John Richardson Essay - Critical Essays

Richardson, John


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."

Principal Works

Tecumseh; or, The Warrior of the West: A Poem of Four Cantos with Notes [published anonymously] (poetry) 1828

Ecarté; or, The Salons of Paris (novel) 1829; revised edition, 1851

Frascati's; or, Scenes in Paris (novel) 1830

Kensington Gardens in 1830: A Satirical Trifle (novel) 1830

Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (novel) 1832; revised edition, 1851

Journal of the Movements of the British Legion (nonfiction) 1836; enlarged edition published as Movements of the British Legion with Strictures on the Course of Conduct Pursued by Lieutenant-General Evans 1837

Personal Memoirs of Major Richardson; As Connected with the Singular Oppression ofthat Officer While in Spain (memoir) 1838

The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. A Tale of the Late American War (novel) 1840; revised edition published as Matilda Montgomerie; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled 1851

War of 1812; First Series; Containing a Full and Detailed Narrative of the Operations of the Right Division of the Canadian Army (history) 1842; enlarged edition published as Richardson's War of 1812 [edited by Alexander Clark Casselman] 1902

Correspondence (Submitted to Parliament) between Major Richardson, Late Superintendent of Police on the Welland Canal and the Honorable Dominick Daly, Provincial Secretary (letters) 1846

Eight Years in Canada (autobiography) 1847

The Guards in Canada; or, The Point of Honor (autobiography) 1848

"A Trip to Walpole Island and Port Sarnia" [published anonymously] (travel) 1849; published as Tecumseh and Richardson; The Story of a Trip to Walpole Island and Port Sarnia [edited by A. H. U. Colquhoun] 1924

The Monk Knight of St. John: A Tale of the Crusades (novel) 1850

Hardscrabble; or, The Fall of Chicago. A Tale of Indian Warfare (novel) 1851 Wau-Nan-Gee; or, The Massacre at Chicago (novel) 1852

Westbrook, The Outlaw; or, The Avenging Wolf. An American Border Tale (novel) 1853

Major John Richardson's Short Stories (short stories) [edited by David Beasley] 1985


John Richardson (essay date 1851)

SOURCE: An introduction to Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: An Indian Tale, Robert M. De Witt, Publisher, 1851, pp. iii-viii.

[In the following introduction to the revised edition of his novel, Richardson comments on the sources for Wacousta and answers charges of improbability and geographical error.]

This chapter, written eighteen years subsequent to the original publication of Wacousta in London, will be found unavoidably replete with egotism. By none will it be more readily pronounced such than by those who are most open to the charge themselves. Without its exercise, however, the object of this introduction would not be gained.


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Alexander Clark Casselman (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: Introduction to Richardson's War of 1812: With Notes and a Life of the Author, Historical Publishing Co., 1902, pp. xi-xlv.

[Casselman was highly regarded for his extensive studies of Richardson's works. In the following excerpt from his authoritative introduction to the War of 1812, he provides a detailed and well-documented account of the Canadian author's life and writings.]

On the Canadian side of the Niagara river, just where its foaming and turbulent waters issue from the narrow, rocky gorge, stands the straggling village of Queenston. The place at the present time is of very little importance except as a terminal port for a magnificent fleet of...

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Ida Burwash (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: "A Young Volunteer of 1812: A Sketch of Major John Richardson, One of the Earliest Canadian Novelists," Canadian Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 3, July, 1912, pp. 218-25.

[In the following essay, Burwash discusses how Richardson used his military experiences as a youth volunteer to compose his history War of 1812.]

As a century turns with the turning of the year, it recalls a memorable date to Canadians. It recalls at the same time an interesting figure in the person of Major John Richardson, one of the earliest Canadian novelists, and one of the first historians of the war of 1812, whose border strife he shared. To the present generation Richardson's memory is...

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William Renwick Riddell (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: "An Appreciation," in John Richardson, The Ryerson Press, 1930, pp. 197-208.

[In the following excerpt, Riddell argues that Richardson's historical works are superior to his imaginative writings.]

The status of Major John Richardson as a maker of Canadian literature is perhaps at the present time, not definitely and finally fixed. Very much a mythical figure, he does not belong even to the class of writers, honored but unread; he is not only unread but he is also unknown. It is probable that his great wish, besides his desire for recognition by those whom he so unreservedly served with pen and sword and who always disappointed him, was to be remembered and...

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Leslie Monkman (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Richardson's Indians," in Canadian Literature, No. 81, Summer, 1979, pp. 86-94.

[In the following essay, Monkman discusses Richardson's portrayal of Native Americans and identifies similar patterns of characterization in the works of James Fenimore Cooper.]

No writer of nineteenth-century Canada more fully explored the literary potential of the Indian than Major John Richardson. In novels such as Wacousta (1832) and The Canadian Brothers (1840), Richardson's interest is in the conflict between red man and white man on the Canadian-American frontier. In later formula novels such as Hardscrabble (1851) and...

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David Beasley (review date 1988)

SOURCE: "Rereading Richardson's Wacousta," American Review of Canadian Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 381-86.

[In the following review of the 1987 edition of Wacousta edited by Douglas Cronk, Beasley comments on the publication history of Wacousta and suggests Richardson's sources of inspiration for the novel's chief characters.]

In 1965, while I was researching my biography of Richardson, The Canadian Don Quixote, I found a first edition of Wacousta in an antiquarian bookstore in New York City for $17.50. It was a rare three volumes at a low price, but Richardson then was unknown. Now he is regarded as one of...

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Michael Hurley (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Double Entendre: Rebel Angels & Beautiful Losers in John Richardson's The Monk Knight of St. John," Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 107-17.

[In the essay below, Hurley offers a reappraisal of Richardson's The Monk Knight of St. John, focusing on themes of identity, passion, and religion. He also illustrates the novel's parallels with other Gothic and Romantic works.]

Variously described as lurid, sensational, grotesque, and bizarre, John Richardson's complex and intriguing novel The Monk Knight of St. John. A Tale of The Crusades (1850) was the Beautiful Losers of its day. Response to the work evokes comparison...

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Donald Stephens (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. A Tale of the Late American War, by John Richardson, edited by Donald Stephens, Carleton University Press, 1992, pp. xvii-lxxxii.

[In the following excerpt, Stephens surveys Richardson's career and discusses the themes, sources, and publication history of The Canadian Brothers.]

Early in 1840 the publishing firm of A. H. Armour and H. Ramsay of Montreal issued The Canadian Brothers; Or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. A Tale Of The Late American War. Printed by John Lovell of Montreal, this two-volume novel was the work of John Richardson (1796-1852), or, as he was described on the...

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Michael Hurley (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Border Doubles: Twin Poles of the Canadian Psyche," in The Borders of Nightmare: The Fiction of John Richardson, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 69-109.

[In the following excerpt, Hurley discusses family relationships and the doppelgänger theme in Wacousta.]

In Canada, the wilderness, symbolized by the north, creates a kind of doppelganger figure who is oneself and yet the opposite of oneself . . . The Canadian recurring themes of self-conflict, of the violating of nature, of individuals uncertain of their social context, of dark, repressed oracular doubles concealed within each of us, are now more communicable outside Canada in the...

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Dennis Duffy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Present at the Creation: John Richardson and Souwesto," in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 75-91.

[In the following essay, Duffy focuses his discussion on Richardson's last novel, Westbrook the Outlaw, contending that the novelist led the way in establishing the imaginative tradition of Southwestern Ontario in Canadian literature.]

"Souwesto" designates one of English Canada's most thickly populated countries of the mind. On the map where Thoreau's true countries never are, Southwestern Ontario covers the peninsula created by Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The painterly imagination has dotted it with the views...

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Manina Jones (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Beyond the Pale: Gender, 'Savagery,' and the Colonial Project in Richardson's Wacousta," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 54, Winter, 1994, pp. 46-59.

[In the essay below, Jones discusses themes of assimilation, imperialism, gender, and savagery in Wacousta.]

She has perchance wrestled with her engagement, as the aboriginals of a land newly discovered by a crew of adventurous colonists do battle with the garments imposed on them by our considerate civilization;—ultimately to rejoice with excessive dignity in the wearing of a battered cocked-hat and trowsers not extending to the shanks: but she did not break her engagement, sir;...

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Further Reading


Morley, William F. E. A Bibliographical Study of Major John Richardson. Toronto: Bibliographical Society of Canada, 1973, 144 p.

Bibliography of extant editions of Richardson's works, including physical descriptions and locations.


Beasley, David R. The Canadian Don Quixote: The Life and Works of Major John Richardson, Canada's First Novelist. Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill, 1977, 219 p.

Considered the definitive biography of Richardson.

Darling, Michael. "Major John Richardson:...

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