The radio producer who got Gary Kelly starred as a regular contributor to CBS Radio in Edmonton had been looking for an English prof to tell people off for their bad use of language.
She got the wrong person in Kelly, who did something entirely different. During his six years as a radio free-lancer Kelly didn't put people down for their use of English. Instead, he tried to make listeners aware of the social history and hidden political agendas in language, and of the way "standard" and "correct" English I are too often used to prevent the socially marginalized from gaining confidence in their ability to live a fully human life. And from challenging power and authority that operates in someone else's interest.
Kelly, who has taught English at the U of A since 1976, grew up in a single parent family "from the wrong side of the tracks" ; in Toronto, and he hasn't forgotten his origins. He says that memory of his early circumstances "has driven me over the years and continues to motivate me still, and it keeps my work honest — at least I think it's honest.
"I don't want to lose my sense of having benefitted from the opportunities that were made available in the '60s, '70s and '80s and are no longer being made available," says Kelly, a winner of a 1994 Kaplan Award recognizing research excellence by a U of A faculty member.
As a scholar, Kelly has stayed away from well-worn paths, exploring trails others have shunned. "In research I go for the marginal, the excluded, the undervalued, and I look for the power relations — that is, the political element," he says.
While an undergraduate at the University of Toronto (he was able to complete his degree only because the student loan program was introduced during that time, he pointed out during his Kaplan address) Kelly was struck by the narrowness of the treatment given the Romantic period — four weeks of Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats; that was it — and he has since studied the prose fiction of the period, from bestsellers and the cheap print of the common press to books for children. A result of his investigations was The English Jacobin Novel 1780-1805, which was published in 1976.
For his doctoral thesis and first book, Kelly looked at the political novel of the French Revolution period. Another book focussed on Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he describes as "the first widely known and still much misunderstood English feminist." Two recent books deal with women's writing, and he is also general editor for Longman's History of Wonten's Writing in English.
Following graduation from the U of T, Kelly "by hook and by crook" was able to scrape together the necessary support to attend Oxford University, where he later received Canada Council funding for his doctoral studies.
"I enjoyed the research; I didn't enjoy the undergraduate experience. I found Oxford very narrow socially," recalls Kelly, who came into his own at Oxford when he began working independently in the library. And for him research still centres on "the thrill of the chase" in the library. "I'm an archival researcher,"he says. "I need access to books and large quantities of books."
The excellence of the University of Alberta Library was a factor in attracting Kelly to the U ot A 18 years ago. Concern about the future of the University's library is now a factor in Kelly's decision to leave the U of A.
"I don't have confidence anymore that the U of A Library will be maintained the way I think it should be, given what is happening in this province" says Kelly, who has taken a three-year leave to accept an appointment at the University of Keele in northern England.
At Keele, Kelly will not only be closer to major libraries, he will be better situated to follow up his interest in the relationship between Irish literature and the "failure to achieve a civil society" in that troubled land. He will also have the chance to put some of his ideas about what an English department should be into practice as the department head at Keele.
Kelly has left the door open for a return to Alberta, but whether or not he comes back will have a lot to do with opportunities for his wife, who is completing a graduate degree in English. When she finishes it will be time for his career priorities to be set behind hers, says Kelly.
"But no matter what happens," he says, "I have had a wonderful, wonderful 18 years at the U of A."
Published Autumn 1994.