The University of Ottawa Press acknowledges with gratitude the support extended to its publishing list by Heritage Canada through the Canada Book Fund, by the Canada Council for the Arts, by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program and by the University of Ottawa.
Copy editing: Lisa Hannaford-Wong
Proofreading: Trish O’Reilly-Brennan
Typesetting: Atelier typo-Jane
Cover illustration and design: Bartosz Walczak
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Home ground and foreign territory : essays on early Canadian
literature / edited by Janice Fiamengo.
Includes bibliographical references.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-0-7766-2140-1 (epub)
1. Canadian literature (English)--19th century--History and criticism. 2. Canadian literature (English)--20th century--History and criticism. I. Fiamengo, Janice Anne, 1964-, editor of compilation
© University of Ottawa Press, 2014
Printed in Canada
Reflections on the Situation and Study of Early Canadian Literature in the Long Confederation Period
Periodicals First: The Beginnings of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Pauline Johnson’s Legends of Vancouver
Rediscovering Re(Dis)covering: Back to the Second-Wave Feminist Future
Lady Audley’s Secret versus The Abbot: Reconsidering the Form of Canadian Historical Fiction through the Content of Library Catalogues
“Not Legitimately Gothic”: Spiritualism and Early Canadian Literature
The Canadian Canon, Being “On the Other Side of the Latch” and Sara Jeannette Duncan’s Anglo-Indian Memoir
The Duelling Authors: Settler Imperatives and Agnes Laut’s Denigration of Pierre Falcon
Hidden Hunger: Early Canadian Women Poets
Judging by Appearances: Thomas Chandler Haliburton and the Ontology of Early Canadian Spirits
Hallowed Spaces/Public Places: Women’s Literary Voices and The Acadian Recorder 1850–1870
Who’s In and Who’s Out: Recovering Minor Authors and the Pesky Question of Critical Evaluation
Texts and Contexts: CEECT’s Scholarly Editions
This book has accrued many debts in its long gestation. The central one is to the contributors, who bore delays and uncertainties with grace and understanding. I am grateful to all of them for their elegant arguments and careful research.
Warm thanks are also due to my fellow Canadianists at the University of Ottawa for their kind interest and participation in the symposium that provided the basis for this book: Jennifer Blair, Seymour Mayne, Robert Stacey, David Staines, and Cynthia Sugars. I am fortunate to have such colleagues. I am especially grateful to Gerald Lynch for his unstinting friendship, generous advice, and unfailing wit.
The papers in this volume were originally presented at “Reconsidering Early Canadian Literature,” a Canadian Literature Symposium held at the University of Ottawa in 2010. My then–doctoral student Suzanne Bowness (now a graduate of the university) provided untiring assistance throughout the proceedings—from the mammoth grant application to the myriad of details related to the conference. For all of that, and especially for her cheerful and calm presence throughout, I owe her many thanks.
Preparation of the manuscript would not have been carried out nearly so competently without the superbly careful, judicious, and timely oversight of Christa Zeller Thomas, a graduate of the University of Ottawa and also a contributor to the volume. Christa’s supreme good sense and sharp editorial eye were a great boon in the final stages of the work. Her comments on my introduction were also very helpful.
I also thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which provided a grant in aid of the symposium, and the Faculty of Arts Research and Publications Committee at the University of Ottawa.
“Home ground, foreign territory” (11) is the evocative phrase used by the unnamed narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972) as she and her friends cross the Ontario border into northern Quebec to return to the narrator’s childhood home. In the novel, the phrase signals not only Quebec in its linguistic and cultural otherness but also wilderness, the past, memory, and the unconscious. I borrow it for the title of this collection because I like its juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange, the intimate and the unknowable. Scholars of Canada’s literary past encounter descriptions and accounts—the “wood-bound lake” (l. 472) in Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Rising Village,” Agnes Laut’s Métis rhymester Pierre Falcon, Thomas Haliburton’s Nova Scotia lore—that are both recognizably Canadian, associated with its landmarks, figures and tales, and also strange, remote from us conceptually as much as temporally. One of the challenges of writing good literary scholarship is to find an approach to texts of the past that makes sense of their strangeness without explaining it away, that seeks to understand—with some degree of dispassionate sympathy—the forms, contexts, and cultural traditions that made the texts meaningful in their time even while acknowledging that every text is changed by its reading in the present. Ideally, scholars should attempt to ensure that the present neither inappropriately domesticates nor terminally estranges the literature we study.
The conference that launched this collection of essays was born out of my sense that the study of Canadian literature in general, and particularly of early Canadian literature, had reached a crossroads. The ways of doing literary analysis currently practiced—those ideological approaches (feminist, Marxist, postcolonial) that have dominated literary studies for at least the last twenty years—have become exhausted and even destructive to the object of study; and new kinds of approaches, new vantage points, are beginning to be scouted. The field of early Canadian literature is itself, of course, relatively new—Nick Mount dates its ‘coming of age’ to 1985, the publication date of the first volume by the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT) (76)—lacking an established canon or even wide recognition from other scholars, though work by D. M. R. Bentley, Mary Jane Edwards, and Carole Gerson, to name only a few, has done much to change its marginal status. The time seems ripe to ask some searching questions about its contours as a subject of study: about what has so far been achieved, about work that remains to be done, and the new directions that might help scholars do it justice.
About the work that remains to be done, it is no exaggeration to say that it is substantial. Despite the excellent recovery efforts of the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts, the Canadian Poetry Press, and Tecumseh’s reprint series, much basic editorial scholarship remains uncompleted. There are few scholarly editions of even major works and even fewer reliable biographies of early Canadian authors. Sara Jeannette Duncan, one of the writers I know best, is a good example of the half-recovery that characterizes many early Canadian authors, even those considered significant. (The condition of half-recovery is the subject of essays by Wanda Campbell and Jennifer Chambers in this volume.) A prolific, popular, and well-received author in her day, Duncan is today considered Canada’s most significant prose writer prior to the First World War. She wrote in a variety of genres—journalism, novel, novella, short story, memoir, travelogue—and her writing is notable for its boundary-crossing subject matter, which reflects her peripatetic life in transit among small-town Canada, Washington D C, London, and India under the Raj. She was a feminist who ridiculed feminist excesses, a loyal British subject who saw the failings of the Empire yet still believed in the imperial project, and a writer always vivid, intelligent, skeptical, and clear-eyed about the things she most loved and wished to protect, including Canada’s British heritage of individual freedom and cultural vibrancy. With a large body of published work, much of it about the lives of beleaguered artists and idealists, she is a rich subject of inquiry.
Yet many of Duncan’s works are out of print, and few are available in scholarly editions. There exists no complete bibliography of her publications. Some of her journalism and early poetry has not been located, and little has been collected. A number of drama scripts exist in manuscript at the University of Western Ontario but have received no attention. Even the basic details of her life are not well known; the one biography, Marian Fowler’s Redney (1983), is not entirely reliable, employing a readable but fanciful blend of fact and fiction. It is perhaps unwise to attempt to find reasons for the neglect of a writer such as Duncan. At one level, it is simply baffling to consider the lack of critical interest in novels as good as Set in Authority (1906) and A Daughter of To-day (1895), both of which are not only interesting as works of their time, but also transcend their circumstances in addressing perennial issues such as the limits of human freedom. Part of the problem with Duncan must surely be the fact that she left Canada at a young age and set so many of her works of prose fiction in India. Although a similar transnational situation did not hamper criticism of, say, Joseph Conrad, it may be that Duncan’s violation of Canada’s borders put off Canadian critics, so many of whom operated for decades, as Zeller Thomas shows in her essay in this volume, within strictly nationalist parameters. In her own day, too, Duncan encountered the problem of falling “between the two stools,” as she put it, of London and New York publishers (Letter, 306).
It is difficult not to feel also that the complexity and defiant unorthodoxy of many of Duncan’s attitudes and representations have made critics uneasy in these days when relevance and political correctness are the (stated or unstated) standards of the discipline. Her use of situational irony makes her works difficult to decipher, particularly because she often eschewed a single point of view. Attempts to analyze her, in Misao Dean’s phrase, as “(ambiguously) nonhegemonic” (Different 6) (and therefore interesting) have not generated a good deal of critical traction because her works do not comfortably fit such a label; she did not see herself as marginal or opposed to British imperial power, whatever she may have thought of being stuck in a corner of India. Her refusal to adopt the expected attitudes, to be angry about her oppression as a woman, to be less accepting of the suffering of the poor or more inclined to sympathize with the Indian subaltern, has weakened her currency amongst postcolonial and feminist critics. The neglect of such a fine writer, I will contend below, suggests the inflexibility of current privileged approaches.
Duncan’s case is not unusual; in fact, it is typical of many of the writers of the nineteenth century—basic bibliographical and critical work remains aplenty—and serious studies of such significant authors as Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, William Kirby, and many others have yet to be completed. The lack of basic scholarly studies and editions is a serious deficiency hampering comprehensive analysis of the literature and pointing to a bias within the practice of our literary criticism.
For it is surely the fact that the slow, painstaking, and sometimes boring work involved in assembling a critical edition or amassing the many historical details necessary for a full-length biography do not tend to attract many researchers today for a variety of reasons. One reason may be that graduate students are not as a matter of course trained in the tools and methodologies of archival and historical research any longer; many of us know that we are not capable of it. Another reason is likely that the tenure and promotion system at North American universities does not reward such scholarship, which takes many years to complete, as Mary Jane Edwards’ essay in this volume documents, and produces a result more likely to be useful—indeed essential, in many cases—for others’ research than itself innovative, popular, or memorable. It is far easier and more attractive to produce a series of articles that claim to offer fresh new readings than to spend many years labouring in the archives, tracking down biographical material, or comparing variant editions.
The third reason for neglect is more disputable, but nonetheless worth proposing: such research and its products are not widely valued in the field as it is currently practiced. Literary scholars do not on the whole pay close attention to historical and biographical detail, or to an author’s revisions, intentions, influences, and traditions. The study of literary influence, and even of individual literary lives, is all but dead in Canada. Scholars may refer to such matters if they serve a larger purpose, but on their own they no longer arrest our attention. We know, of course, that earlier authors lived lives as full and complex as our own; had a multitude of ideas and purposes for their work; sought inspiration in a variety of contexts, sources, and people; responded to the world at times subtly, passionately, conventionally, obliquely, unconsciously; wrote well and wrote badly; wrote for money and for pure aesthetic commitment; were influenced by their education, reading, literary community, childhood experience, publisher, spiritual longings, physical passions, social conscience, intellectual convictions, inner voice; and so on. We know in the abstract that the task of analyzing any of these aspects of the writer’s work—the writer’s processes, influences, and contexts—is significant. But a great many of us tend not to be compelled by such scholarship. We prefer instead to discuss our own contexts, influences, and commitments, examining past writers not for themselves but as an occasion to comment on our present moment, seeking the light they shed on our (we believe more pressing) concerns, projects, and preoccupations.
In our era, these concerns are largely ideological rather than aesthetic, politically progressivist rather than conservative or traditional. Their urgency, our practice suggests, authorizes us to overlook the ostensible concerns of the author such that regardless of the author’s designs for his or her works, we find in them a reflection of the ideologies and subjects that dominate academic discussion in the humanities today: putative Western arrogance, patriarchal violence, colonial land theft, and the suppressed voice of the cultural or gendered other.
Thus, for example, when Ernest Thompson Seton writes in The Arctic Prairies (1911) about his dismay at the profligacy of Native hunting practices, voicing his conservationist ethic, Misao Dean interprets it, in “‘The Mania for Killing,’” as evidence of the violence of colonial appropriation of Native land projected onto the figure of the Indigene, whom the white author/hunter must both discredit and replace. When Duncan Campbell Scott, in “The Height of Land” (1916), describes the northern wilderness as “lonely,” Sarah Krotz reads the designation as an appropriative gesture, an emptying of the land in preparation for its takeover by white settler society.1 When Sara Jeannette Duncan anatomizes class distinctions in the small manufacturing town of Elgin, Ontario, Teresa Hubel finds a deliberate marginalizing and textual oppression of working people by the middle-class Duncan, for whom the working classes do not really exist. Whatever the text, the critic’s task has become the ferreting out of the insidious violence of “white civility” (to borrow Daniel Coleman’s phrase) and the implicit or explicit call for its overthrow. The degree of uniformity in the critics’ conclusion—all those years of study to produce the same sort of reading over and over again—is deeply dispiriting to a critic interested in literature rather than radical politics.
In the last decade of my work as editorial board member at the journals Canadian Literature and Studies in Canadian Literature, it has sometimes seemed as if radical politics were all that literary study has come to be about. For its 50th Anniversary Gala, Canadian Literature hosted a group of scholars to comment, in brief position papers, on the future of the field and of the journal, and followed the event by publishing some of these scholars’ reflections in the journal’s Spring 2010 issue. Of the twenty-two short papers, the emphasis on literature as a tool of radical social transformation is almost universal. Only one of the papers, by Marie Vautier, makes reference to the study of the nation’s past (in one paragraph noting its decline) and none at all mentions anything to do with readerly pleasure, literary value, or the development of imaginative empathy or historical awareness. A few address new digital technologies and their implications for literary journals.
In the main, the papers refer repeatedly to various ills of the present, including “neoliberal hegemony” (Wyile 109), “environmental damage” (Dawson 110), “class exploitation” (Rimstead 146), “the ongoing urgency of Indigenous land rights” (O’Brien 119), and “colonial norms that have been violently imposed upon this land” (Wong 115). In tandem, they refer to the forms of radical change that literature should advance: “social and environmental justice” (Dawson 112), restoring “damaged ecosystems” (Wong 117), forming “coalitions between disparate minority histories” (McCall 122), critiquing capitalism (Rimstead 146), and “dismantling … the ‘cognitive prisons’ of our colonial inheritance” (Coleman, “Epistemic” 125). Nearly every critic devotes far more space to elaborating a language and vision for social transformation than to discussing literature. Some of these scholars clearly assume not only that radical politics is a legitimate focus of literary criticism but also that it is its only justification, with Roxanne Rimstead worrying that in the present climate of “extreme precariousness” (whatever that means, given the security of tenured academics), scholars have “lost touch with how to read literature in terms of radical politics because so many of us are involved in careerism … or merely stuck in a pervasive form of presentism” (146). The statement’s dismissiveness of scholars who do not read “in terms of radical politics” could not be clearer, the only alternatives being careerism or consumerism.
Needless to say, perhaps, not a single one of the critics profiled in the 50th anniversary issue of Canadian Literature advocates that the Western cultural inheritance be preserved or mentions that there is anything of value in it. In fact, Christopher Lee expresses chagrin that “it’s not possible to simply renounce our Westernness” (he assumes that everyone must want to do so) and advocates instead “a politics of shallowness [that] would evacuate the representational context of ‘Canada’ …” (145). With progressivist politics and contempt for the culture of the West, particularly of Canada’s British heritage, so much the norm, it is not surprising that a respectful engagement with most past writers—many of whom sought to uphold or advance that culture—is so rare.
When radical critics do turn to literature, their tendentious ideological readings, ingenious and engaging as they often are (or predictable and narrow in other cases), lead to significant distortion of works and authors, as minor or peripheral details are emphasized out of proportion and major themes and content are trivialized, suppressed, or ignored. Entire literary careers have been reframed because of the prevailing interests of our era, and on this point the critical treatment of Duncan Campbell Scott is surely the most egregious example. Scott was once considered a major poet of landscape, of the Canadian North, and of the emerging experience of modernity. Stylistically, he was arguably the most innovative of the Confederation group, his use of traditional forms the most thoroughly inflected by new practices with line length and meter. His sensibility took in the decline of religious faith and the search for new spiritual forms as well as the developing national visions of his day. Yet today he is known almost exclusively as the poet who was the Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, his body of work defined by the relatively small number of poems on Indian subjects that he wrote. And despite the fact that these poems are ambiguous enough to support a variety of readings, they have been redacted to confirm the foregone conclusion that Scott was a racist who condoned and actively furthered the suffering of Indigenous people.
Most of these readings assume a one-to-one correspondence between Scott the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Scott the poet that few scholars would accept if the life circumstances of the writer and the particular position he occupied were different; the approach would appear to reject everything that literary criticism has had to say for the past thirty years about subjectivity as plural and shifting. The tenor of such criticism may be exemplified in the work of Lisa Salem-Wiseman, who in “‘Verily, the White Man’s Ways Were Best,’” has argued influentially against previous assessments of Scott that emphasized the differences between his poetry—once seen as humane, appreciative, and troubled—and his official policy statements. For Salem-Wiseman, the poems and official pronouncements alike reveal Scott’s assimilationist agenda and his conviction that Aboriginal cultures were primitive. Salem-Wiseman’s is a considered and well-informed argument about Scott’s beliefs, but as literary criticism, it leaves much to be desired, devoting only a few paragraphs to each poem considered and seeking always a straightforward paraphrase of Scott’s views rather than an attentive or nuanced analysis. While cautioning that “It is important that future readers of Scott’s poetry do not submit to the temptation to dismiss his work as merely the expression of a racist mind” (121), Salem-Wiseman does ultimately emphasize the coherent racism of Scott’s beliefs, particularly his conviction that Native suffering under colonization, while regrettable, was both inevitable and necessary given the backwardness of Indigenous culture. Very few scholars in Salem-Wiseman’s wake have read Scott’s work as anything but an at-best nuanced and uneasily self-aware “expression of a racist mind.”
Salem-Wiseman notes repeatedly that, despite expressions of sympathy for individual Aboriginal people, Scott not only “did not question” but actively promoted assimilationist policies, even knowing that they caused suffering. Is this so shocking or surprising? And need it become the only legitimate frame through which to view Scott’s writing as a whole? Expressions of moral condemnation of Scott are now de rigeur in contemporary criticism, almost inevitably leading to forms of reading that interpret every word, phrase, or rhetorical gesture in light of Scott’s colonial mandate to claim territory and dispossess Aboriginal peoples, both literally and metaphorically.
A more historically measured perspective might find it hard to fault Scott for believing, as did the vast majority of Canadians of his time, that a technologically sophisticated, prosperous, and scientifically advanced culture was preferable to one that lacked modern medicine and technology, and that Native people would benefit from becoming a part of it. Unlike many regarded as heroes today on the political left (and unlike F. R. Scott,2 who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and admired Stalin’s bold policies despite the fear he recognized in Soviet citizens), the program that D. C. Scott supported sought the “extinction” of the Indian only in the sense that he expected Native people to assimilate into the dominant culture—to cease the Sun Dance and the White Dog Sacrifice and to adapt to settled ways. Much as many Native and non-Native people today deplore Canada’s assimilation policy—particularly the often cruel manner in which it was carried out—D. C. Scott’s support for such a policy hardly puts him in the same league as the many intellectuals of the early twentieth century who supported the Soviet gulags or winked at the mass killings of dissidents and forced famine in the Ukraine. Many of these members of the leftist intelligentsia continue to get a pass today from justice-minded academics.
Whether history will ever forgive Scott for abhorring what he saw as the superstition and primitivism of Native culture is a question perhaps best left to the judgement of time; it is undoubtedly a non-literary matter. One can imagine the howls of derision that would greet a literary critic’s condemnation of a homosexual poet’s decision to abandon his wife and children, or a woman writer’s decision to abort her unborn child—especially if the author’s diverse corpus were read exclusively through such a frame. Future generations may read quite differently Scott’s insistence on the beneficial necessity of cultural assimilation; regardless, the role of the literary critic should be primarily to understand, clarify, and explain rather than to pass moral judgement.
When Scott is taught or discussed now, he is frequently contrasted with the part-Mohawk poet and performer Pauline Johnson, who is almost universally regarded more favourably. Whether Johnson’s poetry is of comparable literary complexity or substance is almost never broached. Despite occasional throat-clearings and other preparatory gestures suggesting the return of aesthetic analysis, considerations of how literature works and what makes a literary text worth studying remain almost entirely neglected in our critical discussions, and it is past time that such a discussion occurred. At least one generation of students, probably more, has now passed through university with little or no training in the formal study of literary works as aesthetic objects; we have little ability to discuss how words work to create formal arrangements and satisfying effects, and why and how such matters as depth, complexity, formal sophistication, and verbal richness contribute to the ability of a work of art to sustain our interest through repeated readings. Many literary scholars would see these statements as question-begging or disingenous; they would not accept that such a thing as literary merit exists in isolation from the ideological practices of institutions and authorities that consecrate some texts and suppress others in the service of a particular social order. In fact, the vast majority of literary scholars today are simply not interested in the matter of literary quality and complexity, preferring to read literature according to the broadly sociological frameworks already mentioned.
This preoccupation with the social over the aesthetic—which may involve the loss of the conviction that literature has anything unique to teach us about life, about the human heart and human experience—has led to the significant widening of the parameters of what is appropriately to be studied by literary scholars. The strictly literary has been expanded to include the distinctly non-literary: journalism, letters, diaries, travelogues, sermons, death notices, newspaper reports, advertisements, and so on. Such a development has had mixed results. While such expansion has helped literary scholars to investigate how certain kinds of cultural work are shared across various forms of textual production, it has also led to a flattening out of the kinds of analysis literary works now receive, with the literary, as I have shown, often left far behind. We might ask, as Nick Mount did so pungently in his essay “In Praise of Talking Dogs,” why we continue to study literature at all, or call ourselves teachers of literature, when the issues that primarily concern us are so much more easily and precisely gleaned from the pages of a newspaper or a cache of old letters, and without the bother of reading pages of nature description or dialogue. Mount was concerned in his essay with the problem of inventing a literature where no coherent body of literary works existed, and relying on the gender, race, and class mantra to dignify a collection of third-rate texts; but he also touched upon the rather dispiriting spectacle of literary scholars deploying an elaborate theoretical machinery to prove themselves more socially progressive than the long-dead authors they studied (88). If we care nothing for the literary meanings of these works and find the social content retrograde—confirming the oppressive hierarchies that held sway in earlier times—then why do we continue to study the material at all?
These were some of the questions that I hoped would be raised by participants at the conference on early Canadian literature that I hosted in May of 2010. My hope was then, and remains now, that a long-heralded and slow-approaching turning of the tide might provide the opportunity to regain the historical and the beautiful in literary study, might allow once again for scholars to approach literature as an imaginary universe that opens up worlds for us to inhabit where we are invited to live differently and to learn the language, beliefs, and customs of a land at once familiar and foreign. What seems necessary is a commitment to the fullest possible work of historical and imaginative contextualization, a work of understanding that respects the text’s compelling difference. This would involve an approach to reading that locates both text and author in their personal, social, cultural, and historical moment, and that seeks to analyze in depth the meanings, nuances of language, influences, intentions, problems, failings, and achievements of the author. It is time to engage in close readings and detailed formal analyses that investigate how literature creates powerful effects involving both emotion and intellect, and how through precise and vivid patterns of words, narrative and poetic forms, characterization, allusions, plotting, contemporary references, and rhetorical effects, it creates delight, recognition, pity, and interest, making possible a range of vicarious experiences and forms of historical apprehension that non-literary texts do not. It is time to stop using our literary past primarily as a staging ground for radical politics. We should strive in our scholarship to recognize both the pastness of our past literature—without hasty judgement—as well as its continuing resonance in the present, and to investigate, using literary-critical, bibliographical, and historical methods, the sources of that resonance.
Responses to my questions and concerns are suggested in the essays collected here, which I will discuss out of their formal order. Some of them advocate for and model new approaches to the study of early Canadian literature. D. M. R. Bentley’s opening essay, exemplary in its historical capaciousness and range of reference, argues for widening the contexts of literary study to include economic history, cultural geography, the analysis of global migrations of peoples, the cognitive and natural sciences, and architectural theory in order to shed new light on literary texts, particularly on texts of immigration and settlement. Such an approach, as his examples demonstrate, promises to bring together texts normally seen as historically and culturally disparate and to offer a highly productive alternative to ideologically tendentious readings. In an essay influenced by book history, Carole Gerson shows that even well-known literary texts can be understood afresh when we look closely at the initial periodical versions of texts that were later collected and revised into book form. An illuminating perspective on the author’s mobile persona and relationship with her immediate audience is to be gleaned from this painstaking reading strategy, which also examines the fascinating stages of production in composite texts such as Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Pauline Johnson’s Legends of Vancouver. Andrea Cabajsky argues for a more amply historicized approach to nineteenth-century historical novels, demonstrating that what have sometimes been dismissed as the incoherencies and aesthetic failures of much Canadian historical fiction can be accounted for through a specific analysis of circumstances of reception: she demonstrates that the borrowers’ records of public libraries suggest that readers’ demands for popular literature may have played a greater role than has been thought in influencing the distinctive aesthetic and structural features of nineteenth century historical novels. These essays show that new understanding is possible when we consider what Bentley calls “all the environments … in which writing occurs.”
Other essays argue for the recovery of neglected genres or writers. Reading Moodie’s short fiction and Flora MacDonald Denison’s quasi-autobiographical novel, Thomas Hodd argues that an appreciation of the pervasive fascination with supernatural phenomena in the past can help scholars better understand a range of writers within a ghostly, mysterious, or paranormal tradition and can uncover a dimension of the socio-religious thought of many nineteenth-century authors. Hodd’s short history of nineteenth-century Canadian supernaturalism shows a Canada few of us knew existed. Ceilidh Hart’s study of women’s poetry in the pages of nineteenth-century Canadian newspapers suggests that investigation of the newspaper world—an important influence in its day though little studied now by literary scholars—can shed new light on the extent of women’s literary activity and the kinds of public involvement their domestic poetry authorized and effected. Addressing the neglect of Sara Jeannette Duncan’s Anglo-Indian prose works, Christa Zeller Thomas advocates a genre-based approach to Duncan’s memoir On the Other Side of the Latch. As a counter to the national-cultural frame that has so often been applied to Duncan, this subtle and adroit reading strategy effectively highlights the various forms of displacement and situational unease expressed by the famously private author. All three essays showcase significant new areas and methodologies for research.
Not all of the papers in the volume advocate a new approach or assumptions. Some vigorously affirm the worth of current approaches, as is the case with Cecily Devereux’s stock-taking analysis of more than two decades of feminist scholarship in relation to Lorraine McMullen’s Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers. Assessing what “second-wave” feminism has meant for the study of women writers in Canada both before and after McMullen’s landmark anthology, she argues that feminist recovery work, as part of the feminist struggle for a just world, is far from complete and must be continued. Jennifer Chambers, too, in a wide-ranging essay on the cultural approach to literary recovery and the uneasy status of aesthetic judgement within it, looks at the explicit and implicit evaluative criteria scholars employ and provides a case study of Susan Frances Harrison. She concludes that cultural analysis has valuably broadened the literary field by bringing many worthy, if minor, writers to our attention. Both essays offer salutary reminders of how feminist and cultural approaches have addressed the omissions and inadequacies of previous scholarship.
Other essays present new readings of minor or neglected texts that indicate the ongoing significance of feminist and postcolonial approaches. Wanda Campbell reviews the critical fortunes of nine Canadian women poets in the years following their inclusion in her anthology Hidden Rooms (2000), considering the generic, critical, and thematic features that account for the longevity of three of them. Feminist and postcolonial understandings have been, Campbell shows, indispensable in keeping these writers in the public eye. Joel Baetz demonstrates how an awareness of the gendered aspects of public mourning helps us to appreciate the powerful memorialization project created by Anna Durie in Our Absent Hero (1920), the volume of poems she wrote in tribute to her son killed in the First World War. In addition to presenting a compelling reading of the volume, Baetz makes the case for recovering the group of neglected women poets who wrote about the war.
Albert Braz and Cynthia Sugars both draw on the insights of postcolonial theory to analyze the interventions into history of two little-known works of fiction. Braz uses settler theory, particularly its emphasis on anxieties about rootedness and belonging, to make sense of the treatment of Métis rhymester Pierre Falcon in Agnes Laut’s historical novel Lords of the North (1900), which both memorializes and delegitimizes the bard as the romantic founder of the Métis nation. In an intricate analysis of Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s now little-known The Old Judge (1849), Sugars reads the text’s striking Gothic elements through the lens of the concern with cultural immaturity and sterility that dogged the new colony; she shows how Haliburton employs ghostly stories both to establish a romantic folk past for Nova Scotia and to affirm the colony’s progress toward cultural maturity. For these scholars, colonial contexts and postcolonial theory remain vital to the work of literary understanding.
The final essay, by Mary Jane Edwards, surveys the history and accomplishments of the outstanding CEECT series in providing scholarly editions of early Canadian books and discusses the ongoing centrality of textual scholarship and of the material book to all our research endeavours.
It was clear from the papers presented at the conference and from those submitted for this collection that many scholars of early Canadian literature do not share my sense of malaise and that many would take exception to my characterization of the field. I believe that if the ideological approaches I have discussed harden further into critical orthodoxy, they will effectively destroy their subject of investigation. But they have not yet so hardened. As this volume demonstrates, scholars of early Canadian literature are engaged in uncovering or examining a plethora of little-known (and some better-known) texts without a fixed canon or a uniform set of principles for their recovery or study. Like much in Canadian life, one might say, the field offers many opportunities for achievement while being diffident about matters of quality and disinclined to engage in heated debate, preferring to coexist with difference rather than contend for unity. While they do not represent a coherent approach or formulation about what it means to study early Canadian literature, and still less a sweeping program to reorient our methods, each essay offers many insights and suggestions for further work. As such, they provide a vivid demonstration that the literature of early Canada remains still a New World awaiting further exploration.
1. See especially her explanation that the poem’s “sweeping view of the north presents a stark and apparently unoccupied geography that contrasts sharply with the concentration of people that distinguishes the south. Like the expanse of white space on Morris’s map, Scott’s ‘lonely north’ arguably creates one of those ‘socially empty’ spaces that are among the cartographer’s most powerful fictions (Harley 284, 303). The dearth of human habitation lends an aura of legitimacy to the poet’s presence in—and literary appropriation of—the landscape” (Krotz 90).
2. As Sandra Djwa records, he found the Soviet experiment inspiring while noting the paradox that the Communists he met were “humanely brutal,” as he recorded in his diary. He was particularly attracted to their clear vision: “Just as people perish when there is no vision, so they live when there is vision. The Soviet Union has its vision. It sees a brave new world where there is no war, poverty, or insecurity, and in which free and equal men and women live active and cultured lives” (qtd. in Djwa 155).
Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. 1972. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994.
Coleman, Daniel. “Epistemic Justice, CanLit, and the Politics of Respect.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 124–126.
———. White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Dawson, Carrie. “How Does Our Garden Grow?” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 110–113.
Dean, Misao. A Different Point of View: Sara Jeannette Duncan. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
———.“‘The Mania For Killing’: Hunting and Collecting in Seton’s The Arctic Prairies.” Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ed. Janice Fiamengo. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007. 290–304.
Djwa, Sandra. The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F. R. Scott. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. 1987.
Duncan, Sara Jeannette. A Daughter of Today. 1895. Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1988.
———. Letter. 18 Sept. 1902. The Imperialist. Canadian Critical Edition. Ed. Thomas E. Tausky. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1996. 305–306.
———. Set in Authority. 1906. Peterborough: Broadview, 1996.
Fowler, Marian. Redney: A Life of Sara Jeannette Duncan. Toronto: Anansi, 1983.
Haliburton, Thomas Chandler. The Old Judge; or, Life in a Colony. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1849.
Harley, J. B. “Maps, Knowledge, and Power.” The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments. Ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 277–312.
Hubel, Teresa. “Excavating the Expendable Working Classes in The Imperialist.” The Imperialist. Canadian Critical Edition. Ed. Thomas Tausky. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1996. 437–456.
Krotz, Sarah. “Shadows of Indian Title: The Territorial Underpinnings of ‘The Height of Land.’” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 85–101.
Laut, Agnes. Lords of the North. 1900. Ed. Valerie Legge. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press., 2001.
Lee, Christopher. “The Best of the West.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 144–145.
McCall, Sophie. “Diasporas, Indigenous Sovereignties, and Métis Writing in Canada.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 121–122.
Mount, Nick. “In Praise of Talking Dogs: The Study and Teaching of Early Canada’s Canonless Canon.” Essays on Canadian Writing 63 (1998): 76–98.
O’Brien, Susie. “Canadian Literary Environments.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 118–120.
Rimstead, Roxanne. “Utopian Longing and Literary Futures.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 146–149.
Salem-Wiseman, Lisa. “‘Verily, the White Man’s Ways Were the Best’: Duncan Campbell Scott, Native Culture, and Assimilation.” Studies in Canadian Literature 21.2 (1996): 120–142.
Vautier, Marie. “Comparative Canadian/Québécois Literature: The Way of the Future?” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 152–155.
Wong, Rita. “Watersheds.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 115–117.
Wyile, Herb. “Neoliberalism and the Future of Canadian Literature.” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 108–110.