Author Farley Mowat, who cut a dashing figure as a chronicler of the Far North's wretched peoples and threatened creatures, has been accused of misrepresenting and fabricating some his fabled researches in the wild.
According to an article just published in Canada's venerable Saturday Night magazine, the intrepid legwork chronicled in Mowat's international bestsellers of the 1950s and '60s, "People of the Deer" and "Never Cry Wolf," is not fully substantiated by known facts -- including what Mowat was writing in his private contemporary journals.
The article, titled "A Real Whopper," is heralded by a cover photograph of Mowat with a digitally stretched nose.
"By selling fiction as nonfiction, he has broken a trust with his readers," writer John Goddard concluded after describing numerous instances that indicate Mowat was not where he said he was, for as long as he was or under the circumstances he said he was.
Mowat shot back in this morning's Globe and Mail newspaper, describing the attack as "character assassination." In seeking to "portray me as an unconscionable liar," he said, the article was intended to "invalidate the legitimacy of the causes I espoused." He said he would not sue the magazine, which is owned by Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black. "Naive as it may seem to some, I believe the truth will out, regardless of how facts are manipulated to conceal or pervert it," he wrote.
Mowat, 74 and living in Port Hope, Ontario, an hour east of Toronto, is a Canadian icon and a hero to older environmentalists the world over. Long before rugged wilderness scribes crowded the stage, Mowat was hailed as a two-fisted crusader against official neglect and extermination of the Inuit, or Eskimos, and as a protector of wolves, seals and whales.
By Goddard's published account, however, Mowat inflated or twisted what he was learning. Goddard concluded that Mowat did not, as he claimed, spend two years in the Keewatin District, the remote territory hugging the western shore of Hudson Bay, but only parts of two summers. "Two summers and a winter" living among the wolves, Goddard found, really was only four weeks.
Contradicting Mowat's accounts, "he did not casually drop in alone but traveled on both occasions as a junior member of well-planned scientific expeditions. He did not once -- contrary to the impression he leaves -- see a starving Inuit person. He did not once set foot in an Inuit camp."
Goddard's primary source materials are Mowat's own notes, which the author sold to McMaster University.
Mowat said he had understood the materials were not for publication without his permission. He called "despicable" Goddard's discussion of difficulties Mowat was having with his then wife; according to his journals, those woes depressed him.
Interviewed by Goddard for the Saturday Night article, Mowat admits cheerfully to a certain liberty with the facts. "The primary consideration for a writer is to entertain," Mowat is quoted as saying. "Using entertainment you can then inform, you can propagandize, you can elucidate, you can do anything you want."
Elsewhere in the article, Mowat said of the Inuit book, "People of the Deer," "nobody was going to pay any attention to them unless their situation was dramatized, and I dramatized it." He also said, "On occasion, I have taken something that I have heard about and I have reworked it in my own mind until I was almost sure it had happened to me."
Mowat did not return a telephone call. His editor and friend at Houghton Mifflin Co., Peter Davison, said he had not read the article -- "but what is the point of doing this 40 years after the event? Maybe Shakespeare did lift passages from Plutarch, but what of it? Writing is writing. It involves transcription . . . it involves inventing."