Given the geographical and historical proximity of Canada and the United States, it stands to reason that their national literatures would reflect similar concerns. Early Canadian settlers traveled from Europe, with the majority emigrating from Great Britain and France. They were faced with a wilderness that seemed almost infinite—and would not be completely settled even into the twentieth century—inhabited by people whose appearance, beliefs, and customs were different from their own. Their national economy was closely linked to natural resources, dominated by such industries as farming, fishing, mining, logging, and milling. Little in their previous experience had prepared them for such an encounter, and few of the artistic models they had brought from Europe allowed them to completely express the reality of their relation to this “new” world. Like their cousins to the south, Canadians were continually renegotiating their identity relative to the surrounding landscape, and early Canadian writers sought to raise this daily phenomenon of encounter and compromise to an expression of national selfhood.
As such, it is strange to note how differently Canada and the United States developed, in both literary and historical senses. Where Americans were driven by their “manifest” directive to settle the continent, Canadian settlement was less rapid and headlong. Official groups such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police often preceded settlers into the wilderness, carving out a habitable and “known” space for pioneers who followed. The emphasis was usually on order, which prevented the frenzied land rushes and cultural clashes occurring to the south. Where American settlement was often violent, punctuated by slavery and wars with American Indians, Canadian movements across the landscape were deliberate and, at some level, introspective. Relations with Indians, though not perfect, were enhanced by the Canadian government’s simple willingness to adhere to its treaties. Other interchanges between cultures, despite friction, infrequently rose to the level of martial conflict that punctuated U.S. history. Indeed, the high premium that Canadians have historically placed on cultural dialogue continues to be exemplified by the coexistence of anglophone and francophone cultures.
Early Canadian novels, 1769-1852
The complexities of cultural interchange and of comprehending the landscape beyond simple conquest have epitomized Canadian long fiction from its inception. Chief among such works is Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769), arguably the first North American novel. Written by an Englishwoman who had lived for five years in Canada and adhering closely to a standard romance plot, The History of Emily Montague nevertheless invokes the sense of dichotomy that would characterize later Canadian novels. The matrices that form the novel’s thematic base—civilization versus savagery, urban versus rural, feminine versus masculine, and domestic order versus natural law—challenge the assumption that European society could be instantly transplanted to North America. While the lead characters, Emily Montague and Colonel Rivers, marry at the novel’s end—per the genre’s conventions—the negotiations that occur during their courtship in Canada suggest how Brooke’s writing subtly undermines the moral, sexual, and political expectations of her English audience. Though no great upheaval occurs within the book’s social order, the mere suggestion of necessary compromise (between characters of various backgrounds and between humans and the wilderness) creates a sense of cultural dialogue uncommon in works of the time.
Such dialogues are stressed in John Richardson’s Wacousta: Or, The Prophecy, a Tale of the Canadas (1832), the next seminal novel in Canadian literary history. Similar to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in its depiction of a white army facing an Indian foe, Wacousta eschews the easy valorization of “civilization” over...
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