Robert Kroetsch 1927-
Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Kroetsch's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 23, and 57.
Kroetsch is considered one of Canada's foremost practitioners and theoreticians of postmodern literature. Like many experimental writers, Kroetsch subverts such literary conventions as plot and character development and writes in a playful, ironic, and self-reflexive style. Central to Kroetsch's fiction is the importance of place and its impact on the psyche. He is particularly admired for his depictions of the Canadian prairie landscape.
Kroetsch was born in Heisler, Alberta, Canada, and raised on his family's farm. His childhood in rural Alberta, where most of his fiction is set, informs both his fiction and his poetry. His family's penchant for storytelling imbued Kroetsch with a deep appreciation for oral narrative, which often emerges in his writing in the form of tall tales and ribald humor. After graduating from the University of Alberta in 1948, Kroetsch worked for six years in the Canadian North. His initial jobs on riverboats on the Mackenzie River led to the conception of his first and most conventional novel, But We Are Exiles (1966). In 1961 Kroetsch received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and he worked as a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton from 1961 to 1978. In 1978 Kroetsch accepted a professorship at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He has won several awards for his fiction and was co-founder and editor of the postmodern literary journal Boundary 2.
Kroetsch's novels The Words of My Roaring (1966), The Studhorse Man (1970), and Gone Indian (1973) comprise what he calls the “Out West” triptych. In these works, Kroetsch explores the myths surrounding the Canadian prairie while also incorporating Greek and Roman mythic structures and recording momentous social changes from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Words of My Roaring also chronicles political upheavals in Depression-era Alberta. Kroetsch's next novel, Badlands (1975), revolves around a 1916 paleontological expedition in Alberta led by William Dawes, who is obsessed with finding large dinosaur fossils in hopes of achieving renown in the science world. In What the Crow Said (1978) Kroetsch uses magical realism to explore gender differences in Big Indian, Alberta. Alibi (1983) reiterates his interest in the quest myth and the rejuvenating power of water. William Dorfendorf, who procures objects for a mysterious oilman and collector, is sent on a worldwide search for the “perfect spa.” Through his quest, Dorfendorf comes to understand the fundamental dichotomies of body and soul, sex and death, and art and life. The Puppeteer (1995) is a postmodern detective story in which Kroetsch almost entirely abandons conventional storytelling techniques, settling instead on an experimental form in which he lifts and rearranges scenes and characters from previous works. In 1998 Kroetsch published The Man from the Creeks, a novel about the gold rush in the American and Canadian West in the 1890s. Several themes in Kroetsch's fiction recur throughout his poetry. In his early verse, collected in The Stone Hammer Poems (1975), Kroetsch depicts prairie life in an imagistic, unaffected manner. Much of his subsequent poetry displays an irreverence toward language in order to expand its limits. Since 1975, Kroetsch has been composing an extended long poem-in-progress entitled “Field Notes.” A collage of memories, anecdotes, documents, and tall tales reflecting his preoccupation with the difficulties of literary expression, persona, and the burden of traditional poetic forms, “Field Notes” has been published in partial form in the volumes Seed Catalogue: Poems (1978), The Ledger (1979), The Sad Phoenician (1979), and Advice to My Friends (1985). In 1989 the volume was published as The Complete Field Notes. Kroetsch is also highly regarded as a literary theorist, and his criticism is considered a major informative factor in all of his writings. The Lovely Treachery of Words (1989) exemplifies his thoughts on literature, writing, and language. In 1995 Kroetsch added to his writings about language by publishing A Likely Story, a memoir and explanation of his life as a writer.
Kroetsch is considered one of the most imaginative and important writers of the postmodern movement. Highly influenced by theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, his fiction and poetry as well as his criticism are deeply entrenched in deconstructionism's focus on relativity and absence of definite meaning. While this quality has drawn much praise from some commentators, others have found his works oblique and at times overbearing with literary jargon and trends. Nonetheless, Kroetsch is admired for experimenting with literary forms and for his role in bringing contemporary Canadian writing to the forefront of the world literary scene.