Canadian Short Fiction Analysis

Historical Background

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Short fiction was being written in Canada before there was a Canada. At the time of Confederation in 1867, short fiction already filled the magazines of the new country. These early stories, however, differed from the modern short story, often being closer in form and content to other prose genres such as the sketch, anecdote, editorial, and essay—all of which were popular in journals such as The Literary Garland, Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly, National Review, and The Week. Today’s definitions of short fiction must be relaxed when one surveys fiction of these earlier times, for the parameters defining what is good short fiction change over time. The sensibility of the late nineteenth century, for example, valued sentiment over realism; much that was then considered excellent writing, appears nauseatingly sweet to the twentieth century reader. When one surveys the past of a genre, one must be aware that one is looking from a particular point of view, that of scholars distanced from the dates and places of publication of the original fiction and necessarily seeing a literary landscape changed from that seen by the original writer, publisher, or even the critic of earlier decades.

Canadian and American Short Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One feature of the Canadian cultural landscape that the writer of the millennium can see is its nearness to that of its neighbor, the United States. Canadian short fiction shares to some extent the history of the American genre. This survey will begin by establishing some of the basic points at which the two traditions run parallel or even converge. Later some points of divergence will be considered.

In both Canadian and American traditions, short fiction has its roots in sketch and anecdote and in the various prose forms that arose in the nineteenth century for the chronicling of personal experience. In both young countries short fiction found its initial home in magazines, sometimes in exciting, intellectual magazines, but often in cheap weeklies, tabloids, or Sunday-school papers. Not surprisingly, many writers of short fiction had previous or parallel careers as journalists, with the result that the demands of journalism (fact, brevity, popularity, and clarity) shaped early short fiction on both sides of the border. Developments in Canadian short fiction sometimes lagged behind those in American fiction, but in response to some trends, Canadian writers overcame the conservative influence of their colonial status to welcome similar literary innovations. Both Canadian and American short-story traditions, for instance, had strong local-color traditions in the last decades of the nineteenth century; these were regional in origin and very popular. Canada is and was a country divided into distinct regions—for example, the Maritimes, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Southwestern Ontario, urban Montreal, the Prairie provinces, and so on. Short fiction from and about some of these regions developed just after its appearance south of the border, where writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman began to speak for and about distinct, marginalized parts of the continent in a new realistic voice. Such regional writing marked a stage in the development of the genre of short fiction toward naturalism and realism and has become a continuing, vital feature of Canadian short fiction, whose persistence has exerted a largely conservative influence on the development of the genre as a whole.

As the twentieth century unfolded, the international movement of modernism began to affect the writing of short fiction as well as poetry and the novel. Modernism is one area in the chronicle of North American short fiction where Canadian development temporarily parallels American. The friendship between Ernest Hemingway and Canada’s Morley Callaghan was one factor ensuring that the revolution in writing begun by the older Hemingway would spread to the writing of the younger Callaghan. Later developments in short fiction, including the social realism of the 1930’s, the minimalist fiction of the 1950’s, the postmodern experimentation of the post-World War II era—all these affected both traditions, with the Canadian genre trailing by a few years. The distance between the two cultures closed up, however, in the mid-1960’s, when Canadian cultural nationalism surged forward on the creativity of the newly adult baby boomers, and Canada enjoyed a bumper crop of new writers, for whom short fiction was a popular genre.

At the turn of the millennium, both short story traditions existed in a new era...

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The 1880’s and the 1890’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It was not before the late 1880’s and 1890’s that good, nonhumorous short fiction began to appear in any quantity. The 1860’s and 1870’s belonged to the Sunday-school story and the women’s magazine story, distinguished by their prominent didacticism and formulaic endings. Examples include Mary Herbert’s “Light in The Darkness: A Sketch from Life,” and May Agnes Fleming’s “My Folly.” Later, however, the decade of the “new” woman produced two good Canadian story writers: Sara Jeannette Duncan and Susie Frances Harrison, both of whom received recognition in literary circles in America as well as in Canada. Duncan, a well-traveled journalist, brought new ideas, both thematic and technical, to short fiction. Harrison, also a poet, experimented with narrative forms in her short fiction, with new settings, both generalized and local, and with the new ethos of the liberated woman, depicted independently of conventional roles of wife and mother (for example, “The Gilded Hammock”). In Crowded Out! and Other Sketches (1886), Harrison uses a frame story, in which a male narrator complains of being crowded out, perhaps indicating her own sense of the silencing of the woman’s voice in literature, even in her own collection. From the same era comes Duncan, better known for her novels in the Jamesian international style. Like many post- Confederation story writers, Duncan exploited the new mobility of journalists by traveling, observing, and writing about experiences beyond the conventional women’s sphere. Stories such as “A Mother in India” or “The Pool in the Desert” show more developed characterization than Harrison’s, with more room for psychological roundness and a fine touch in depicting one of her favorite subjects: the hypocrisies of Anglo-Indian society.

Canada’s main contribution to the development of short fiction at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the animal story. Neither the traditional,...

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The Early 1900’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Immediately after the turn of the century, humor was a dominant strain in Canadian short fiction. Stephen Leacock, an economics professor from Orillia, Ontario, began producing brief sketches, often monologues by a confident but misguided citizen, bent on misunderstanding the institutions of the new country and century. Literary Lapses (1910) contains the often-anthologized masterpiece “My Financial Career,” which pits a befuddled little man of the twentieth century against the banking establishment of urban Canada. Shortly after, Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), a collection of linked sketches unified by its setting, turned a gently satirical eye on the foibles of small- town Canada, while Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) displayed, in a connected series of stories, his criticism of an academic, urban world. Leacock epitomizes a movement in Canadian literature toward the subject of the small town, the voice of the little man, and a mood of sunny optimism mitigated by a quietly deprecating self-critical humor. Leacock’s brand of light satire survives in the short fiction of contemporary writers such as Stuart McLean and Bill Richardson. Much recent humorous fiction originates from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio scripts, after the fashion of the mid-century classics, W. O Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid stories. These were collected in 1961 and again twenty-eight years later (According to Jake and the Kid) in a volume which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humor.

By the 1920’s, short fiction moved in the new direction indicated by the fresh currents of modernism. Young writers such as Raymond Knister set out to get the country into and the parlor out of their fiction and to capture the mind in motion. Short fiction, like all literature in Canada at this time, was still intensely regional in flavor. However, Knister and Callaghan began to be published abroad; early stories of both writers appeared in Paris magazines. Although Knister died before he could produce a major body of work, Morley Callaghan emerged into international prominence....

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The Mid-1900’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The middle decades of the twentieth century in Canadian short fiction were dominated by realism, in particular by the prairie realism of Frederick Philip Grove, Sinclair Ross, and W. O. Mitchell. Grove’s stories of heroic battle with land and climate in Over Prairie Trails (1922) have a Manitoban setting, while Ross’s more varied and human depictions of the difficulties of farm life are set farther west, on the Saskatchewan prairie. Both Ross and Grove set stylistic standards for natural description and content standards for gritty realism; together they laid to rest any lingering myth of the bountiful prairie farm. Another prairie writer however, W. O Mitchell, brought humor and a lively speaking voice to the...

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The 1970’s and the 1980’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the 1970’s and 1980’s it was popular to see all Canadian literature in terms of unifying thematic patterns, the most influential of which was Northrop Frye’s template of the “garrison mentality,” which became a symbol for the isolated, inward-looking, wilderness-fearing communities of early Canada. Together with Margaret Atwood’s related concept of “survival,” this term became for a while the touchstone of the good in short fiction as well as other genres. Short fiction whose plots conformed to this paradigm rose to the top, and other types of fiction were undervalued. Certainly many excellent Canadian short stories are illuminated by such readings: Frederick Philip Grove’s Manitoba stories conform to the...

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Other Short-fiction Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

There has also been a vital tradition of longer short fiction in Canada. The novella length has occurred in the writing of earlier writers such as Morley Callaghan (A Native Argosy, 1929, contains two novellas), Ethel Wilson (“Tuesday and Wednesday” and “Lilly’s Story,” in The Equations of Love, 1952), Mavis Gallant (“Potter” and “Its Image in the Mirror”), Malcolm Lowry (“The Forest Path to the Spring”), as well as in the exquisite prose pieces of John Metcalf (“Girl in Gingham” and “Private Parts: A Memoir”). Metcalf’s novellas are collected in Shooting the Stars (1993). Also accomplished at this length is Keath Fraser, whose acclaimed Foreign Affairs (1985) and...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Gadpaille, Michelle. The Canadian Short Story. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988. In-depth discussions of individual stories by many of the authors mentioned above, including chapters on Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

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.

New, W. H. Canadian Short Fiction: From Myth to Modern. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice Hall, 1986. This is a comprehensive anthology with good...

(The entire section is 322 words.)