SINCE IT'S BEEN a year of imaginative map-making, let's suppose Confederation had never happened to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
In 1867, the two colonies are well on the way to nationhood. They have their own postage and coinage, viable universities and periodicals, a magnificent oral, even bardic, tradition, responsible government. In Thomas McCulloch, T. C. Haliburton, and Joseph Howe they have great intellectual leaders, and in Halifax and Fredericton centres of art and learning. They lead British North America in the technology of steam and sail. With the defeat of French power in North America signalled by the destruction of Louisbourg in 1758, the face of the cosmopolitan Maritimes is now turned toward Britain, New England, and the broad Atlantic.
With all this going for them, they stoutly resist Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley, John A. Macdonald's bulldog and lapdog at the Charlottetown Conference, and form a loose political alliance, tightened with the addition of Prince Edward Island in 1873, then Anticosti, the Gaspe, the Iles de la Madeleine, and the Quebec North Shore in 1895. After much nudging from Great Britain, Newfoundland - which had obtained Labrador permanently in the interim - comes aboard in 1934. The present shape of Atlantia is thus established - just in time to sink lots of Nazi shipping during the Second World War. Naturally, every dab of land west of the Madawaska long ago has been absorbed into the United States.
Well, it's an agreeable fantasy, almost as agreeable as that which Alden Nowlan spun. Reasoning that nations should follow geographical, not political lines, Nowlan speculated about a Country that would follow the Appalachian Mountains. Appalachia would begin in Newfoundland, take in the Maritimes, lop off a slice of
Quebec, and wend its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies down to Alabama. (Nowlan also staunchly backed the Flat Earth Society as everyone knows, the planet Earth abruptly drops off at Fogo Island.)
What do such cartographical fancies have to do with being a writer in the Atlantic Provinces? Quite a lot, actually. Atlantic writers are forever redrawing maps and their location in them. Every important history or anthology that emerges from the region - from Patrick O'Flaherty's The Rock Observed to Janice Kulyk Keefer's Under Eastern Eyes to Mary Dalton's forthcoming comprehensively historical selection of Newfoundland poetry - in fact corrects or challenges centralist notions of what constitutes the ground for a national literature.
The nexus of myths associated with Nature and the North, chiefly Ontario-generated, has no compass bearing for those in the Atlantic region. In particular, the routine romantic demonizing of the North - the terror of the bush, or being bushed - is almost entirely absent from the song and story of Newfoundland, which, after all, has its Labrador. There, the relevant myths are predominantly about sealing and ice-floes. The Laurentian thesis as well, much beloved of centralist historians like Donald Creighton, is largely irrelevant throughout the region - the typical direction is seaward. Maybe even backward: Halifax is probably the only place in Canada that broadcasts a regular regional phone-in about genealogy.
Other differences: nowhere else is land use such a sore spot as it is in P.E.I. -what language is to Quebec, property is to the Island. Yet there's been little evidence there - as there has been on the Prairies of home-brewed political parties or organized rural revolt. On the other hand, the rest of Canada cannot provide the baleful example of entire populations being displaced at one government stroke. A few northern Native communities were uprooted but, with his Newfoundland "resettlement" program Joey Smallwood, that monster of sovietization, wiped out more than 250 outports. The Acadian expulsion of 1758, ranking with the extermination of the Beothuks as a regional war crime, also illustrates how the French Fact is distinctive in Atlantic Canada. The survival of the Acadian people - so brilliantly celebrated in Antonine Maillet's Pilagie and La Sagouine - makes Quebec's past seem cosseted. Acadians did not have a civil code or constitutional guarantees to safeguard their culture. They did have toughness and vitality.
Somehow, none of the above has been perceived as real Canadian history. Newfoundland and the Maritimes became the source of "regional" literatures, and Ontario, for English Canada, became the "centre." (Southern Ontario is, in fact, as much a region as the Saint John River Valley.) Within a homogenizing cultural nationalism, the Atlantic past was relegated to romance and local colour. Consequently, Atlantic literature became trivialized or devalued in a national context - especially if the literature was written by tories.
If, as Hemingway said, all modern American literature derives from a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, Twain himself climbs out of T. C. Haliburton's waistcoat pocket. In The Clockmaker; or the Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville, judge Haliburton not only richly added to the phrasal resources of the language ("it's raining cats and dogs," "he drank like a fish," etc.) but gave America a fluent, flexible colloquial voice in fiction: Sam Slick great-grandfathered the garrulous monologists who dominate the US novel today. Yet, if he's thought of at all, Haliburton's thought of as a "humorist," i.e. a second-class citizen.
Haliburton, the original Red Tory and a typical Janus-faced Atlantic writer, ended his political life as a British MT Sir Andrew Macphail, of Orwell, P.E.I., passed his days as a Montreal physician and McGill professor, a friend and colleague of Stephen Leacock. Not only did Macphail edit the University Magazine, one of the few intelligent periodicals Canada has produced, but, in The Master's Wife and elsewhere, he is unequalled in the country as an aphorist. Macphail's reputation suffers from a double handicap: he was an angry conservative, and he came from an island Canada likes to dress Lip in Anne of Green Gables pinafores. L. M. Montgomery herself, the archetypal writer of "rural idylls" - another belittling label - was far more ambivalent about Island life than we've been led to believe.
Whatever distortions or misconceptions about their original homes may have been prevalent, some Far Easterners came to be the most ardent of pan-Canadian nationalists, or at least, inventors of the paradigms by which cultural and political discourse was conducted. Northrop Frye, the mythopoeic landscape artist, was raised in Moncton, making more surprising his famous howler, "Canada has, for all practical purposes, no Atlantic seaboard" (Tell that to the turn or drug runners!) E. J. Pratt, author of Brebeuf and his Brethren and The Last Spike, was brought up in a succession of outport parishes. In or outside the Maritimes, the editor and critic Malcolm Ross was able to blend regional and national ideals. John Sutherland, of Liverpool, N.S., founded the important little magazine Northern Review in Montreal and, indirectly, the Tarriarack Review in Toronto. A liberal, unitary, bilingual vision of Canada was explicitly or implicitly endorsed by a pair of Cape Bretoners, the novelist Hugh MacLennan and the journalist Blair Fraser - a vision whose avatar was to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
MacLennan and Fraser were examples of a venerable feature of Atlantic life, the individual Local Kid Makes Good, the collective Brain Drain. (The Maritimes has one per cent of the Canadian land surface, and 10 per cent of its brains.) From Confederation onward, Atlantic Canada produced an almost unbroken succession of jurists, theologians, scientists, and scholars - not to mention the prime ministers Tupper and Borden. In the 19th century a single Nova Scotian county, Pictou, yielded the great geologist and author J. W. Dawson, and George Munro Grant, founder of an intellectual dynasty.
There was still enough growth and prosperity in Grant and Dawson's native province to make it plausible that some of their early fame could be won on home ground. But an economic cloud was slowly darkening Atlantic skies, and the post-Confederation gloom was bound to suppress opportunities of all types, making acute the decision whether to stay home or go. Businessmen and artists alike faced this dilemma. Entrepreneurs such as Max Aitken and Izaak Walton Killam made their fortunes in Montreal and London, others - the Sobeys, Irvings, McCains - stayed at home to create serni-feudal family empires. The Atlantic economy, meanwhile, had caught PND disease (Patronage, Nepotism, Dependency).
But even in a society suffering from PND, money can be made. So can art. Best of all if money can be made from art. (Most writers much prefer sales to grants.) If a paying audience and the apparatus of publishing are largely absent, other strategies are applicable. Thus people as distinct in time, place, personality, and style as Charles G. D. Roberts (and his cousins Bliss Carman and Theodore Goodridge Roberts), Kenneth Leslie, Charles Bruce, Mary Grannan, Alistair MacLeod, and Ray Smith hied themselves elsewhere to become journalists, scriptwriters, or teachers.
If you had reliable publishers in Britain and the United States, and if you banked on genres with commercial potential - the rural or children's idyll, the animal story, the historical romance - it was sometimes possible, if seldom easy, to remain in the place you loved. L. M. Montgomery wrote her first bestseller while still living in P. E. 1. Darker side notwithstanding, Montgomery was a consummate pro writing for the market, and belonged to a succession that includes Marshall Saunders (Beautiful Joe) and James DeMille of Halifax and, in Saint John, May Agnes Fleming and, much later, the indefatigable Dan Ross, a one-man assembly line for novels. Thomas Raddall was able to fashion successful historical novels (Roger Sudden, His Majesty's Yankees) from sturdy local materials.
For some writers, however they survived, the Atlantic region has simply been a good place to live. (Even some Americans - Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand - temporarily availed themselves of the privilege.) Alden Nowlan, Harold Horwood, and David Adams Richards never left, Ernest Buckler and Milton Acorn returned. The traditional values of small communities, unspoiled pockets of rural beauty, proximity to the sea, even the rare teaching job - these and many other reasons have drawn fiction writers like Nancy Bauer, Ann Copeland, J. J. Steinfeld, H. R. Percy, and Susan Kerslake, poets like John Steffler and Liliane Welch, nonfiction writers like Farley Mowat, Harry Bruce (simultaneously regaining his family roots), and Silver Donald Cameron. Some of the in-comers even started presses. Libby Oughton began Ragweed Press in P.E.I. (and, before her, there was Reshard Gool with Square Deal Publications); Lesley Choyce, a cottage industry unto himself, founded Pottersfield Press in Porters Lake, N.S.
Ragweed and Pottersfield were valuable additions to what passed for a literary infrastructure in the Atlantic Provinces, as were Clyde Rose's Breakwater in St. John's and Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton. Yet the networks yielding productive co-operation and collaboration - the exchange and interchange of writing, editing, and publishing - have been scattered points of light. They tend to be confined to the four provincial writers' organizations, the small presses - Germination, Tickle Ace, Joe Blades's various enterprises - and university English departments. Memorial, St. Francis Xavier, St. Mary's, the University of New Brunswick - all house clusters of writers or usefully persistent journals I like the Antigonish Review, the Atlantic Provinces Book Review, and, most enduringly, The Fiddlehead.
Of the writer-professors, the greatest animateur of them all has been Fred Cogswell in Fredericton, especially with his Fiddlehead Poetry Books (now annexed by Goose Lane). As teacher, publisher, editor, critic, and translator, Cogswell has always been magnanimously, unselfishly devoted to new writing.
The new writing in the Atlantic region now includes a revival of Acadian literature (chronicled by Henri-Dominique Paratte in the January/February 1986 Books in Canada) and, after centuries of systematic exclusion, the emergence of voices (George Elliott Clarke's for one) from Black, Micmac, Maliseet, possibly even Innu communities. Yet, although writers in the present or recent past may he associated with communities or regions (John Thompson and Douglas Lochhead with the Tantramar, David Adams Richards with the Miramichi), and although a case can be made for a cousinly relationship between the region's poetry and the magic realism of Alex Colville and Christopher Pratt, there is no Atlantic School of anything.
This, of course, makes it easier for the region to be overlooked or patronized by the rest of Canada, and for the work of fine poets I like Kay Smith and Dorothy Roberts to be slighted. In any case, a region that can boast a young-adults' writer like Kevin Major, a poet like Don Domanski, a science writer like Harry Thurston, a translator like Betty Bednarski, and a satirical troupe like Codco, does not require the approval of outsiders to be reasonably pleased with the quality of its work.
When the historian George Rawlyk tells us in the Canadian Encyclopedia that "Confederation in 1949 began the difficult process of transforming Newfoundlanders to Canadians," it sounds as if he thinks these Martians began to be processed, with difficulty, into Earthlings. More seriously, the implication is that there's a troublesome contradiction between nationalities. As it happens, there may be irreconcilable contradictions among nationalities within the Atlantic area. In many respects - the linguistic riches of their folklore, folksongs, and folkways; the innate, sure-footed sense of themselves as a people - Newfoundlanders resemble Quebecois much more than they do Maritimers. For such reasons, it is probably true that as an independent entity Atlantia - or the parts thereof - would have had the longevity of the Republic of Vermont. Anyway, the embryonic Atlantia did buy or was bribed into the irrational map (Credo quia absurdum est) or facilitating fiction we call Canada. If, by a clumsy failure of the imagination, that map should he shredded or that fiction should come to an end, in Atlantia one Would still find - as Gertrude Stein did not find in Oakland, California - a lot of there, there.