Archives named after York pioneer of Canlit studies

York honoured one of its original stars Tuesday as friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate the renaming of the University Archives & Special Collections after Clara Thomas, professor emerita and research fellow. Thomas taught for 42 years before going on to help build the archive into one of the premier literary resources in Canada.

Right: Clara Thomas views dedication plaque during ceremony 

Thomas, 86, was joined by Morley, her husband of 63 years, and was feted by former students and faculty colleagues for pioneering efforts to put Canadian literature at the forefront of world culture since she arrived at York in 1961.

“We are paying appropriate tribute to an extraordinary person,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president & vice-chancellor, “someone who has mentored generations of students, has advanced the intellectual knowledge of the University and, indeed, all universities and the Canadian and academic literary and scholarly regime. She has made untold contributions to the lives of students and people in our world in this country and elsewhere.”

 lorna marsden, morley thomas, clara thomas

Above: From left, York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden with Morley and Clara Thomas

One of only a few female faculty members when she came to York in 1962, Thomas immediately established herself as champion of Canadian literature, especially through her research and writing about Margaret Laurence, whom she knew well. Her scholarly output includes many articles and chapters in books and book-length studies of Laurence’s writings. Her friendship with the author also led to York’s acquisition of Laurence’s papers in 1981, a collection that is one of the jewels of the archive.

Isobel BassettBut, as many speakers at the dedication noted, Thomas was also known as a feminist who inspired her female students to see the possibilities of life and work outside the home at a time when there were few role models like her. TVO Chair Isabel Bassett (right), a York alumna (MA ’73, LLD ’01) who went on to a career in journalism, broadcasting and politics, was a young mother when she studied with Thomas. “You made it all possible by saying ‘go on, pursue your interests and your career’,” Bassett said. “Many times I have thought back on that, so thank you.”

John LennoxEveryone commented on Thomas’s generosity of spirit and passion for her subject. Marsden called her a “peacemaker” in clashes between academic departments and an “extraordinary person” and “real feminist”. Jack David (right), who studied with Thomas and is Jack Davidnow publisher of ECW Press, recalled the names of several Canadian writers and academics whom Thomas mentored and said she nurtured and supported her students with a “kind-hearted tutelage”. He also remembered how Thomas hosted an annual luncheon at Pioneer Village that created a feeling of collegiality in him and his fellow graduate students.

Another of Thomas’s students who spoke was John Lennox (above, left), associate vice-president graduate and dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, who said “the York Universty Archives & Special Collections are intimately connected with what Clara Thomas has represented and done for Canadian literature.”

About Clara Thomas

Clara Thomas was born in Strathroy, Ontario in 1919, and studied at the University of Western Ontario and the Unviersity of Toronto before becoming a member of the York faculty at the original campus at Glendon in 1961. She retired in 1984 and was named York University Canadian Research Fellow in the University Libraries and professor emerita.

In the course of her career, Thomas was elected to the prestigious Royal Society of Canada as a Fellow in 1983, awarded the International Canadian Studies Prize in 1989, and was granted several honorary degrees including Doctor of Literature at York in 1986 and Trent University in 1991 and Doctor of Laws at Brock University in 1992.

Thomas has served on the editorial board of many academic journals including the Journal of Canadian Studies, the Journal of Canadian Fiction, and the Literary Journal of Canada (second edition). She has written articles on topics in Canadian literature for many publications and is probably best known for the depth and breadth of her work on Margaret Laurence, including many articles and chapters in book-length studies of Laurence’s writings: Margaret Laurence (McClelland and Stewart, 1969) and The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (McClelland and Stewart, 1975). Thomas’s other publications include: Canadian Novelists: 1925-1945 (1946, rpr. 1970), Love and Work Enough, The Life of Anna Jameson (1967), Our Nature, Our Voices (1969), Ryerson of Upper Canada (1969), William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life (1982, with John Lennox), All My Sisters: Essays on the Work of Canadian Women Writers (1994), and her autobiographical work in Chapters in a Lucky Life (1999).