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Fiction as Truth:
Frederick Philip Grove
The fictional autobiography of a Norfolk County dairy farmer and part-time teacher won Canada’s highest literary honor, the Governor General’s award for non-fiction in 1946. Today, the same fellow's 1948 Simcoe Reformer obituary holds the dubious distinction of being the least accurate ever published.
His fraud went undiscovered for the next quarter century. Indeed, European and North American (mostly Canadian) literary detectives are still piecing the truth together. The following is our summary understanding of their findings to date. (It may contain errors yet to be corrected.)
Felix Paul Greve was born 2 Feb 1879 in Prussia (now part of Germany), and died known as Frederick Philip Grove, 19 Aug 1948 at Simcoe, Ontario.
Despite what his obituary says, FPG was the son of Carol Edward Greve, an unsuccessful farmer turned streetcar conductor turned minor city clerk in Hamburg, Germany. FPG’s mother, Bertha Reichentrog, was a miller’s daughter, interested in the arts. His parents separated when FPG was in his early teens, and he was raised by relatives.
An excellent and athletic student, he received foundational training in classical languages in high school. In 1898 he enrolled in university at Bonn, where he lived lavishly – well beyond the modest means of his family, accumulating debt he never repaid. By day he studied Byron, Plato and others. Evenings he was something of a social dandy, hanging with the artsy beat crowd of the day.
His dreams of a career in archeology dashed, he left university to become a poet. FPG traveled through Europe and briefly hung out with neoimpressionists. In 1902 while scraping by financially as a translator, FPG published a book of poetry that was poorly received. A second book fared no better.
The same year he began an affair with model turned chorus girl turned actress Else Ploetz, the wife of his friend and benefactor, architect August Endell. The arrogant, irresponsible, pretentious intellectual and his wild child lived extravagantly on money FPG fraudulently borrowed. It was their habit to cover their tracks, signing in to hotels under assumed names. The following year he was convicted of fraud and spent a year in prison.
FPG's first major work, a 1905 German novel, Fanny Essler was a fictionalized version of Else's biography to date. It detailed her teenage sexual exploits. The Master Mason's House, his second novel, published in 1906, told more of Else's childhood, mixing in elements of his own. Neither novel fared well, but foretold much of their futures, including the tendency to blame others, (even each other) for any/all problems. All FPG novels present fictionalized slices of his life. Many report the hardships and failures suffered as the result of faults and short-comings of others. Both FPG and Else subsequently claimed authorship of several poem's "by Fanny Essler" published during this period.
Unable to live by his writing alone, FPG worked tirelessly translating books by other authors from English and French to German. In less than a decade, he translated more books than many translators do in a lifetime. His occasionally seminal translations included works by Balzac, Browning, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Swift and Wilde -- explaining, perhaps, the diversity of style elements found in his subsequent works.
Despite mountainous translation work, FPG remained desperately mired in debt. After desperately selling the same translation to two different publishers, facing a second, much longer prison term, he faked his own suicide and emigrated from Liverpool to the United States via Montreal in 1909. His "widow" followed in 1910.
Little is known about his life in the U.S. Some of the time he worked as a substitute teacher, some times as farm labor. Else eventually joined him in New York. "Mr. and Mrs. Greve" were arrested in Pittsburgh in 1911, then moved on to Cincinnati and finally to Sparta, Kentucky, where they farmed until their marriage ended.
She returned to New York. He went to South Dakota, then made his way to Manitoba, Canada seeking work as a teacher using a new name and fictional biography. No divorce record has ever been found.
Else went on to live a life notorious for its fearless unorthodoxy before dying of asphyxiation in Paris, France, under uncertain circumstance, 15 years later. But while Else grew wilder in later years, FPG seems to have charged hard in the other direction. His new name and biography seem to have closed the door on much of his irresponsibility, if not his giant ego, and tendency to overspend.
In Manitoba, his talent for languages netted him a series of modest teaching positions in the German district around Winkler. He attended Normal School to qualify as a principal. A year after Else remarried in New York, "Frederick" followed Else into bigamy by marrying elementary school teacher Catherine Wiens. (FPG, 35, claimed to be 40, a widower from Moscow.) Catherine bore him a daughter soon after. His health broke. Both continued to teach in a series of small, rural Manitoba schools. He continued to write, most frequently in his native German.
His first English language book appeared to modest acclaim in 1922. A second fared no better the following year. Then came his first Canadian novel in 1925. Settlers of the Marsh was hailed as a masterful achievement, although derided by some for its sexual explicitness. Writing brought increasing fame, but fame doesn't pay the bills. His wife's teaching kept them afloat.
"Grove" had even more success with his 1927 novel, A Search For America, which elevated his status briefly to that of the foremost writer of serious Canadian fiction. But it came on the heels of the death of his much-beloved 12-year-old daughter, a big blow emotionally. On Search's strength, he undertook a very popular tour of Ontario (including Simcoe) and western Canada, sponsored by the Canadian Club. His next prairie novel appeared in 1928.
Then came 1929. FPG was briefly associate editor of the literary pages of Canadian Nation, undertook a second, less successful Canadian Club tour, and published a collection of essays derived from his tour lectures. That year much of his remaining hearing gave out and the stock market crashed, delivering body blows to his fragile financial underpinnings. Grove moved to Ottawa to accept a job as his publisher's editor.
A third novel appeared and Catherine bore him a second child, son Leonard, in 1930. But by 1931, his new job was toast, so Grove moved again, this time to a Norfolk County dairy farm, just a mile north of Simcoe on Highway 24 in Windham township.
He found part-time work as a substitute teacher in local schools and augmented their income by establishing "Grove Academy," a private school in his home operated primarily by his wife. One of the sons of local physician R. B. Hare apparently attended full time as a part-time resident. My mother and two of her cousins attended Saturday morning French classes in their pre-teens circa 1931, and found their aging teacher was easily flustered. Life-long Simcoe resident Wally Anderson was a childhood friend of Leonard.
FPG's 1933 prairie novel didn't sell well at the height of the depression. His 1939 Ontario novel, which drew upon his Norfolk County dairying experiences, fared slightly better. His minor celebrity status assured, Grove was elected a member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1941, and ran (unsuccessfully) for Parliament in 1942 as a candidate for the left-leaning, prairie-based, CCF party, forerunner of today’s New Democratic Party.
Grove’s falsified autobiography, misleadingly titled In Search of Myself, was published in 1946 and ironically won the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction. It describes a very worldly, wealthy, promising young writer of Swedish descent forced to emigrate in 1892 because of financial misfortunes beyond his control. It claims he spent two decades wandering North America. Despite its lies and deceit about his origins and true identity, the latter half of the book, which covers the failure of Canadian society to appreciate his writing, seems rather factual.
But by then strokes had begun taking their toll. His final novel was published in 1947. FPG died the following year and was buried in Rapid City, Manitoba, next to his daughter.
A collection of his short stories and a book of correspondence were published in 1971. Leonard and his wife returned to Simcoe in 1977 to attend a celebration of FPG's career at Lynnwood Arts Centre. Other books about FPG followed. Much of FPG’s writing remains unpublished today in the archives of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. But you can find some reprints on amazon.com.
Copyright 2005-2012 John Cardiff and Norfolk Historical Society