Hallvard Dahlie

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

The opening paragraph of [A New Athens] reflects what has come to be a Hood trademark: the transformation of circumstantial detail and self into a kind of mystical entity which, for all its ontological complexities, represents finally a re-affirmation of Wordsworthian man. Hood takes us quickly into speculations about "original glory," "wild multiplicity of forms in this world," "a curious infinity," and other components of transcendentalism, all through the consciousness—and prescience—of the articulate narrator/protagonist, Matthew Goderich.

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The novel, the second of a projected twelve-volume chronicle about mid-century Canada, takes up Matthew's story a generation or so after the events of the first in the series, The Swing in the Garden. It is to me a more successful novel than the earlier one, which suffered, I thought, from the imposition of too much overt moralizing; the pre-adolescent Matthew was not given sufficient opportunity to be himself, as it were. A New Athens succeeds, in my view, in resolving the components of reality and imagination—though not without effort on the part of the reader. Hood wins us over more by rational persuasion than by catering to our emotions, but our patience is rewarded by a new respect we gain for his disciplined aesthetic. (p. 138)

In A New Athens, Hood reflects his abiding obsession with naming places, people, and things. I suspect the places may be real places, for at least one Ontario critic has dutifully located all the little towns and railway stations on the map, in the general neighbourhood of Brockville…. But that the novel works even for those of us who are unfamiliar with the Brockville area is a tribute to Hood's ability to transcend place, and create an imaginative world that convinces. (pp. 138-39)

In an article published some seven years ago, Hugh Hood—unwittingly or otherwise—laid the philosophical groundwork for the project he has now embarked upon. Subtitled "The Ontology of Super-Realism," this article outlines with some precision how Hood moved from an eclectic position at the outset of his career in the mid fifties—though one in which he leaned towards what he calls "moral realism"—to a position where he could propose "the Wordsworthian account of the marriage of the mind and the thing as a model of artistic activity." Acknowledging his debt to such artists as Vermeer, Hopper, W. C. Williams, and Haydn, Hood defines his term "super-realism" as the "art which exhibits the transcendental element dwelling in living things," and argues that all art, "like every other human act, implies a philosophical stance."

Readers of his two novels in this current series will, I think, see the fictional applicability of propositions such as these, though they may quarrel with the appropriateness of the term "super-realism." It is clear in my mind that Hood is unequivocally a realist in most of his fiction I have read, one exception being You Can't Get There From Here, which depends largely on allegory for its impact. "Super-realism" has, however, a rarefied connotation which his own philosophy may well support, but which A New Athens wholly does not. The novel is thoroughly realistic and, as with the realism of Howells, James and Wiebe, Hood's realism serves as a basis on which to build a moral universe. Readers of this present novel might well interpret "super-realism" to mean "minute realism"—an excess of routine detail—and find in the process that they become less charitable about Hood's larger meaning: the spiritual transformation of self and the real world. (p. 139)

Hallvard Dahlie, "A Moral Universe," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), No. 11, Summer, 1978, pp. 138-41.

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