Longtime critic became force on cultural landscape
Cultural critic, author and journalist John Bentley Mays — who over a long and distinguished career wrote on culture for publications including The Globe and Mail, National Post, The Catholic Register and The Walrus magazine — has died. He was 75.
Mays died “suddenly and peacefully while walking with friend and fellow writer Philip Marchand on Sept. 19,” the Register says.
Mays was the bestselling author of books including In the Jaws of the Black Dogs, his 1995 memoir of struggles with depression, and Power in the Blood, a 1997 examination of his heritage in the U.S. South.
Mays was born Shreveport, La., on June 22, 1941, the son of an old family of cotton planters, smalltown merchants and local politicians.
After moving to Canada in 1969, Mays wrote for some of the largest and most important newspapers and magazines in Canada, winning the National Newspaper Award for criticism, the National Magazine Award Foundation’s President’s Medal and other prizes.
Mays had a long-standing interest in theology and Christian culture, the Catholic Register says. He had chosen the Anglicanism of the U.S. Episcopal Church early in his life. His 1998 conversion to Catholicism while on a working visit to Lourdes was unexpected.
Mays had visited Lourdes at the suggestion of an editor at the National Post just as he was taking up a post as roving cultural columnist for the then-newly launched national paper.
He didn’t think much of Lourdes when he got there.
“The town was a run-down heap of holy hardware shops stuffed with enormous Day-Glo rosaries and Immaculate Conception ashtrays and other trashy souvenirs,” he wrote for the Register in 2008.
But his experience of the pilgrims and of the shrine itself prompted an unexpected conversion to Catholicism.
“I have never regretted what happened at Lourdes,” he wrote. “I was ambushed by Love, and my divine captor demanded my allegiance at once. I could have refused, of course. But refusal of so great an invitation to life, I believed at the time, would have been the craziest thing in the world to do.”
Mays moved to Toronto in 1969 to teach humanities at York University. In 1971, he married writer and Globe columnist Margaret Cannon. He made a new year’s resolution to become a writer in 1973 and by 1978 had successfully published his first novel. By 1980, he was on staff at The Globe and Mail.
He made the jump to National Post when it launched in 1998 and stayed with it until 2001.
He taught university courses in architecture, urbanism and criticism. He curated important art exhibitions. He also lectured on Christianity, culture, history and art.
His libretto for the opera Zürich 1916, with a score by composer Christopher Butterfield — an extended meditation on the Dada phenomenon — was the mainstage production of the Banff Summer Festival in 1998.
Mays has lectured on art, design and religion in Vancouver, Banff, Winnipeg, London, Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere. Among his recent teaching assignments: a course on suburbia at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, and, at the University of Toronto, lecture series and seminars on the architecture of Mies van der Rohe and a survey of modern architectural criticism and theory.
Two weeks before his death, Mays had completed work on a novel as yet unpublished. And on the last day of his life, he wrote his final column for The Globe and Mail.
He is survived by his wife, a daughter and other family members.