William John Alexander was born in 1855 in Hamilton, Ontario, the son of Alexander Alexander and Isabelle Buchan, who had come to Canada from Scotland. He received his education at Hamilton Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto (graduating in 1873 with scholarships in Modern Languages and in General Proficiency), and -- after winning a Dominion Gilchrist Scholarship -- went to the University of London, where he obtained first-class honours in English in 1877. He taught at Prince of Wales College, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in 1878-79, and then left for Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, which granted him a Fellowship in Greek in 1881 and his Ph.D. in 1883. His thesis, "Participial Periphrases in Attic Prose," was published in the American Journal of Philology. The next year he studied at the University of Berlin, a step preparing him for the position of Professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he taught from 1884 to 1889. He and Laura Morrow (born May 4, 1861) were married in Brunswick Street Methodist Church on July 12, 1887.
The Honorable G. W. Ross, Minister of Education in the Government of Ontario, recommended Alexander to fill the new chair in English at University College, University of Toronto, on January 29, 1889. He took up his duties that September, at 34 years old. According to Toronto's The Week (October 18, 1889), Alexander used his inaugural lecture to define "the study of literature as a work of interpretation" and recognized "the great truth that the production of emotion is the object of the highest forms of literature." He received an honorary LL.D. from Queen's University in 1919.
In Toronto he and Laura raised a large family. They lived at 712 Spadina Ave. in 1891, then the next year at 110 Avenue Road, and last at 178 High Park Ave. from 1906 to June 1920. The family spent their summers in Muskoka cottage country north of Toronto. William John's hobby was gardening. Laura volunteered for years at the Toronto Hospital. Her death, on December 30, 1913, was the deepest loss Alexander ever felt. It was followed by another tragedy. His son, Flight Sub-Lieutenant J. Morrow Alexander, at 23, died in a plane accident at Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey, in England on September 12, 1915. Morrow was the first Canadian aviator to die in World War I. Alexander retired, a widower at 70 years old, in 1926 after 37 years' service at Toronto.
The Department gave him a farewell dinner at Hart House on December 4, 1926, when Robert Knox read the following poem:
1 I trust, my frien', that you'll forgie
2 A prosy body e'en like me
3 For being wi' yoursel' sae free
4 In ragged rhyme.
5 Pray, tell me what your thochts may be
6 Some ither time.
7 We miss you sair. For wha like you
8 Could sift the tinsel frae the true,
9 And gie each man his honest due
10 Of blame or praise,
11 When he would set his thochts on view
12 Of poems or plays.
13 And wha had sic a bonnie art
14 To mak sae clear what he'd impart,
15 Or to lay bare a poet's heart
16 Wi' sure appeal;
17 Twa generations you has gart
18 To see and feel.
19 Yours was the gift to mak folks share
20 Your ain delight in varied fare:
21 They'd ride wi' you upon Tam's mare
22 Frae Cutty Sark,
23 And then go soaring in the air
24 Wi' Shelley's lark.
25 You've ae dislike:-- let's noo confess't --
26 You canna thole the second best:
27 And any gaudy mind that's dressed
28 Wi' mere pretence
29 Lord how it wilts before your test
30 O' common sense.
43 Would mair o' us had your rare knack
44 To carry wisdom on your back,
45 Yet keep a supple mind and swack
46 And open-wide,
47 And snap your fingers at the wrack
48 O' time and tide.
49 And noo you've thochts, I ken fu' well,
50 to send, for hearing o' yoursel',
51 Baith me and my puir rhymes to Hell,
52 Wi' candour:
53 But even then I'd turn and yell
54 "That's Alexander.''
- [The notes, all in the right margin, are by Knox, perhaps a small joke with Alexander, who had spent so much time writing them himself and was of Scottish parents. The line numbers are by this editor.]
- gart: made.
- thole: endure.
- haver: talk nonsense.
- tint: lost.
- pow: head.
- chiel: man.
- swack: vigorous.
Following his retirement, Alexander sometimes visited one of his married daughters, Mrs. Carleton Stanley (wife of the President of Dalhousie University) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He died of a heart attack on one such visit, while out on a long walk on June 28, 1944, and after a funeral service in Convocation Hall in Toronto was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Alexander and his family at their Muskoka cottage (MS Collection 155 Fisher Rare Book Library)
Alexander achieved much in his lifetime. His first loves were Robert Browning (about whose poetry he published a critical book in 1889), Coleridge, and Tennyson. Malcolm Wallace, whom he brought into the English Department, says of Alexander: "He prepared many texts for use in the high schools of the province and in this way did more than any other single person to establish standards of taste and of the teaching of English in Ontario" (University of Toronto Quarterly 14 : 1). His edited collections of literature, mainly poetry, for upper levels in secondary schools appeared from 1896 to his death. From 1912 to 1928 he co-edited, with William Clawson, Representative Poetry, the first "best-seller" of the University of Toronto Press, which began publishing books the year before (though it had been the University's printer for some years). A. S. P. Woodhouse, a later contributing editor to this textbook, describes their annotations as "perfect in their brevity, lucidity, and relevance" (10). The University Calendar for 1913-14 newly prescribes poems for English 1b and 1c as "contained in `Representative Poetry,' Students Book Department."
Alexander and Clawson received honoraria of $300 and $100 for their work on the first edition of Representative Poetry, while those writing the notes got $1.00 an hour (Harris, 65). 350 copies were sold in 1912-13, and all 1,500 in the print were gone by 1916. Profits went into buying new books for the Library and, eventually, for financial support for the English Department. The 2,650 copies of the 1916 edition, also co-edited by Alexander and Clawson (who both received $300 this time), lasted until 1920. The third and fourth editions followed that year and in 1923.
After Alexander's retirement in mid-1926, the Department dedicated a sum from the textbook's profits to the founding of the Alexander Lectures, which are still held annually to this time. This honour was entirely appropriate, because for decades Alexander had been the most celebrated lecturer among the English faculty. On Saturday, October 24, 1908, a Victoria College student, Kathleen Cowan, wrote in her diary: "After Catallus went to Prof. Alexanders lecture in English and it was splendid. I would like to go all the time but we were wondering afterwards if it were just honorable" (155). Despite this popularity, Alexander never pandared to his students' tastes. One anecdote about his teaching style, recorded at University College and passed on to the University Archives, goes as follows:
One morning when Professor entered his classroom he found his whole class quietly assembled and a stuffed ape sitting in his chair. Alexander paused for a moment. "Ah, gentlemen," he said, "I see I am not needed today, so I shall leave you to someone better suited to your capabilities. Good morning.
An amusing cartoon of Alexander is hanging in Room 140, University College, and a more formal portrait in West Hall.
ALEXANDER'S MAJOR PUBLICATIONS
- Alexander, W. J. The study of literature: inaugural address delivered at the Convocation of Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., Oct. 28th, 1884 (Halifax, 1884?). 1 microfiche (16 fr.) CIHM no. 08835.
- MacGregor, J. G., and W. J. Alexander. "To the secretary of the Gilchrist Educational Trust" ["This was drawn up by Prof. Macgregor & Prof. Alexander of Dalhousie on hearing that the Gilchrist Scholarship for Canada (which each of them had held) was to be abolished."] 1895? MS. CIHM no. 29095
- Alexander, W. J., The study of literature: inaugural lecture delivered in the Convocation Hall, October 12th, 1889 (Toronto: Rowsell and Hutchison, 1889). cap Fisher Rare Book Library; and CIHM no. 01350
- Alexander, W. J. An introduction to the poetry of Robert Browning (Boston : Ginn, 1889). CIHM no. 12634 microfilm
- W. J. Alexander and M. F. Libby, Composition from models for use in schools and colleges (Toronto : Copp, Clark, 1894). 428.2 1894 A379C OISE Library. [Authorized, 1895-1910, on Schedule D 1911. Ontario Teachers College.]
- Select poems: being the literature prescribed for the junior matriculation and junior leaving examinations, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark, 1896). brief PR 0004801 Robarts Library; and CIHM no. 13443
- Select poems: being the literature prescribed for the junior matriculation and junior leaving examinations, 1898, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1897). CIHM no. 33027
- Select poems: being the literature prescribed for the junior matriculation (third form) examination, 1899, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark, 1898). CIHM no. 33028
- Alexander, M. J., and others, Methods in Teaching, ed. J. J. Tilley (Toronto : G.N. Morang, 1899). CIHM no. 33968
- Tennyson, Alfred. Select poems; containing the literature prescribed for the junior matriculation and junior leaving examinations, 1901, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto Copp, Clark 1900). PR 5551 1900A Robarts Library; and CIHM no. 33776
- A School anthology of English poetry, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark, 1901). CIHM no. 73087
- Goggin, D. J., Elementary English grammar for use in Canadian schools, including Elementary composition, part VI, by W. J. Alexander (Toronto: W. J. Gage, ca. 1901). Prince Edward Island ed. CIHM no. 78254
- Scott, Sir Walter. Lay of the last minstrel; being the literature prescribed for the junior matriculation and junior leaving examinations, 1902, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Copp, Clark 1901). PR 5309 A1 1901 Robarts Library; and CIHM no. 76369
- Select Poems, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark Company, 1902). brief PSB 0004786 Robarts Library
- Tennyson: select poems, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark, 1903).
- An Anthology of English poetry for schools, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark Co., 1904). copp/0013 Fisher Rare Book Library
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Select poems from Coleridge and Wordsworth, prescribed for university and normal school entrance examinations, 1909, ed. W. J. ALexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark, [1905?]). CIHM no. 86318
- Alexander, W. J., The University of Toronto and its colleges, 1827-1906 ([Toronto] : University Library, published by the Librarian, 1906). ref Le 3 T56A2 Fisher Rare Book Library
- Tennyson, Alfred. Select poems; containing the literature prescribed for the junior matriculation and junior leaving examinations, 1907, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1906). PR 5551 1906 Robarts Library; and CIHM no. 86516
- Wordsworth, William, Select poems from Wordsworth and Tennyson: prescribed for the junior matriculation, and for entrance into the normal schools and faculties of education, 1915, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Copp, Clark, ca. 1914). CIHM no. 77428
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Select poems from Coleridge and Tennyson, prescribed for university and normal school entrance examinations, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : Copp, Clark, ca. 1915). CIHM no. 75964
- Tennyson, Alfred, Select poems: prescribed for the junior matriculation, and for entrance into the normal schools and faculties of education, 1917, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Copp, Clark, ca. 1916). CIHM no. 77429
- Tennyson, Alfred, Select poems from Tennyson and Browning, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Copp, Clark, ca. 1917). CIHM no. 75933
- Shorter poems, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1924). 821 1924 A379S OISE; and PR 1175 .S55 1924 St. Michael's College
- Shorter poems, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1927). 821 1924 A379S2 OISE
- Shorter poems, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1928). 821 1924 A379S3 OISE
- Short stories and essays, selected by W. J. Alexander (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1928). 823.01 1928 A379S OISE
- Shorter poems, ed. W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1931). 821 1924 A379S4 OISE
- Shorter poems, rev. ed., W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1939). 8211932 .A379S OISE [authorized 1932-1952/53; Schedule C Ontario Teachers College]
- Shorter poems, rev. ed., W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1940). 821 1932 A4379S2 OISE
- Shorter poems, rev. ed., W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1944). 821 1932 A379S3 OISE
- Shorter poems, rev. ed., W. J. Alexander (Toronto : T. Eaton, 1948). 821 1932 A379S4 OISE
SELECTED SOURCES FOR ALEXANDER'S CAREER
- Cowan, Kathleen. It's Late, and All the Girls Have Gone: An Annesley Diary, 1907-1910. Ed. Aida Farrag Graff and David Knight. Childe Thursday, 1984.
- Harris, Robin S. English Studies at Toronto: A History. Governing Council, University of Toronto, 1988.
- Wallace, M. W., and A. S. P. Woodhouse. "In Memoriam: William John Alexander." University of Toronto Quarterly 14 (1945): 1-33.
- Clippings and memorabilia. University Archives A73-0026, box 004, file 23.