Canadian Identity in Literature Analysis

Two Cultures

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Canada is a country in which two cultures, English and French, exist side by side. The French province of Quebec clings to French as its language, as do parts of Ontario. The Maritime Provinces, those in Canada’s midwest, in the far west, and in the north are essentially British in their outlook and language. Canada’s literature has also been influenced by its native and immigrant populations, including a strong Asian influence in British Columbia. Canadian literature has been written largely in two languages and has reflected two cultures that do not always coexist harmoniously. Added to this cultural split is the strong influence of the United States upon Canada.

Early Canadian Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The first literature in English about Canada came from the pens of British explorers and military officers who were stationed in the sprawling country. Their writing largely took the form of diaries, journals, and letters. Frances Brooke, whose husband was a British army chaplain stationed in Quebec, wrote an early epistolary novel in English, The History of Emily Montague (1769), that captures Quebec’s milieu, both social and physical, remarkably well.

Among the earliest nonfiction writers, Samuel Hearne produced a stark narrative about his travels and explorations, A Journey from Prince of Wales’ Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (1795). This account emphasizes the wilderness landscapes and seascapes, the harshness of nature, and the sheer magnitude of all he saw. Six years later, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, a fur trader connected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, produced Voyages from Montreal (1801), a straightforward account of his perilous explorations into what was then designated on many maps as unknown territory, in pursuit of furbearing animals for whose pelts the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company had an insatiable appetite.

Literature in Nova Scotia

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

As early as 1789, an important literary publication, Nova-Scotia Magazine, appeared in Halifax. Before long several such journals existed in Nova Scotia, offering writers, particularly poets, a ready outlet for their writing. During the nineteenth century, poetry was the most significant form of literary expression in English-speaking Canada.

Nova Scotia became a center of cultural activity where writing flourished along with the other arts. This was partly because the province’s first premier, Joseph Howe, was a poet and journalist who consistently encouraged the arts. Even before 1800, the province had several literary magazines. Nova Scotians had a strong sense of their region and helped, in their writing, to establish a solid Canadian literary identity.

Thomas McCullough satirized his fellow Nova Scotians, or Bluenoses, as they were called, in his serialized Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure (1821-1823), while Thomas Chandler Haliburton, in The Clockmaker (1836), with its picaresque protagonist, Sam Slick, established the genre of folk humor in Canada.

Early Poetry

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Oliver Goldsmith, grandnephew of the British writer whose name he bore, celebrated the pioneering spirit and the development of Nova Scotia in The Rising Village (1825), a collection of heroic couplets that celebrates immigration and westward expansion. These poems are in direct response to his granduncle’s “The Deserted Village,” which decries the emigration of villagers from their homeland in search of opportunities elsewhere.

Among the early poets were two sisters, Susanna Strickland Moodie and Catherine Parr Strickland Traill. The former published Roughing It in the Bush (1852) in an effort to warn and dissuade future emigrants from England. Her sister’s earlier collection, The Backwoods of Canada (1836), however, emphasizes the landscape and natural beauty of the new world.

After confederation in 1867, poets wrote mostly about Canada’s landscape and its natural wonders, as Traill had done earlier. They were seeking and, indeed, establishing a poetic tradition that captured the identity of the new nation. Among these writers, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott were the most notable exemplars.

Isabella Valancy Crawford was perhaps the most innovative poet of this early period. She employed Indian folklore extensively in her work, which emphasized pioneer life. Her work was consciously imbued with the symbolic significance of the lively natural environment about which she wrote in her poems collected in Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie, and Other Poems (1884).

Early Fiction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

During the nineteenth century, most writing came from the eastern provinces of Canada. The historical romance dominated Canadian fiction. In Wacousta: Or, The Prophecy, a Tale of the Canadas (1832), John Richardson tells the tale of Pontiac, Indian chief of the Ottawas, and of the uprising he led. William Kirby, in his gothic novel The Golden Dog: A Legend of Quebec (1877), focuses on the life of the ruling class in Quebec. James De Mille, in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), presents a fantastic travel story, while Sir Charles George Douglas Roberts, originator of documentary animal stories, writes about the animal world and about Canada’s identity with nature in Earth’s Enigmas (1896) and The Kindred of the Wild (1902). By the time his Further Animal Stories (1936) appeared, he had published nineteen volumes.

Twentieth Century Poetry

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Probably the best known Canadian poet, although he is far from the most gifted, is Robert W. Service, whose Songs of a Sourdough (1907) and other volumes contain rollicking poems about Canada’s far north. Service captures the unique identity of that area, emphasizing its harshness, its independent spirit, its respect for individualism, and the romance associated with its remoteness from the more developed areas of the country.

William Henry Drummond wrote poetry in English about the French Canadian experience in The Habitant and Other French-Canadian Poems (1897). Pauline Johnson tells about the tribal rituals of the Mohawks in Flint and Feather (1911), but probably the most anthologized Canadian poem in English continues to be John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915), a paean about World War I, in which he died.

In Newfoundland Verse (1923), E. J. Pratt, a versatile poet who broke from the traditions of sentimentality and patriotism of the earlier twentieth century poets, writes lyrical poems about the isolated, seabound life of Newfoundland. In his monumental narratives, The Titanic (1935), Brébeuf and His Brethren (1940), and Towards the Last Spike (1952), Pratt proves himself master of the poetic and physical detail that transforms his verse into accurate documentary writing.

Such poets as A. M. Klein, Frank R. Scott, and A. J. M. Smith were part of the international movement of Imagism, which emphasized concrete images and details in a free verse. From this American- and British-influenced school they wrested a Canadian identity by depicting in pristine detail the Canadian landscape and the temper of its people. As the century progressed, Canadian poetry grew less formalistic. In Signpost (1932), Dorothy Livesay writes openly about sexual love, and in her later volume, Day and Night (1944), she broaches the exploitation of workers. Realism was the byword of the day, and poetry about Canada and Canadians was encouraged.

Local Color Fiction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

By the turn of the century, local color novels had begun to gain an ascendancy over the romances that had characterized earlier Canadian fiction. Ralph Connor’s The Man from Glengarry (1901) is set in Ontario, as is Sara Jeanette Duncan’s The Imperialist (1904). Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famed Anne of Green Gables (1908) and the other children’s books in the series that followed are set on Prince Edward Island and clearly capture the unique character of the Maritime Provinces. Mazo de la Roche’s The Building of Jalna (1927) and the books of the Jalna series that followed it until 1960 are set in western Ontario and are, in their social realism, sometimes compared to the prairie writings of Willa Cather.

The satirical stories of small-town Canadian life that Stephen Leacock captures in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) offer penetrating insights into Canadian life in much the way that Sherwood Anderson’s sketches in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) do, although Leacock lacks Anderson’s psychological penetration.

Social Realism

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In the mid-1920’s, a wave of fiction about the small, conservative farming communities of the Canadian prairie began to emerge. Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the March (1925) and Fruits of the Earth (1933) document the farmers’ struggle to gain an existence in an unwelcoming environment.

The prairie novels continue into the 1940’s and 1950’s in such books as Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House (1941), W. O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind? (1947), and Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley (1952), with its strong and authentic depictions of the unique Nova Scotian identity. Hugh MacLennan broaches questions of religious and social conflicts and of the breach between French and English Canadians in Two Solitudes (1945) and The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), both of which deal with divided national identities. The identity of British Columbia is explored and feminist questions are raised in Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (1959) and Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel (1954).

In the 1970’s, the internationally recognized Canadian novelist Robertson Davies produced his Deptford trilogy, consisting of Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). In these books, Davies, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, traces the development of his protagonists through their various stages of life.

The Canadian Jewish identity is found in such novels as Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971). Feminist writing of the period includes such novels as Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Audrey Thomas’ Real Mothers (1981), and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971), all of which deal with identity questions of women in Canadian society.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Howells, Coral Ann. Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. The essays in this collection analyze the shift in Canada’s literary perception of its identity.

MacMillan, Carrie. Silenced Sextet: Six Nineteenth Century Canadian Women Novelists. Montreal: McGill/Queen’s University Press, 1992. A thorough, feminist approach to the writing of Canadian women in the nineteenth century.

New, William H., ed. Canadian Writers, 1890-1920. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. An up-to-date coverage of an important era in Canadian literary development.

New, William H., ed. Canadian Writers, 1920-1959. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. Perhaps the most usable book about a broad range of Canadian authors of the period covered. Accurate and readable.

New, William H., ed. A History of Canadian Literature. New York: New Amsterdam Press, 1989. A concise volume that covers the full span of Canadian writing.

Stouck, David. Major Canadian Authors: A Critical Introduction to Canadian Literature in English. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. A dependable resource.