Monday, 19 September 2016
Re-Views of the Literary History of Canada
By J.D. Logan
From The Canadian Magazine, December 1916
Essay II – Canadian Fictionists and other Creative Prose Writers
It is unfortunate that hitherto Canadian verse has occupied the centre of the critical stage and has had the spotlight of sympathetic criticism focused upon it. Hardly has Canadian fiction and imaginative prose in other genres had even the fringes of the limelight of appreciative criticism thrown upon its evolution and qualities. Mr. Marquis has devoted a considerable section of his monograph to a more or less sketchy, though constructive, review of Canadian fiction. As a bird’s-eye view of the history of Canadian fiction, and as a succinct fresh estimate of its literary distinction and value, his review is informing and critically sane. But even Mr. Marquis hastens to state that “the chief glory of Canadian literature is its poetry”. The truth is that Canadian fiction, taken in the large to include such imaginative genres as novels, romances, tales, prose idyls, animal stories, and creative comedy or humour, has a more distinctively nativistic origin and history, and a more distinctively national note, than has Canadian poetry. Here I may not wait to explain in this essay how the spotlight appreciative criticism and of consequent fame has been deflected from Canadian fiction or imaginative prose to Canadian poetry. I need all the available space to present fresh constructive views of Canadian imaginative prose, and thus to signalize its real glory—which, let me add, only in fine craftsmanship and sustained inspiration is, at its best, less impressive, if less conspicuous, than the glory of Canadian poetry. Here, however, before passing, I may say that the critical neglect of Canadian imaginative prose has been due chiefly to two causes. Poetry is intrinsically a more inviting and engaging literary species than is prose for critical treatment and appreciation. Aside from that, foreign, as well as native-born, critics of Canadian literature have had no really regardful eye for the historic process. They were concerned only with individuals and literary works, as if both were absolutely discrete entities that simply happened. Their criticisms were merely private appreciations or personal opinions. Whoever, then, considers Canadian fiction and other imaginative prose genres strictly with his eye on the historic process in them, disclosing their beginnings and evolution, will do Canadian literature and literary criticism a genuine service. The present essay attempts such a service.
In the history of Canadian fiction and other imaginative prose genres I observe a Pioneer, Colonial, or Pre-Confederation period, and a strictly Canadian, or Post-Confederation period; and in the latter, at least so far as the novel and the romance are concerned, first, a tentative period, and, secondly, a constructive, systematic, or renaissance period. As a ready aid to recalling important persons and dates in a historico-critical review of the creative prose writers of Canada,
I note that Canadian nativistic fiction began virtually one hundred years after the first genuine work of English fiction had appeared, and that the original creators of fiction, both in England and in Canada, bore the same patronymic, or family name —Richardson. In 1740 Samuel Richardson published his “Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded”. It is the first specimen in English of the authentic novel; for though composed in the form of letters, there runs through the epistles a skilfully constructed and coherent plot; and plot is essential to the authentic novel. In 1832 Major John Richardson, born near Niagara Falls, published his “Wacousta; or, The Prophecy”, and, in 1840, its sequel, “The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled”. They are authentic novels of the romantic type, having, as they do, respectably constructed plots, and being filled with the romance of the passion of love, heightened with thrilling adventure and incident, and coloured with pictures of aboriginal character and life against a background of nature in the wild. We may, then, put it down in our mental note-book that the first nativistic fiction, having the authentic Canadian note and having the right to be included by the literary historian and critic in the corpus of Canadian literature as such, appeared considerably prior to Confederation.
The literary annalist, no doubt, would date the beginning of fiction in Canada with the appearance of “The History of Emily Montague” in 1769, a romance written and published by Mrs. Frances Brooke, wife of Rev. John Brooke, Chaplain of the British Forces at Quebec under the Carleton regime. Apart from its matter, which is lively in movement and made sprightly with engaging characterization and with the colour of social life and of wild nature during the decade following the Fall of Quebec, Mrs. Brooke’s novel is imitative, being written in the epistolary manner of Samuel Richardson. While, indeed, it affords pleasurable reading, “The History of Emily Montague” is to be valued rather as a social and historical document, in as much as it faithfully depicts the customs and manners of the times in British North America after the conquest of the French. As literature and as history the book is strictly Colonial. There were other Colonial writers of imaginative prose. They are, however, to be accepted as quasi-fictionists; for they had no genius for invention, characterization, and realistic nature-painting in words. Including Mrs. Brooke, all the writers of fiction in Canada, preceding John Richardson, were, as Mr. Marquis phrases it, “birds of passage”, and have no right to be considered as producers of a Canadian nativistic fiction. As “birds of passage”, they have merely a right to have their existence and work noted in an inclusive Literary History of Canada.
Now, as Samuel Richardson was the creator of the English novel as such, that is, of fiction with plot, and as Sir Walter Scott was the creator of the English historical novel or romance, so James Fenimore Cooper was the creator of the distinctively American historical romance, and John Richardson was the creator of the distinctively Canadian historical romance. Moreover, all four were equally original, independent, and individual; Samuel Richardson’s novels were a pure invention in literary species; Scott's historical romances were also a pure invention in literary species; and as Scott had no influence on the inspiration and the methods of Cooper, so, as 1 shall show, contrary to received opinion, Cooper had no influence on the inspiration and the methods of John Richardson. Unless a constructive critic can show the originality and independence of John Richardson as a literary creator, the critic cannot mark a true beginning of Canadian nativistic fiction, trace an evolution in it, estimate its literary value, fix its place in the corpus of English, as well as Canadian literature, and thus disclose its relative distinction and glory when compared with British and American fiction, or when, on the other hand, compared with Canadian nativistic poetry. Let us, then, consider the formative influences which shaped and inspired the genius of John Richardson, the first Canadian novelist as such, the creator of the Canadian nativistic historical romance.
Richardson was born near Niagara Palls in 1796 (seven years after Cooper) and spent his childhood and early adolescent days till he was sixteen years of age, that is, up to the outbreak of the War of 1812, in the vicinity of the Falls and of Detroit. On the outbreak of the war, he enlisted in Brock’s army. Up to that time, young Richardson, during his most impressionable and receptive years, was entertained by his grandparents and parents with tales of Pontiac’s siege of Detroit, and stories of the thrilling and romantic and tragic events in the history of the Niagara and Detroit districts—events which are surely amongst the most enthralling and stirring in the vividly romantic history of Canada and the United States. These early days of Richardson’s were thus replete with rare and unique formative influences; they created in him the love of romance, of the heroic past of his own country, and later, when he came to write, afforded him the inspiration and the material really to write authentic Canadian historical novels or romances.
Two other formative influences, besides those exercised over his heart and imagination by his grandparents and parents, have been noted by certain critics as determining Richardson’s genius, inspiration, and literary methods. In the War of 1812 he had fought side by side with the noble Indian warrior Tecumseh. Further, on his own confession, he had, as he puts it, “absolutely devoured three times” Cooper's Indian romance, “The Last of the Mohicans”. Some critics, therefore, hold that Richardson was a mere imitator of Cooper: that, first, he studied the mind and ways of Indians at second-hand in the pages of Cooper’s romance, and that, secondly, he acquired the art of writing fiction from Cooper’s volume. There is not any real ground for such beliefs. Mr. Marquis rightly holds that as a historical romancer Richardson was original and independent. I hold the same belief, but I do so for reasons which differ from those that Mr. Marquis and others advance. On the first count, that Richardson got his knowledge of Indians at second-hand from Coopers pages, I submit that such an opinion requires an absurd anachronism to make it possible and true. The War of 1812. during which Richardson fought side by side with Tecumseh, began fourteen years before the publication of “The Last of the Mohicans”, (1826), or long before Richardson could have read a page of Cooper. Richardson’s genius was romantically formed in his early days; and during his association with Tecumseh he came to know Indian psychology and character at firsthand. That is indisputable. Again, on the second count, that Richardson acquired the art of novel-writing from Cooper, I submit that the Canadian romancer had learned the art of novel-writing, and had published novels some years before be published “Wacousta”. There was, for instance, his “Ecarte; or, The Salons of Paris”, published in 1828. Rut this is a sort of demi-monde novel, dealing with the evils of gambling, and, of course, far from the romantic passion, thrilling incident, and all the colour of life and nature that appear in Richardson’s “Wacousta” and “The Canadian Brothers”. Possibly Richardson may have got from his reading of Cooper some “coaching” in the mere mechanics of writing romance. Yet, when we compare the diction, sentential structure, descriptive epithets and imagery, and the general style of the two romancers, Richardson, if not a better plot-maker than Cooper, is the superior craftsman and stylist, a fact which is proof presumptive that the Canadian romanancer developed independently his own mechanics of literary composition. Finally, in the fine art of character-drawing, Richardson is more veracious and incisive than Cooper. When we compare the American novelist’s characters with those of the Canadian, we find that Cooper’s are more like “studies” from books than pictures drawn from real life, whereas Richardson’s Indians are very near to the real Indian, very life-like: the heroic in them is heroic enough, that is to say, human and natural. Richardson’s Indian characters, then, are original creations — absolutely his own. Also his own are the other characters (soldiers, fur-traders, French Canadians, etc.), the plots, all the stirring incidents and the colour of the Canadian background from nature. Of his romances, “Wacousta” and “The Canadian Brothers”, the only aesthetic criticisms worth while making are that not infrequently Richardson forces the dramatic in them into the melo-dramatic, that he puts into the mouths of his characters utterances which are unnatural or not in keeping with the position and circumstances of the speakers, and that he suits his historical facts to his own purposes.
In sum, then, since Richardson had his genius romantically formed, and had engaged in the art of fiction, long before he had read Cooper, the only possible influence Cooper could have had on Richardson was to incite him to emulate the American romancer. Emulation, incited by a contemporary author, does not imply imitation, and has no significance in original literary creation. Taken by and large, John Richardson was the first creator of Canadian nativistic fiction as such. He had first-rate powers of invention, was a respectable craftsman, and produced at least two original romances that are worthy to be included in the corpus of general English literature, and to have a distinctive niche in the corpus of Canadian nativistic literature.
Contemporary with Richardson, a man of greater creative genius and versatility, who, in fact, became the foremost native-born writer of his time in British North America, gave to the world a species of the fiction of characterization and of the criticism of society and manners that for originality and enduring appeal to all classes is the most remarkable produced by a Canadian man of letters, and amongst the most remarkable produced by any modern man of letters as such. This man was Thomas Chandler Haliburton, who, if he did not absolutely create a species of fiction without plot interest, at least gave it new form and potency, as he did, in those ingenious volumes which have Sam Slick as their chief inspirer and central character. Though born in Nova Scotia, Haliburton’s genius was indigenous, not so much to Nova Scotia or to Canada, as to the world; and the fiction he produced belongs, not so much to Canadian nativistic literature and to general English literature, as to world literature.
It is as a systematic creative humourist, embracing, as it were, in one genius the gifts of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens, Artemas Ward, Josh Billings, and Mark Twain, that Haliburton has won a unique and permanent place in Canadian, English, and world literature. This is the only angle from which it is worth while for genuine criticism to view and estimate the genius and creative prose of Haliburton. Those who deal in literary dominoes, and who call such diversion criticism, may pother with the fact that Longfellow, by his own confession, actually did read Haliburton’s account of the expulsion of the Acadians, or with the possibility that Parkman may have read the whole of Haliburton’s "Historical anti Statistical Account of Nova Scotia”. Longfellow and Parkman merely turned to Haliburton, just as Shakespeare, Scott, and Tennyson turned to Plutarch, the Chroniclers, and the “Morte d’Arthur”, as “sources” of material for plays, romances. and idyls; and the “influence” of Haliburton on the creative genius and invention of the American poet and historian was as insignificant as that of the author of the “Morte d’Arthur” on the poetic invention of Tennyson. But it is very highly significant that Haliburton was the author of a distinct—and alas! extinct—type of creative comedy or humour, that he was the foremost systematic humourist of his time on the North American continent, that he was in his day the supreme aphorist and epigrammatist of the Englishspeaking peoples, and that his wit and wisdom remain part of the warp and woof of modern world literature. In comic character-drawing Haliburton takes a place beside Cervantes, Dickens, Daudet, and Mark Twain. His Sam Slick, and even his minor characters, are amongst the best imaginative creations of modern fiction, Sam Slick himself being as unique—individual, real, human, and fascinating —as Don Quixote, Pickwick, Tartaran or Huckleberry Finn, while being distinguishable from these others by aphoristic speech that in form is brilliant wit and humour, but that in substance is enduring wisdom.
Now, it is this abiding philosophical quality of Haliburton’s wit and humour, as we get it chiefly in the utterances of Sam Slick, that constructive criticism seizes on to remove the superstition which Artemns Ward first created by declaring that Haliburton was “the founder of the American school of humour”, and which so acute and well-informed a Canadian critic as Mr. Marquis has gone to pains to perpetuate by submitting that “American humour received its first impulse from ‘Sam Slick’; and Haliburton was, moreover, the first writer to use the American dialect in literature. Artemas Ward, Josh Billing and Mark Twain are, in a way, mere imitators of Haliburton, and he is their superior”. There is not a single grain of truth in any of these claims, except possibly that Ward, Billings and Twain imitated or adopted Haliburton’s so-called American dialect, if a manufactured potpourri of Yankee localisms and slang and mis-spelled diction can justly be called “the American dialect”. Haliburton created the shrewd Yankee pedlar and humourist, Sam Slick, and then put him as a “character”, and his wit and humour, uttered in a dialect which virtually existed in New England, into literature. That is all Haliburton ever had to do with American humour. He certainly was not the founder or the father of the American school of humour. The real “father” of American humour—that is, the humour of sheer exaggerated nonsense, having on the face of it seriousness and veracity—was Benjamin Franklin who in 1765, or thirty years before Haliburton was born, produced the first example of what is popularly meant by American humour. The example is to be found in a letter by Franklin to one of the eighteenth century London newspapers to offset the idiotic views which Englishmen then held about the British colonies, including Canada, in America. I quote from the letter in part:
“I beg to say that all the articles of news that seem improbable are not mere inventions. The very tails of the American sheep are so laden with wool that each has a little car or wagon on four little wheels to support and keep it from trailing on the ground. Would they caulk their ships, would they even litter their horses with wool, if it were not both plenty and cheap. . . . Their engaging three hundred silk throwsters here in one week for New York was treated as a fable, because, forsooth, they have ‘no silk there to throw’. Those who make this objection, perhaps do not know that at the same time the agents from the King of Spain were at Quebec to contract for one thousand pieces of cannon to be made there for the fortification of Mexico. . . . And yet all this is as certainly true, as the account said to be from Quebec, in all the papers last week, that the inhabitants of Canada are making preparations for a cod and whale fishery ‘this summer in the Upper Lakes'. Ignorant people may object that the Upper Lakes are fresh, and that cod and whales are salt water fish; but let them know, sir, that cod, like other fish when attacked by their enemies, fly into any water where they can be safest; that whales when they have a mind to eat cod, pursue them wherever they fly; and that the grand leap of the whale in the chase up the Falls of Niagara is esteemed by all who have seen it as one of the finest spectacles in nature.”
That was written by Franklin in the eighteenth century, and it is written in the newspaper style of Addison. Yet any well-read student of the history of literature who did not recognize the authorship would likely credit it to Mark Twain. But Haliburton, Ward and Billings wrote their humour in a specious or perverted dialect. How, then, can it be said, with any plausibility, that Haliburton “fathered” or “gave impulse” to American humour? Moreover, Franklin began early the publication of “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” a quasi-literary periodical which gave vogue in America to that sort of aphoristic or humorous wisdom which is also uttered by Haliburton’s chief character, Sam Slick. It is more than probable that Haliburton had read “Poor Richard”. Are we to conclude that Franklin is the literary “father” of Haliburton as a humourist and aphorist, and that Sam Slick’s epigrams are an imitation of “Poor Richard’s” bits of practical wisdom? There is, in fact, no plausibility in either view that Haliburton is the “father” of American humour or that Franklin is the “father” of Haliburtonian; that is, Canadian humour. Possibly Haliburton got some “coaching” in the methods of humour from Franklin.
Still, Haliburton created Canadian nativistic humour—and has left no successors. He was the first systematic humourist of the Provinces that have become the Dominion of Canada—original in time and original in inventing the humorous character, Sam Slick, and in being the first to use the so-called American dialect as speech for wit and humour, and to employ wit, wisdom and kindly satire—not, note, exaggerated nonsense after the American manner—as humour. And so Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a native son of Nova Scotia, appears as the foremost man of letters of the Colonial Canadian period who had first-rate creative genius and who has won a unique and permanent place, not only in Canadian and in English literature, but also in world literature. He is the only native-born Canadian writer to whom we can justly apply the epithet “great”. As Mr. Marquis puts it: “Of him we can say, as Ben Johnson said of Shakespeare—‘He is not of an age, but for all time’ ”.
After Richardson and Haliburton there were no Colonial or Pre-Confederation fictionists of any constructive significance in Canadian nativistic letters. The first stage of the new constructive period in Canadian fiction began with William Kirby’s historical romance, “The Golden Dog” (“Le Chien d’Or”), published in 1877, that is, ten years after Confederation, or twenty years before the publication of Roberts’s “In Divers Tones”, which inaugurated the First Renaissance in Canadian nativistic and national poetry. It may be objected that because Kirby was born in England, he is not rightfully to be regarded as a Canadian. He came, however, to Canada when he was but fifteen years of age, was resident in Canada for forty-five years before he produced and published “The Golden Dog”, and chose the theme, setting, and colour of his romance from Canadian history and social life. Essentially, therefore, Kirby was a genuine Canadian man of letters. But it is not aesthetically or as a work of artistic fiction that Kirby’s romance “The Golden Dog” is important, but in its constructive and inspirational influence on other Canadian fictionists. In that regard it is more important than Richardson’s “Wacousta”, and better entitled than Richardson’s romance to a permanent place in the corpus of Canadian literature. In “The Golden Dog” Kirby went back for his inspiration to the romantic and heroic past of Canada, and thus brought to the notice of future fictionists the wealth of novelistic material that lay in the unknown or the forgotten Canadian past. In short., Kirby and “The Golden Dog” were the literary progenitors of a series of romances that have a Canadian historical basis and Canadian incident and colour. While his own historical romance was a tentative production, that is, not succeeded by other romances on Kirby’s part, “The Golden Dog” was, as it were, the harbinger of the spring and summer that were to be in Canadian nativistic and national fiction.
The systematic Renaissance in the scope, themes and technic of Canadian fiction and other imaginative prose began about a decade after the Renaissance in Canadian poetry, and resulted in an impressive body of Canadian nativistic fiction in all of the chief genres—novels, romances, tales, prose idyls, animal stories and social satire and humour. Here I may merely mention the most significant names in the Renaissance period of Canadian fiction. I lead off with Miss Marshall Saunders, who in 1889 published her “My Spanish Sailor”, whereas Mr. Marquis gives preference to Sir Gilbert Parker and his “Pierre and His People”, published in 1890. Parker is indubitably the most eminent of Canadian fictionists, but in scope he tends to be Imperial, rather than Canadian, even in those novels which have a Canadian historical basis, setting and colour, as, for instance, in his “The Seats of the Mighty” (1896). Miss Saunders is pervasively Canadian, quite as inventive as Parker, and technically a better craftsman than he. I might have led off with Mr. W. D. Lighthall’s “The Young Seigneur”, published in 1888, were it not that this work is a socio-political study and not a genuine novel. In romantic fiction of the Renaissance period, the salient names, then, are Miss Saunders, Sir Gilbert Parker, Charles G. D. Roberts, Wilfred Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, Charles W. Gordon (Ralph Connor), Edward W. Thomson, J. Macdonald Oxley, W. A. Fraser, Mrs. Grace Dean MacLeod Rogers, Miss Alice Jones, Mrs. Carleton Jones, Norman Duncan, and Arthur Stringer; and beginning again with Lucy M. Montgomery (Mrs. Ewan MacDonald), the still later generation of Canadian fictionists, as, for instance, Alan Sullivan, Peter MacFarlanc, Mrs. Isabel Ecclestone MacKay, Mrs. Virna Sheard, the really creative artist amongst them all being the author of “Anne of Green Gables”. In another genre of fiction, namely, social satire and humour, Sara Jeanette Duncan (Mrs. Cotes), stands by herself as the foremost Canadian woman of letters in her special field, just as Miss Saunders stands by herself in the fiction of the humanitarian animal story, as Ernest Thompson-Seton and C. G. D. Roberts remain sui generis in the fiction of the psychological animal story, and as Stephen Leacock remains alone in creative literary comedy or humour and wit. All the foregoing Canadian fictionists, save “Ralph Connor”, whatever be the genre they have essayed, have been moved to write by artistic inspiration and aims, and, on the whole, have succeeded admirably. Some of them have won world-wide reputation for first-rate invention, enlivening incident and colourization, and incisive characterization; others have achieved international reputation; and others are on the way to appreciation wider than what they receive in their own country. Taken all in all, they have created a very respectable body of fiction and imaginative prose, quite worthy, if it does not shine with equal glory, to have an honourable place beside the body of Canadian creative poetry.
In this essay I have applied the historico-critical method to the appreciation and evaluation of Canadian nativistic and national fiction or imaginative prose, signalizing only constructive authors and movements. From Richardson and Haliburton to Kirby, and from Kirby to Miss Saunders and Sir Gilbert Parker, and then onwards to Lucy M. Montgomery and her confreres or contemporaries we have noted a genuine evolution in literary species and eventually the systematic production of a body of prose that has aesthetic beauty or dignity, artistic structure, and imaginative and spiritual appeal. Some of it will have a permanent place only in Canadian literature; some of it is worthy to be included, as it is, in the general corpus of English literature; and all the best of it, despite the contempt of those myopic critics who find literature only in antique tomes and literary beauties only in the supreme masters, is genuine literature. I hold to that—unswervingly.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.