Beyond the Provinces:
Literary Canada at Century's End

92 pages,
ISBN: 0802006522

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Fished Up by Double Hook?
by Michael Peterman

This short book is the text of three F.E.L. Priestley lectures delivered in 1994 by David Staines at University College, University of Toronto. "Deliberately written within a millennial perspective," they look back in order to see forward. Their aim is to measure and account for the "astonishing growth" of "literary Canada" from "colonial mentality" (here deemed bad, as in "second-rate", "inferior", or "inconsequential") to post-colonial outlook (deemed very good indeed). Staines provides an amiable, readable, and necessarily selective reading of that progress. A professor and administrator at the University of Ottawa who has been involved in the awarding of the Giller Prize and the Leacock Medal for humour, and who is Malcolm Ross's successor as the editor of McClelland & Stewart's revamped New Canadian Library series, he is well-placed to assess the "spectacular" development of writing in Canada in the latter half of the twentieth century. Certainly, anyone who, like Staines, has had the opportunity to observe, participate in, and be touched by that extraordinary growth since the late 1960s, must share a desire to understand what happened and to locate the pulse of that evolution. What then does Staines give us? And how does he shape his analysis? His major concern is to make clear the extent to which Canada has overcome its colonial past and become a particular and valued voice in the larger North American and world scene. It is difficult to disagree with his sense that, at some point past mid-century, a new confidence in the "here" of Canada (from Northrop Frye's much-discussed question, "Where is here?") began to emerge among certain Canadian writers and critics. That confident voice, be it creative or critical, is characterized by Staines as dispassionate, impartial, and non-judgemental at its most distinctive.
His first chapter, "The Old Countries Recede", assesses the weaknesses in the colonial outlook and identifies the publication of Sheila Watson's The Double Hook in 1959 as "the end of colonial writing" and the emergence of a mature and "accepted selfhood" in Canadian writing. By additional reference to the Massey Commission (1951) and the critical work of E. K. Brown, Staines makes a strong case for the 1950s as the crucial decade in Canada's process of cultural maturation. The second chapter, "The Dispassionate Witness", is by far the most curious in its approach. It looks not at Canadian writing but at various representations of Canadians in American books, culminating in William Faulkner's use of an Albertan, Shreve McCannon, in Absalom, Absalom (1936), as the dispassionate critic of Quentin Compson's convoluted Southern vision. The final chapter, "The Critical Horizon", studies the evolution of a distinctive critical voice in Canada. It begins with E. K. Brown and his rejection of Matthew Arnold's centralist view of culture, then moves through Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan (the book is dedicated to them) to the more recent work of Robert Kroetsch and Linda Hutcheon. In the final pages Staines offers some parting-though ineffectual-shots at critics like Frank Davey, Robert Lecker, and John Metcalf who do not, he suggests, measure up to Frye's critical ideals.
While agreeing with the general outlines of Staines's presentation, the reader may bridle at various of the assertions, readings, selective omissions, and verbal confusions along the way. Some of these derive from hastiness of definition. The Double Hook (1959) is praised as the "beginning of the post-colonial voice in Canadian fiction" because on the one hand it rejected regionalism and on the other made "the implicit declaration that true Canadian regionalism must be an unapologetic employment of the regional in the universal." But W. O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind -published in 1947, a decade earlier-is unapologetic in its use of the regional and successful in its location of the universal in the local. It is true that the modernist and poetic aspects of The Double Hook have made it seem a rare and distinctive text to critics like Robert Kroetsch. Staines discusses Kroetsch's views, but his phrasing obscures some of Kroetsch's sharp distinctions. In general, Staines seems to have little interest in the factor of region in Canadian writing. Most Canadians, however, have produced a geographically diverse and place-rooted literature. Look to the bulk of Atwood's fiction, or Munro's, or Urquhart's, or Richards's, or Kroetsch's.
Staines praises The Double Hook as "the first novel that is unselfconsciously Canadian," but then praises later novels (which he calls "Canadian Kunstlerromans") as "a final testimony to the self-consciousness and maturity of Canadian fiction." One wonders if self-consciousness is a virtue, or not. Staines appears to shift his position on another point as well. On the one hand, he criticizes William French of the Globe and Mail for dwelling too much on extra-national recognition of Canadian literary achievement. On the other, congratulating a now self-confident culture in which "foreign approbation is unnecessary," he himself delights in noting the Booker Prize nominations copped by the winners of the Governor General's Awards for fiction from 1990 to 1993.
Some omissions also detract from the book's usefulness and authority. In particular, the colonial world of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Canada is given short shrift. The problems of finding a publisher and of book publishing in a small market, the struggles of writers to find a "Canadian" subject, point of view, and voice, and the racial priorities and biases of most British immigrants are overlooked and bypassed. Thus, John Richardson, Catharine Parr Traill, Charles Sangster, William Kirby, Susanna Moodie (Upper Canada's self-conscious "daughter by adoption"), Archibald Lampman, Sara Jeannette Duncan are not to be found in the book's first chapter. I believe this raises some difficulties. How, for instance, do you measure growth without assessing points of origin? To my mind, no novel speaks more fully to the complexities of Ontario and Canada in their late colonial phase than Duncan's The Imperialist. Weigh such omissions against the inclusion of a two-page quotation from Ralph Connor's Corporal Cameron (1912) and you have a gauge of the kind of selectivity in operation here. And this observation is not meant as discredit to Connor, whom students today still find readable and enjoyable.
Perhaps, then, it is sufficient to say that the weaknesses of the first chapter are a signal of the problems that confront David Staines in working in so confined a space, and in the public lecture genre. A millennial look at the development of Canadian literature since colonial times requires more detail and closer attention, both to the realities of the book trade in the country and the many important individual contributions to that "astonishing growth".

Michael Peterman is chair of the department of English at Trent University. He is one of the editors-with Carl Ballstadt and Elizabeth Hopkins-of I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill, published in November by the University of Toronto Press.


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