hart (played by Michael King as a boy and David Fox as a man) is inspired by his parents and a local travelling (saddlebag) preacher to want an education: an education will open windows for him, will allow him to “look up over the hill, see beyond the forest.” And so he goes off to a new Methodist school that had been founded by Egerton Ryerson, Victoria College in Cobourg.

In 1849 Daniel Massey buys a machine shop at Newcastle, Ontario, where he can make ploughs among other implements and run an agency for the sale of American machines. The business is a great success and soon Hart joins his father. Hart’s ambition is twofold: first, to get the Masseys out of the agency business and be a wholly Canadian manufacturer; and secondly, to beat his chief Canadian competitor, Harris. Hart works so hard achieving these goals after his father’s death, that he collapses from overwork and is forced to retire to Cleveland. Hart’s eldest son Charles takes over the business and under him the company does so well that it moves to Toronto, a city that Hart is convinced will one day be “the Cleveland of Canada.” The new factory in Toronto contains special facilities — a library and a music hall, for instance — for the education of the workers. Charles pushes himself so hard that he dies at the age of thirty-six.

A grief-and guilt-ridden Hart Massey returns to Canada to run the family business. But he remains a driven man. His vanity is affronted at a major exhibition of machinery in London by the British assumption that anything done by colonials is second-rate. He decides to beat the British at their own game. And so, like Methodist saddlebag preachers, Hart’s sons Walter and Fred Victor are sent to preach the gospel according to Massey machinery throughout the British Empire. When they return to Canada, the sensitive and frail Fred Victor is sent off to the the States to acquire an engineering degree. But he takes ill and dies.

Job-like, Hart becomes convinced that God must be punishing him. Fred Victor’s real desire, Hart now realizes, had been to work with the victims of industrialization. Hart builds the Fred Victor Mission in downtown Toronto. But he’s struck as never before by the many ironies in the situation: the charity extended by a Fred Victor Mission could help only a small handful of those who suffered; the Masseys were partly responsible for their suffering; and yet without the opportunities for work the Masseys (and others) created, there would be even more misery. The kind of progress Hart and his parents and grandparents had believed was possible now seems a largely vain hope. Since much of the family’s inspiration had come from music, Hart decides to build a music hall in Toronto, Massey Hall, which will serve rich and poor alike. Perhaps music can help.

Hart Massey dies in 1896, leaving behind a remarkable will. It begins: “I Hart Massey, of the City of Toronto, manufacturer … realizing the uncertainty of life…” He leaves millions “for the poor, the sick and those who tend them. For the young who are willing … to develop their minds.” His third son, Walter, becomes president, determined to carry out the rigorous terms of Hart’s will — on the one hand, always to put conscience before profit, and on the other, to expand the business “even in and throughout the United States.” Walter dies trying, at the age of forty-three. Now the last of Hart’s sons, Chester, the father of Vincent and Raymond, assumes control. The narrative ends with him at the beginning of the First World War. Discretion dictates that we get only a passing glance at the careers of his sons; Raymond, after all, is still alive.

The greatest strength of these programmes lies in the compelling story they tell. Unfortunately, Lovat Dickson’s script sometimes gets in the way. He’s too elliptical at moments when one yearns for a little more detail. It’s not at all clear, for example, why Hart chooses to move to Cleveland during his illness. And at times Dickson is tediously long-winded when one wishes he’d just get on with it — the scene in which Fred Victor and Walter prepare to leave on their trip around the world seems interminable. There are, as well, some melodramatic bits of prose that Dickson speaks himself — lines such as “The Masseys will face triumphs — and tragedies.” Equally foolish, I think, is a decision to introduce the cast to us at the end of the first episode; each of them repeats some “significant” remark from the hour that’s just ended.

Much of the time, the narrative is moved forward by the simple device of voice-over narration by one of the Masseys as we observe in close detail the members of the family going about their daily lives. These scenes are effectively intercut with both real and dramatized still photographs over which the cameras move. (Particularly haunting are the shots of the saddlebag preacher.) Exceptions to this voice-over technique in the second of the two programmes cause it to drag: Chester, for instance, talking directly into the camera, when no one else has done so, makes one wonder if the producers have run out of ideas or money for voice-over material. The weaknesses of the second hour suggest that The Masseys might have worked better as a single ninety-minute show.

It seems appropriate that the most striking feature of The Masseys is the music (under the direction of Louis Applebaum) and that the choir performing many of the wonderful old Methodist hymns is that of Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church, the Masseys’ church. The choir is accompanied on an organ donated to Metropolitan United by Hart’s only daughter, Lillian (played by Terry Tweed) who comes across as the most interesting of all the Masseys. In her lonely, declining years Lillian had a direct telephone line between her home and church so she could sit in her living room and listen to the organ.

I must admit to a special interest in the Massey family and in these programmes. I arrived at the University of Toronto in the late 1950s lonely and confused, the son of poor, immigrant parents. I didn’t attend classes often and I compiled a dismal academic record. But I did begin to get an education. Most of my time was spent in a wonderful building called Hart House. (I didn’t realize until long after I’d graduated that the building had been a gift to the university from the Massey family, in honour of Hart.) I spent hours every day in the Hart House Magazine Room reading British, American and Canadian magazines and newspapers; in the Reading Room I devoured countless books that were on no required reading list; in the Record Room I heard much of the classical repertoire for the first time. (I started going to Massey Hall to hear these works performed live.) Twice a week there were glorious singsongs — including hymns — in the large common room. Everywhere in the building hung some of the best in Canadian art. Hart House opened windows for me in the late 1950s in a way that Methodist saddlebag preachers had done for young men like Hart Massey more than a century before.

— Saturday Night , September 1978

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