The Pioneering Journalism of Agnes C Laut during the Great War

Canadians probably don't think much about women and journalism any more. Both Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean were former journalists who became Governor General, capping off successful careers with one of the most prestigious appointments in the land. There are many more female journalists who came before them, and no doubt many more will follow, but one of the earliest and most successful female writers and journalists in Canada has received little recognition from our historians. Today, we briefly examine the career of Agnes C. Laut.

In 1928 Canadian editor and novelist Thomas B. Costain wrote to the Brantford Expositor about his career as a journalist and reflected on his successful tenure as Managing Editor of Maclean’s magazine during the First World War. Taking Maclean’s from a financially struggling magazine to a circulation of 80,000 and a revenue of half a million, Costain tied the magazine’s success not to his own abilities, but to the cadre of writers the magazine attracted to its ranks during the war years. Great Canadian writers such as Stephen Leacock, Robert Service and Ralph Connor all appeared in the pages of the magazine. A host of lesser known authors familiar to the Canadians of the day were also included among these literary luminaries.

Among them was Agnes C. Laut, a former writer for the Winnipeg Free Press who was better known for her historical fiction on Canada’s north-west. She wrote for Maclean’s about the evolving political situation of the United States, American neutrality and its consequences for the election of 1916. While many of her countrymen were content with simple patriotism and a focus on Great Britain, she offered an analysis of the unfolding political drama south of the border. Writing on the American election of 1916, Laut offered keen insight into Canadians’ understanding of their continental neighbours. Her work presented Canadians with a more complex vision of the Great War than the one that portrayed in the daily press. Beneath her detail laden articles were important themes about Canadians’ view of the world during the Great War. Laut demonstrated that some Canadians had access to a more complex, global vision of the war outside of the empty rhetoric of propaganda or alarmist gossip.

There is not much historical work on the life of Agnes Christina Laut. Other than a Master’s Thesis on her writing and travels to Mexico after the war, most work is not historical and concentrates on her literary career. Outside of a few references in Canadian women’s history or literary history, Laut is scarcely mentioned. Dr. Valerie Legge, an English Literature professor at Memorial University, has done the most historical research on Laut and is planning her forthcoming book on Laut’s correspondence, which as far as we can tell will be the most extensive research ever done on the novelist and journalist.

Born in 1871 in Huron County, Ontario, Laut’s family moved to Winnipeg two years later. She completed her teaching certificate and taught in a Winnipeg public school alongside a young Nellie McClung. She was admitted to the University of Manitoba in 1889, but was forced to withdraw in her second year due to bad health. In 1895, she joined the staff of the Winnipeg Free Press and began her professional career as a journalist, journeying across Canada for her stories. This experience would help her write many of her adventure novels placed in the wilderness of Canada’s former frontiers. By 1902, for health reasons and the financial success of her book Lords of the North, Laut moved to the state of New York and continued her writing and publishing in American and Canadian magazines. A decade later with numerous published books, she was acknowledged as one of Canada’s leading writers.

In 1915, she published The Canadian Commonwealth venturing into the arena of political commentary. Written in the shadow of the Great War, it was not an academic work though it expressed her views of the future of her native land. While Canada had faced many challenges, she wrote, its place in the world straddling Britain and the United States promised the country a brilliant future. Canada’s destiny was to be “a democratized edition of a Greater Britain Overseas.” By September of that year, she began writing for Maclean’s magazine. She wrote regularly for the magazine for seven years, from 1915 to 1922, with 69 articles to her name. When she died in 1936, her work for Maclean’s was a small part of her literary career which included dozens of successful books and articles for others periodicals.

Her articles for Maclean’s cover a wide variety of subjects, but some of the most interesting are the ones exploring American politics. Despite content which was sometimes exaggerated, the insight into the American political process during wartime was outstanding. The American presidential election between Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican Charles Hughes was set for November 1916. It was largely portrayed as a judgement by the American electorate of Wilson’s policy of neutrality in the Great War. Wilson’s refusal to enter the war hinged on a continuing belief that he could mediate a peace between the belligerents, as well as having a “manifest duty” to maintain a detachment from European affairs.

Laut represents a Canadian view of democracy and their perception of America during the Great War. It is hardly a positive one. It reflects a common theme of Laut’s work: a subtle sense of superiority over Canada’s southern neighbours. For instance, an article on the necessity of British efforts to convince Americans to join their side was also critical of America. The one great weakness to be overcome before America could enter the war was that “deep in the American consciousness … it is almost anti-British.” Given their colonial history with Great Britain, this is hardly a surprise. Yet Laut believed that without being able to join hands with the world’s greatest Empire, the world’s great Republic stood as a failure. It was peculiar vision of the United States' destiny.

Canada was uniquely positioned to bring together the old global power and the new one. After the war, Laut wrote, United States would be the world's economic centre. After Germany was defeated (she always made sure to predict victory) Canada would naturally have closer ties with its southern neighbour. So it was important that Canada maintain its friendship with the United States, as the Dominion would “forge the golden link of friendship” between Britain and its former American colonies. Even as Wilson campaigned against the war, Laut wrote, Canada should maintain its distance.

Her articles presented a distinct image of the United States to Canadians as well as their relationship to it. But Laut’s articles are not exactly filled with careful arguments and reasonable words. She does not intend to slyly convince Canadians of their own importance or of American depravity. Instead, these themes were discussed brazenly and with little subtlety. The United States needed guidance from their “better” neighbours. British civilization could save the Americans from themselves, and Canada was best positioned to offer it.

These themes underpin much of her work and demonstrate her biases and contradictory notions of the world. In turn, they reflect Canadians’ own problems with understanding the world they faced in 1916. The country was caught between the traditional mother country of Britain and the ever growing power of America. Was it a colony finding its place in the Empire or a nation finding a new ally? The question was not answerable in 1916, but its answer was being formed as Canadians witnessed the events of the war. Laut reveals that this was no easy process, as it was not only challenging to separate Britain and America, but difficult to even decide the exact meaning of the values that divided them. Like so many Canadians, Laut's strange perspective reflected a transition between Canadians' view of themselves that would last decades. It would not be resolved at war's end by any means.

Laut's work as an emergent North American perspective is interesting, but should not be considered an absolution of her writing. There are still many problems with it. The articles are fundamentally journalistic pieces and there is often conjecture, selective facts or outright exaggeration. It is not historical work, it is yellow journalism. Yet, taken simply as a glimpse into an American world not known to Canadians, the amount of information Laut provides is breathtaking. It exposed the readers of Maclean’s to experiences far beyond their own. Laut may receive poor marks as a historian, but she was a fine journalist.

Laut's articles reached a minority of Canadians (readers of Maclean's), but those who did read her work were exposed to a more global understanding of the war. In an age when few women ventured into the field of political commentary, particularly during the First World War, Laut's presence is equally impressive. She presented to readers first hand the trials and tribulations of American democracy. While she has been forgotten by Canadians today, Laut still helped define Canadians' view of the world and themselves during the turbulent years of the Great War. That influence has lingered, even if it has gone unacknowledged.