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Joseph Roberts Smallwood

Masthead Newfoundlander, 1900-1949

by (author) Melvin Baker & Peter Neary

McGill-Queen's University Press
Initial publish date
May 2021
General, Political
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2021
    List Price

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No other figure, historical or political, features more prominently in recent Newfoundland history than Joey Smallwood. During his long career in Newfoundland politics, Smallwood used the literary, rhetorical, and theatrical skills honed in the first five decades of his life to create a distinct and celebrated persona. He told his own story in his lively autobiography, I Chose Canada, published in 1973 only a year after he left office.

Talented, venturesome, and above all resilient, he was no ordinary Joe. Smallwood was born in Gambo, Bonavista Bay, but grew up in St John's. Leaving school at fifteen, he quickly established himself as a journalist and as a publicist for Sir William Coaker's Fishermen's Protective Union. In the early 1920s Smallwood sojourned twice in New York, where he planned a Newfoundland labour party. Ambition, however, led him to support the Liberal Party of Sir Richard Squires. Defeated as a candidate in the general election of June 1932, he next promoted producer and consumer cooperatives, but with mixed results. In 1937 he edited The Book of Newfoundland and thereafter enjoyed great success on the radio as "The Barrelman." The book culminates with Smallwood's adoption of the cause of Confederation and his swearing in on 1 April 1949 as premier of the new Province of Newfoundland.

There are multiple J.R. Smallwoods, but the aspiring and ambitious figure presented in this biography stands apart. Melvin Baker and Peter Neary use the largely untapped sources of Smallwood's own papers and his extensive journalistic writing to add a documentary basis to what is known or conjectured about the first five decades of Smallwood's remarkable life, both public and private.

About the authors

Melvin Baker received a PhD in History from the University of Western Ontario and has published extensively in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Newfoundland history. He is currently Archivist-Historian for Memorial University.

Melvin Baker's profile page

Peter Neary is a professor of history and Dean of the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949, and has published a number of other works on Newfoundland.

Peter Neary's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"This book provides a well-crafted, balanced, and perceptive reading of Smallwood's almost inexhaustible prose and shifting political alliances, thoroughly grounded in Newfoundland's history. The Smallwood that emerges from his chaotic pre-Confederation years is fascinating: a man of indomitable resilience, living close to the edge, able to reinvent himself, persuade, and lead." Carman Miller, McGill University and author of A Knight in Politics: A Biography of Sir Frederick Borden

"Pre-Confederation Smallwood was an itinerant journalist, occasional editor, radio personality and scriptwriter, and habitual writer of letters to the editor. Neary and Baker have tracked down everything Smallwood published in Newfoundland, New York, and Canada, constructing a detailed examination of Smallwood's actions and thinking in evolution." T. Stephen Henderson, Acadia University and author of Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal

"This timely publication, … will both appeal to the general reader and prove invaluable to the serious researcher. Throughout, the writing is crisp, engaging, and factually buttressed. Each segment is detailed and illuminating." The Telegram

“Melvin Baker and Peter Neary’s Joseph Roberts Smallwood is an important examination of the early years of Gambo’s favourite son. Although several books have been written about Smallwood — including his own autobiography, I Chose Canada, from 1973 — this volume has a different feel to it. In their preface, Baker and Neary describe Smallwood as “a man of myth — myth of his own making and myth made by others, both friend and enemy.” As they go on to demonstrate, that’s a fair, unvarnished description of a larger-than-life politician who relished using many coats of paint on the canvas of his topsy-turvy story.” Literary Review of Canada

"A well-researched, vividly-written account of how [Smallwood] became his province's unchallenged leader for the more than two decades, during which he transformed greatly for the better the lives of every one of his fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. It must be read by anybody interested in the story of how Confederation came to be. Baker and Neary have made a useful and substantial addition to what we know about "Joey" Smallwood, both the man and the politician." Newfoundland Quarterly

Other titles by Melvin Baker

Other titles by Peter Neary