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Modernism, authenticity, and Indian identity: Frank "Toronto" Prewett (1893-1962)

Porter, Joy



Deborah L. Madsen


Due to his Indian ancestry, the Canadian poet Frank James Prewett was nicknamed "Toronto" by the illustrious literary friends he met while recovering in England following his service in World War One. Those friends included Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and the doyenne of the Bloomsbury set, the rich and generous Lady Ottoline Morrell. Each figure found Prewett’s poetry important and his Indian identity both intriguing and meaningful. Woolf typeset Prewett’s first book Poems (Hogarth Press) which appeared in 1921 and when the Times Literary Supplement favourably reviewed it, she remarked to Lytton Strachey in a letter; "The Literary Supplement, by the way, says that Prewett is a poet: perhaps a great one." Graves was convinced of Prewett’s literary importance. He edited Prewett’s Collected Poems, published posthumously in 1964, and noted in the introduction; "Dedicated poets like Frank Prewett are few in any age; and lamentably so in this." Sassoon was sure Prewett was special from the moment he set eyes upon him. He told Graves, "Toronto is a great man, and will be a great writer, - greater than you or me, because of his simplicity of mind and freedom from intellectual prejudices." Like Lady Ottoline Morrell, Sassoon had a deep intellectual friendship with Prewett and supported him so that he might write creatively. He supplied him with travel money and cash for about five years while Morrell gave him gifts, hospitality and eventually, an agricultural job on her country retreat Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. Both for a time fell in love with "Toronto" or were at the very least, strongly sexually attracted to him. They made sure he was introduced to and moved within, circles that included Leonard Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, T.E. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Mark Gertler, S.S. Koteliansky and Dorothy Brett, the latter yet another Bloomsbury figure whose letters reveal some variety of romantic attachment with Prewett. Just after the war, Ottoline Morrell was so taken with Prewett she wrote to Robert Graves determined to set up a "debating society and dining club with Frank Prewett, Masefield, Marsh, Lytton Strachey, [Karl] Liebknecht and Trotsky as honorary members." Today Prewett is regularly claimed as part of the Native American literary canon and work from his second book of poetry The Rural Scene (1924) is frequently anthologised. However, non-native critics have recently begun to stress that evidence for Prewett’s Indian ancestry and background is in fact extremely slight, if it is present at all. This chapter makes no intervention into the specifics of that debate, but does argue that what is most evident within Prewett’s relationships and to a lesser extent in his work, is a set of themes which correspond to a modernist sensibility concerning things "authentically Indian". Whether we agree with Prewett’s representation of himself as Indian or not, he nevertheless met a need within the sensibilities of the important literary figures he befriended – a need for the glamour and difference associated with the stereotype of things Indian.


Porter, J. (2010). Modernism, authenticity, and Indian identity: Frank "Toronto" Prewett (1893-1962). In D. L. Madsen (Ed.), Native authenticity: Transnational perspectives on Native American literary studies, 103 - 122. State University of New York Press

Acceptance Date Apr 1, 2010
Publication Date Apr 1, 2010
Deposit Date Jun 7, 2019
Pages 103 - 122
Series Title Native traces
Series Number 171
Book Title Native authenticity: Transnational perspectives on Native American literary studies
Chapter Number 5
ISBN 9781438431673
Public URL

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