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Photo of James De Mille

James De Mille, photo: Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder

James De Mille

James De Mille (writer and professor) was born 23 August 1833 in Saint John, New Brunswick and died in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 28 January 1880. He was the child of Elizabeth Tongue and Nathan Smith De Mille.

Although his father had limited regard for the necessity and value of rigorous academic study, James received a complete education. He first studied at Horton Collegiate Academy in Nova Scotia. As a young man he travelled to Europe, an experience which influenced much of his writing. In 1854, De Mille received his MA from Brown University in Rhode Island.

After obtaining his Master’s degree, De Mille spent a year in Cincinnati, Ohio. He then returned to Saint John and attempted to establish a bookselling business, but with limited success. He later returned to Nova Scotia and married Elizabeth Ann Pryor, the daughter of the first president of Acadia University. De Mille taught at Acadia from 1860 until 1865, working in the Classics Department. After that, he taught history, literature, and rhetoric at Dalhousie University in Halifax until his death. At the time of his death, he was being considered for the position of Chair of Rhetoric at Harvard College.

A well-liked professor, De Mille was also a prolific and popular writer. He produced more than 25 books, most of which were published during the ten years before his death. These books were mostly adult or children’s fiction. De Mille tended to publish rapidly, and literary historians hypothesize that he did so in order to pay off debts he had amassed earlier in life.

Accordingly, De Mille accepted the term “potboilers” as one which befitted his brand of adult fiction. His were sensationally crafted novels that told tales of romance and adventure, accentuated by a tinge of mystery. Their settings were diverse and cosmopolitan, likely stemming from his travels around Europe as a young man (1850-51) with his brother. The basis for these tales was often a voyage of some sort. Featuring linguistic puzzles and puns, De Mille’s fictional work was typically digestible and entertaining, a topical blend of satire and humour.

His children’s literature was predominantly defined by the Brethren of the White Cross, a series for young boys. Lauded for their readability and avoidance of humdrum moralizing, these stories emphasized the camaraderie of the young characters. Taking place in Canada’s Maritime provinces, they touch upon aspects of the region’s history and geography.

The Elements of Rhetoric, De Mille’s only scholarly work, was released in 1878. His best-known work today is the posthumously and anonymously released A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. Released in 1888, the book is considered a unique contribution to Canadian satire and utopian fiction. The plot of the novel includes De Mille’s characteristic themes of voyage and adventure. De Mille’s novels, like this one, considered the clash between nineteenth-century Canada and Old-World European attitudes. Peppering his writing with literary allusions and authorial asides, De Mille editorialized on Victorian thought. Ultimately, he desired to engage with and change transposed social attitudes that were inhibitive to creativity. His use of the literary trappings of Victorian elitists allowed him to offer this criticism and irony.

Ian Gordon, Winter 2008
St. Thomas University

For more information on James De Mille, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

De Mille, James. The American Baron. New York: Harper and Bros., 1872.

---. Among the Brigands. Boston: H.M. Caldwell, 1871.

---. Andy O’Hara; or, The Child of Providence. New York: Carlton and Porter, 1861.

---. The Arkansas Ranger. N.p.: n.p.,1869.

---. The Babes in the Woods: A Tragic Comedy, A Story of the Italian Revolution in 1848. Boston: W.F. Gill, 1875.

---. “Behind the Veil: A Poem.” Halifax, NS: T.C. Allen & Co., 1893.

---. Boys of the Grand Pré School. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870.

---. The Brethren of the White Cross: A Book for Boys. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869.

---. A Castle in Spain. New York: Harper and Bros., 1883

---. A Comedy of Terrors. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1872.

---. Cord and Crease: A Novel. New York: Harper and Bros., 1869.

---. The Cryptogram. New York: Harper and Bros., 1871.

---. The Dodge Club; or, Italy in MDCCCLIX. New York: Harper and Bros., 1869.

---. The Early English Church. Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Print Co., 1877.

---. The Elements of Rhetoric. New York: Harper and Bros., 1878.

---. Fire in the Woods. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1871.

---. Helena’s Household: A Tale of Rome in the First Century. New York: R. Carter, 1867.

---. Helena’s Household: An Ideal of Roman Life in the Time of Paul and Nero. New York: Ward and Drummond, 1890.

---. John Wheeler’s Two Uncles; or, Launching into Life: A Story for Boys. New York: Carlton and Porter, 1860.

---. The Lady of the Ice: A Novel. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1870.

---. The Lily and the Cross: A Tale of Acadia. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1874.

---. The Living Link. New York: Harper and Bros., 1874.

---. Lost in the Fog. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870.

---. The Martyr of the Catacombs: A Tale of Ancient Rome. New York: Carlton and Porter, 1865.

---. Old Garth: A Story of Sicily . New York: George Munro, 1883.

---. An Open Question: A Novel. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873.

---. Picked up Adrift. The B.O.W.C. Series. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1872.

---. The Seven Hills. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1873.

---. The Soldier and the Spy. New York: n.p., 1865.

---. A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888.

---. “Sweet Maiden of the Passamaquoddy." Halifax, NS: n.p., n.d.

---. The Treasure of the Seas. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1872.

---. The Winged Lion, or Stories of Venice. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1877.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cogswell, Fred. “Literary Activity in the Maritime Provinces.” Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Ed. Carl F. Klinck. 1965. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1973. 102-24.

De Mille's Utopian Fantasy. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 145 (Summer 1995).

Dyer, Klay. “De Mille, James.” Encyclopaedia of Literature in Canada. Ed. William H. New. Toronto: U. of Toronto P, 2002. 284-86.

Gerson, Carole. “James De Mille.” Three Writers of Victorian Canada. Canadian Writers and Their Works ser. Toronto: ECW Press, 1983. 195-256.

MacLeod, Douglas E. “A Critical Biography of James De Mille.” MA thesis. Dalhousie University, 1968.

Monk, Patricia. The Gilded Beaver: An Introduction to the Life and Work of James De Mille. Toronto: ECW Press, 1991.

Parker, George L. “De Mille, James.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. William Toye. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1983. 183-84.