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My Hiebert Hero

One of the most thoughtful people I encountered in researching the Leacock Medal books works at the University of Saskatchewan. 

Joel Salt carries the formal title of “Library Assistant.” But I regard him as my “Paul Hiebert Hero.”

A few years ago, when the University Library started developing its Digital Collection, Joel pushed to have it include the manuscripts and memorabilia donated to the university by Hiebert, the author of the 1948 Medal winner Sarah Binks .  Hiebert’s stuff had to compete with the papers and paraphernalia associated with literary luminaries like Al Purdy and Irving Layton.  At the time, many people had not heard of Sarah, and fewer saw much research potential in the Hiebert manuscripts. 

But Joel, a big fan, saw things differently and set out to digitize material which included the original manuscript of the Sarah sequel Willows Revisited as well as a carbon copy of the original Sarah Binks. He added it to the university content management system, created a “Paul Hiebert Splash Page,” and wrote contextualizing information for the website.  This led people to donate more Paul Hiebert accoutrement to the U of S and more writing, posting, and linking for what is now an amazing resource.  Still, I had to ask Joel whether he and his colleagues didn’t think it was a bit ironic.

“After all, the book was written in Manitoba by a Manitoban and makes fun of Saskatchewan using a fake Saskatchewan town,” I said.  “Don’t you think it funny that Hiebert would direct his stuff to a Saskatchewan institution?”  

“Well, Dr. Hiebert sent it to us unsolicited with a very funny cover letter calling it old stuff from his attic and adding that he had no idea why anyone would want it,” Joel said in an email to me. “As far as I know, he had just decided that Sarah Binks belonged at U of S because of the content.”

Joel believes that “like Leacock in Sunshine Sketches, Hiebert is mostly saying ‘I’m one of you’ when poking fun at rural Saskatchewan.”

I noted how Hiebert, a chemistry researcher, had mocked the humanities with the book.  But Joel suggested that the author may have really been laughing at the “scientific” trend in English Criticism in the 1940s.

One no longer read a book for pleasure, it seemed, but to intellectually demystify it,” my learned friend explained. “And I think Hiebert is gently mocking academia and not literariness specifically.”

Joel also sees similar battles in the 21st century literary academy around what Harold Bloom sneers at as “cultural studies” of things that are dubiously dubbed literature.

“I think Hiebert’s book tackles that issue so astutely and with such precision and good humour, that it remains relevant today,” my Hiebert Hero concluded.  “Of course, the other reason is that it’s genuinely very funny.”

Like I said, Joel Salt “Library Assistant” is a thoughtful, erudite guy.  His insights probably deserve their own place in a review of Leacock Medalists.

 But for now, they will have to be satisfied with sharing space with mine.


Sarah Binks and the National Research Council in Ottawa



January 2016