John Richardson Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."