John Richardson 1796-1852
Canadian novelist, historian, memoirist, autobiographer, travel writer, short story writer, and poet.
Largely ignored during his lifetime by critics and the reading public, Richardson is now regarded as one of Canada's major pre-Confederation novelists. Drawing heavily from the gothic and romantic traditions, Richardson's oeuvre includes several fictional works about the American and Canadian frontier as well as narrative poetry and a history of the War of 1812. His most successful work, the novel Wacousta (1832), is a story of revenge and frontier warfare reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels. Dennis Duffy has stated: "The century and a half of critical and public attention paid to Wacousta has not only confirmed the enduring qualities of the work, but it has made of Richardson's imagination a powerful force to be dealt with when outlining the shape of [Canadian] literary experience."
Born in Queenston, Ontario, Richardson spent most of his youth in Amherstburg, Ontario, where his father was a medical officer with the British army at Fort Maiden. At the age of fifteen, Richardson joined the British army as a gentleman volunteer for service in the War of 1812. Captured after the British defeat at the Battle of Moraviantown in 1813, he spent a year in Kentucky as a prisoner of war. He gained a commission in the British army after his release, then spent a short time in England before being posted to the West Indies. There, he served two years with the Queen's Regiment, returning to Europe in 1818 as a half-pay officer. In 1828, Richardson anonymously published Tecumseh, a narrative poem about the death of the Native American chief who formed an alliance with the British in the War of 1812. This sole attempt at poetry was followed by three novels concerning English and French society—Ecarté (1829), Frascati's (1830), and Kensington Gardens (1830). Following the publication and critical and popular success of Wacousta in 1832, Richardson returned to active military service in 1835 and fought in the Carlist War in Spain, an experience about which he wrote several memoirs. In 1838, Richardson returned to Canada to cover political events for the London Times. His political opinions, however, conflicted with those of the Times's editors, and he was soon released from his contract. Remaining in Canada, Richardson attempted several unsuccessful ventures in newspaper publishing throughout the 1840s, and wrote The Canadian Brothers (1840), a sequel to Wacousta, and War of 1812 (1842), a history of the war. Neither work sparked public interest, and Richardson suffered further misfortune in 1845 when his wife died and he lost his commission as superintendent of police on the Welland Canal. He subsequently published two volumes of autobiography, and then left Canada in 1849 for New York City, where he published his last works—The Monk Knight of St. John (1850), a story of the Crusades, and three frontier adventure novels. He died in New York City in 1852.
Set on the North American frontier, Richardson's major works deal primarily with war and revenge. Wacousta, for instance, draws on Chief Pontiac's attacks in 1763 on the English forts at Detroit and Michilimackinac for its historical background; the War of 1812 provides the backdrop for Tecumseh and The Canadian Brothers; while Hardscrabble (1851) and Wau-Nan-Gee (1852) center on the 1812 massacre at Fort Dearborn. Combining elements from the gothic and romance genres, Wacousta centers on the story of Reginald Morton, also known as Wacousta, who—driven by the desire for revenge against Colonel de Haldimar, the man who betrayed his trust and stole his lover—disavows his European heritage, allies himself with the Native Americans, and seeks to destroy Haldimar and his family. In The Canadian Brothers, the sequel to Wacousta, the brothers Gerald and Henry—sons of Frederick de Haldimar—are enemies of Desborough, Wacousta's son. Though Richardson is best known for his adventure novels of the North American frontier, he also wrote several works set outside North America. Ecarté and Frascati's, for instance, depict moral corruption in the gambling halls of Paris, while The Monk Knight of St. John, a love story set during the Crusades, ranges from the Holy Land to France.
With the exception of Wacousta, Richardson's novels have been derided by most critics as potboilers. Desmond Pacey, for example, vehemently attacked The Monk Knight of St. John, arguing that Richardson's depiction of "sexual aberrations" pushes the novel dangerously close to mere pornography. Indeed, Richardson's interest in sexuality and gothicism, as well as the scenes of voyeurism, cannibalism, and rape that recur in his novels have been noted by commentators. The protagonist of Westbrook, The Outlaw (1853), for instance, not only spies on a pair of lovers but later rapes the woman while forcing her lover to watch. Commenting on Richardson's interest in cannibalism and rape, Dennis Duffy has noted that "one, the other, or both occur in every fictional work of Richardson with the exception of Hardscrabble." Another element common to Richardson's works was his tendency to fictionalize incidents from his life. Donald Stephens argues, for instance, that The Canadian Brothers, which incorporates Richardson's imprisonment in Kentucky, is "a fictionalized chronicle of actual events, people, and places from Richardson's childhood and adolescence that both revealed the psychology of the author and helped create seminal mythologies about his country." Critical discussions of Wacousta have centered on Richardson's examination of revenge, identity, and the dichotomies between civilization and savagery; reason and passion; love and hatred. A number of scholars have also written on the often-made comparisons between Cooper and Richardson. Scholars contend that unlike American frontier stories, which tend to center on a lone protagonist without ancestry, Wacousta and The Canadian Brothers are dominated by family relationships. In addition, Cooper's depiction of nature is quite distinct from Richardson's: whereas Cooper provided a balanced view of nature's benevolence and cruelty and praised the virtues of a communion of men in the forest, Richardson persistently emphasized the savage aspects of the wilderness and emphasized the values and order of the military garrison. Although Richardson died penniless and bitter that his countrymen failed to acknowledge him as a man of letters, "a century later," Leslie Monkman has noted, "he . . . is now regarded by many as the major anglo-phone novelist of pre-Confederation Canada."
Tecumseh; or, The Warrior of the West: A Poem of Four Cantos with Notes [published anonymously] (poetry) 1828
Ecarté; or, The Salons of Paris (novel) 1829; revised edition, 1851
Frascati's; or, Scenes in Paris (novel) 1830
Kensington Gardens in 1830: A Satirical Trifle (novel) 1830
Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (novel) 1832; revised edition, 1851
Journal of the Movements of the British Legion (nonfiction) 1836; enlarged edition published as Movements of the British Legion with Strictures on the Course of Conduct Pursued by Lieutenant-General Evans 1837
Personal Memoirs of Major Richardson; As Connected with the Singular Oppression ofthat Officer While in Spain (memoir) 1838
The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. A Tale of the Late American War (novel) 1840; revised edition published as Matilda Montgomerie; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled 1851
War of 1812; First Series; Containing a Full and Detailed Narrative of the Operations of the Right Division of the Canadian Army (history) 1842; enlarged edition published as Richardson's War of 1812 [edited by Alexander Clark Casselman] 1902
Correspondence (Submitted to Parliament) between Major Richardson, Late Superintendent of Police on...
(The entire section is 281 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: An Indian Tale, Robert M. De Witt, Publisher, 1851, pp. iii-viii.
[In the following introduction to the revised edition of his novel, Richardson comments on the sources for Wacousta and answers charges of improbability and geographical error.]
This chapter, written eighteen years subsequent to the original publication of Wacousta in London, will be found unavoidably replete with egotism. By none will it be more readily pronounced such than by those who are most open to the charge themselves. Without its exercise, however, the object of this introduction would not be gained.
As the reader may be curious to know on what basis, and in what manner this story (of which I have certainly robbed that first of vigorous American Novelists—the Last of the Mohicans Cooper—which tale, albeit I have never read a novel by another author twice, I have absolutely devoured three times,) was suggested to me, and on what particular portions of History the story is founded, I am not aware that this introductory Chapter, which I have promised my Publishers, can be better devoted than to the explanation.
It is well known to every man conversant with the earlier History of this country that, shortly subsequent to the cession of the Canadas to England by France, Ponteac the great Head of the Indian...
(The entire section is 2682 words.)
SOURCE: Introduction to Richardson's War of 1812: With Notes and a Life of the Author, Historical Publishing Co., 1902, pp. xi-xlv.
[Casselman was highly regarded for his extensive studies of Richardson's works. In the following excerpt from his authoritative introduction to the War of 1812, he provides a detailed and well-documented account of the Canadian author's life and writings.]
On the Canadian side of the Niagara river, just where its foaming and turbulent waters issue from the narrow, rocky gorge, stands the straggling village of Queenston. The place at the present time is of very little importance except as a terminal port for a magnificent fleet of pleasure vessels that carry tourists and excursion parties to visit the Falls, five or six miles farther up the river. But as the scene of one of the proudest victories of Canadian and British arms during the War of 1812 Queenston has won a fame that is world-wide.
The settlement proper of the country dates from the close of the Revolutionary war, when the disbanded soldiers of Butler's Rangers and other United Empire Loyalists took up grants of land on the banks of the river. At the mouth of the river there soon grew up the town of Niagara (Newark), opposite Fort Niagara, at that time and until 1796 in the hands of the British. The great highway of the trade with Detroit and other western settlements was the Niagara, and as...
(The entire section is 13764 words.)
SOURCE: "A Young Volunteer of 1812: A Sketch of Major John Richardson, One of the Earliest Canadian Novelists," Canadian Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 3, July, 1912, pp. 218-25.
[In the following essay, Burwash discusses how Richardson used his military experiences as a youth volunteer to compose his history War of 1812.]
As a century turns with the turning of the year, it recalls a memorable date to Canadians. It recalls at the same time an interesting figure in the person of Major John Richardson, one of the earliest Canadian novelists, and one of the first historians of the war of 1812, whose border strife he shared. To the present generation Richardson's memory is shadowy. His books are little known to-day and difficult of access. Yet a hundred years ago he stood at the centre of a life replete with interest and action. Though in 1812 he was only sixteen, he was known in the small society of Amherstburg, where his father was garrison surgeon, as a lad of promise. Garrison life was just the one to be attractive to a lively boy. The experience of officers and soldiers either as related to himself or as gathered up by him from the conversation of his elders, were of the kind to stimulate ambition. Then close at hand were the Indians bringing suggestion of the woods and wilds so dear to the adventurous nature.
In summer these Indians camped in hundreds on Bois Blanc Island. There Richardson...
(The entire section is 4804 words.)
SOURCE: "An Appreciation," in John Richardson, The Ryerson Press, 1930, pp. 197-208.
[In the following excerpt, Riddell argues that Richardson's historical works are superior to his imaginative writings.]
The status of Major John Richardson as a maker of Canadian literature is perhaps at the present time, not definitely and finally fixed. Very much a mythical figure, he does not belong even to the class of writers, honored but unread; he is not only unread but he is also unknown. It is probable that his great wish, besides his desire for recognition by those whom he so unreservedly served with pen and sword and who always disappointed him, was to be remembered and honored by succeeding generations of his countrymen. It is true that he once cynically wrote:—"I cannot deny to myself the gratification of the expression of a hope that, should a more refined and cultivated taste ever be introduced into this matter-of-fact country in which I have derived my being, its people will decline to do me the honor of placing my name in the list of their 'Authors.' I certainly have no particular ambition to rank among their future 'men of genius,' or to share any posthumous honor they may be disposed to confer upon them." But this was when he was smarting under what he considered undeserved neglect; and it is not to be taken at its face value. He is undoubtedly worthy of a place among our authors....
(The entire section is 2269 words.)
SOURCE: "Richardson's Indians," in Canadian Literature, No. 81, Summer, 1979, pp. 86-94.
[In the following essay, Monkman discusses Richardson's portrayal of Native Americans and identifies similar patterns of characterization in the works of James Fenimore Cooper.]
No writer of nineteenth-century Canada more fully explored the literary potential of the Indian than Major John Richardson. In novels such as Wacousta (1832) and The Canadian Brothers (1840), Richardson's interest is in the conflict between red man and white man on the Canadian-American frontier. In later formula novels such as Hardscrabble (1851) and Wau-Nan-Gee (1852), he more directly appeals to the American reading public by shifting his focus to the events preceding the founding of Chicago. Yet Richardson's interest in the Indian was not limited to an exploration of his potential in frontier fiction; Tecumseh (1828), a narrative poem paying tribute to the Indian warrior whom he met as a young man, was Richardson's first published volume, and references to the Indian and Indian cultures appear repeatedly in his volumes of history and autobiography. Throughout his work, Richardson affirms his admiration for the red man, and in later works such as "The North American Indian," he writes movingly of his concern for the extinction of the Indian race. Yet he consistently...
(The entire section is 3737 words.)
SOURCE: "Rereading Richardson's Wacousta," American Review of Canadian Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 381-86.
[In the following review of the 1987 edition of Wacousta edited by Douglas Cronk, Beasley comments on the publication history of Wacousta and suggests Richardson's sources of inspiration for the novel's chief characters.]
In 1965, while I was researching my biography of Richardson, The Canadian Don Quixote, I found a first edition of Wacousta in an antiquarian bookstore in New York City for $17.50. It was a rare three volumes at a low price, but Richardson then was unknown. Now he is regarded as one of Canada's greatest writers, and Wacousta, his most popular novel, as the keystone to Canadian literature. Douglas Cronk, who edited this reissue of the first English edition, was quite right to choose it for rigorous textual analysis. Not only has he restored maturity to the text of the pirated American edition which flooded North America in the last century, he has returned the vigor and eloquence to Richardson's prose. He discovered that the 1832 English edition, when pirated by the American publisher, Adam Waldie, in 1833, was cut by 15,000 words. Americans of that age were just as apt to reshape a text to suit their image as they are today. American hegemony then was as threatening to British North America as it is today. Mr....
(The entire section is 3663 words.)
SOURCE: "Double Entendre: Rebel Angels & Beautiful Losers in John Richardson's The Monk Knight of St. John," Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 107-17.
[In the essay below, Hurley offers a reappraisal of Richardson's The Monk Knight of St. John, focusing on themes of identity, passion, and religion. He also illustrates the novel's parallels with other Gothic and Romantic works.]
Variously described as lurid, sensational, grotesque, and bizarre, John Richardson's complex and intriguing novel The Monk Knight of St. John. A Tale of The Crusades (1850) was the Beautiful Losers of its day. Response to the work evokes comparison with the reception of novels like Cohen's, Grove's Settlers of the Marsh, Symons' Place d'Armes, Davies' The Rebel Angels, or Engel's Bear (at the end of which, we recall, the female narrator who has just reclaimed her body and her sexuality enthusiastically praises Richardson and Wacousta). Modern commentary on the black sheep of Richardson's oeuvre is still divided. It seems to me that a reappraisal is required, one that sets the novel within a literary context rather than one established exclusively by the particular social or sexual reality inhabited by the critic.
"The St. Simonist objective of equal rights for women," which Richardson unlike many of his contemporaries...
(The entire section is 5144 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. A Tale of the Late American War, by John Richardson, edited by Donald Stephens, Carleton University Press, 1992, pp. xvii-lxxxii.
[In the following excerpt, Stephens surveys Richardson's career and discusses the themes, sources, and publication history of The Canadian Brothers.]
Early in 1840 the publishing firm of A. H. Armour and H. Ramsay of Montreal issued The Canadian Brothers; Or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. A Tale Of The Late American War. Printed by John Lovell of Montreal, this two-volume novel was the work of John Richardson (1796-1852), or, as he was described on the titlepage, "Major Richardson, Knight Of The Military Order Of Saint Ferdinand, Author Of Ecarté, Wacousta, &c. &c." With its title deliberately echoing that of Wacousta; Or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas, The Canadian Brothers was, in fact, a sequel to this three-volume novel that Thomas Cadell of London and William Blackwood of Edinburgh had first published in 1832. The Canadian Brothers, however, was not just a suitably horrific completion to the story of vengeance and hate begun in Wacousta. It was also, and more importantly, a fictionalized chronicle of actual events, people, and places from Richardson's childhood and adolescence that both revealed the psychology of the...
(The entire section is 17595 words.)
SOURCE: "Border Doubles: Twin Poles of the Canadian Psyche," in The Borders of Nightmare: The Fiction of John Richardson, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 69-109.
[In the following excerpt, Hurley discusses family relationships and the doppelgänger theme in Wacousta.]
In Canada, the wilderness, symbolized by the north, creates a kind of doppelganger figure who is oneself and yet the opposite of oneself . . . The Canadian recurring themes of self-conflict, of the violating of nature, of individuals uncertain of their social context, of dark, repressed oracular doubles concealed within each of us, are now more communicable outside Canada in the new mood of the world.
NORTHROP FRYE, Divisions on a Ground
His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE, In the Skin of a Lion
'Break boundaries'—points of reversal generating a paradoxical blurring, merging, or exchanging of identity—occur between specific characters in Wacousta as well as between the larger cultural groupings of regiment and tribe. In the preceding chapter, I sought to show how two cultures, one indigenous, the other immigrant, apparently without any relationship to each other, progressively intertwine...
(The entire section is 14458 words.)
SOURCE: "Present at the Creation: John Richardson and Souwesto," in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 75-91.
[In the following essay, Duffy focuses his discussion on Richardson's last novel, Westbrook the Outlaw, contending that the novelist led the way in establishing the imaginative tradition of Southwestern Ontario in Canadian literature.]
"Souwesto" designates one of English Canada's most thickly populated countries of the mind. On the map where Thoreau's true countries never are, Southwestern Ontario covers the peninsula created by Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The painterly imagination has dotted it with the views caught in the paintings of Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe. Hamlets as storied as Hanratty (Munro's Who Do You Think You Are?), Biddulph Township (Reaney's The Donnellys), and Deptford (Davies's trilogy of that name) flourish there. Though James Reaney is the genius of Souwesto's shore, he credits Curnoe with inventing its name.
In a remarkable paper, Reaney places John Richardson (1796-1852) at the heart of his own Laurentian model of the Canadian literary imagination. No surprise that the poet who dramatized Richardson's two Prophecy novels—Wacousta and The Canadian Brothers—pays such close attention to an earlier writer. Following Reaney's imaginative mapping, my survey here...
(The entire section is 6855 words.)
SOURCE: "Beyond the Pale: Gender, 'Savagery,' and the Colonial Project in Richardson's Wacousta," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 54, Winter, 1994, pp. 46-59.
[In the essay below, Jones discusses themes of assimilation, imperialism, gender, and savagery in Wacousta.]
She has perchance wrestled with her engagement, as the aboriginals of a land newly discovered by a crew of adventurous colonists do battle with the garments imposed on them by our considerate civilization;—ultimately to rejoice with excessive dignity in the wearing of a battered cocked-hat and trowsers not extending to the shanks: but she did not break her engagement, sir; and we will anticipate that, moderating a young woman's native wildness, she may, after the manner of my comparison, take a similar pride in her fortune in good season.
In Reaches of Empire: The English Novel From Edgeworth to Dickens, Suvendrini Perera uses the passage that appears above, taken from a speech in George Meredith's The Egoist, to illustrate the displaced inscription of imperial relations in early- and mid-nineteenth-century fictional narratives that do not deal directly with the colonized territories. Perera argues that, as the extract illustrates, the figuring of cultural difference is deeply implicated in the representation of gender...
(The entire section is 4902 words.)
Morley, William F. E. A Bibliographical Study of Major John Richardson. Toronto: Bibliographical Society of Canada, 1973, 144 p.
Bibliography of extant editions of Richardson's works, including physical descriptions and locations.
Beasley, David R. The Canadian Don Quixote: The Life and Works of Major John Richardson, Canada's First Novelist. Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill, 1977, 219 p.
Considered the definitive biography of Richardson.
Darling, Michael. "Major John Richardson: Biographical Facts and Critical Problems." Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 9 (Winter 1977-78): 5-11.
Reviews David R. Beasley's biography of Richardson, The Canadian Don Quixote. Darling notes that Beasley's work "confirms the extent to which Richardson drew on his own life and the lives of his relatives and friends for characters and incidents in his novels."
Pacey, Desmond. "A Colonial Romantic: Major John Richardson, Soldier and Novelist, Part I: The Early Years." Canadian Literature, No. 2 (Autumn 1959): 20-31.
Biographical overview of Richardson's life through February 1838, when the novelist returned to Canada from...
(The entire section is 931 words.)