When Canadian Literature Moved to New York

by Nick Mount
210 pages,
ISBN: 080203828X

Post Your Opinion
Early CanLit and the Lure of New York
by W. J. Keith

The provocative title of Nick Mount's book draws attention to a historical phenomenon that students of early Canadian literature have recognized but have failed to explore to any depth: the fact that Canada and Canadians in the late nineteenth century wanted a distinctive Canadian literature but were not prepared to pay for it. Because it was virtually impossible for any Canadian writer to make a living through literaturełeven so-called "popular" literaturełin his or her own country, economic considerations impelled large numbers to seek fame or fortune (or both) abroad, generally in the United States, and most often in New York. As Charles G. D. Roberts remarked in "The Poet is Bidden to Manhattan Island" (a poem Mount rather surprisingly doesn't quote), "Your poet's eye must recognize / The side on which your bread is buttered!" Though doubtless more playful than earnest, he was acknowledging the hard facts of life when he urged his literary countrymen: "Make no delay, but come this way, / And pipe for them that pay the piper."
Mount's book zeros in on this fact, and demonstrates its force, first with an array of statistics (he hazards "the conservative estimate that between 1880 and 1900 upwards of two hundred Canadian writers either quit their profession or their country"), then with succinct accounts of individual writers who moved to New York and how they fared there. Some of these writers are still well known, if only sporadically read (Roberts, Bliss Carman, Ernest Thompson Seton); others are now so obscure that even specialists have probably not heard of them.
This is, then, an important and neglected subject of considerable interest, though anyone who tackles it risks getting entangled in reams of dull material and producing "dryasdust" commentary. Fortunately, this is not the case here. Mount, besides showing himself a persistent and meticulous researcher, possesses a sound literary-critical sense and (perhaps even more desirable in this context) a keen sense of humour. While never betraying the seriousness of his topic, he writes brightly and amusingly whenever the opportunity arises. Thus his epigraph reads as follows: "'What are the only two books in the Old Testament that describe Canada?' Answer: 'Lamentations and Exodus.'ł Canadian joke, circa 1890s." And his Introduction opens: "They laid Bliss Carman in his grave and Canadian literature began almost immediately." Mount always writes clearly and cogently, and whenever possible wittily. He is thus an ideal guide to this little-known material.
By no means the least valuable fruits of Mount's research are the stories of now-forgotten writers who succeeded in adapting to new conditions and were able to place their work with New York publishers and editors. These include Harvey O'Higgins with his stories of the New York Fire Department, Arthur E. McFarlane with his investigative non-fiction articles, Sophie Almon Hensley's activist writings, and, most notably, "Palmer Cox, the Brownie Man," whose children's stories were the turn-of-the-century equivalents, if not of the Harry Potter books, at least of the fiction of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Almost all this material, of course, belongs to the realm of "popular culture", and it is important to insist that Mount, while stressing its historical and sociological achievement, does not fall into the trap of exaggerating its literary significance. On the contrary, the topic allows him to raise some awkward questions about the odd inclusions and exclusions in our official literary history. As he notes: "With the possible exception of Lucy Maud Montgomery, Cox achieved more fame in his day than any Canadian before him, or since." Yet Cox is totally ignored by all the standard literary reference books, while Montgomery gets eleven references in the original Literary History of Canada and five columns (!) in both the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Mount's summing-up is honestly personal and admirably balanced: "Both Cox and Montgomery had skill: it takes a rare talent to create characters so many readers embraced. But both are also marred by such descents into clichT and formula that I can neither respond to their work aesthetically nor make an aesthetic judgment between them." His point is not that Cox ought to be brought into the canon but that Montgomery should never have been admitted in the first place.
The comment just quoted derives from Mount's concluding chapter, "Exodus Lost", which is perhaps the most important because, on the basis of the discoveries revealed in the earlier part of the book, he ends by challenging a number of Canadian cultural myths. One is the idea that Canadian writing has never been welcomed abroad. In fact, editors and publishers at this period were happy to accept contributions from Canadiansłand these included serious poetry as well as mass-circulation fiction. Again, the very concept of "Canadian-ness" is brought into question. Mount remarks, somewhat puckishly: "It might be fun to ask the young Margaret Atwood [i.e., the stridently nationalistic Atwood of Survival] why, if Ernest Thompson Seton's animal stories are so "distinctively Canadian," only two of his more than thirty books are in print in Canada todayłand why twenty-one of these books are in print in America, from publishers spanning the gamut from mass-market children's book companies to scholarly reprint houses." One might also add that the respective reputations of Cox and Montgomery should cause reasonable feminists to think again about the supposedly entrenched bias against women's writing. One of Mount's radical arguments concerns our whole attitude to the literary exodus to New York. Canadians have tended to lament the loss of native talent, but Mount argues more positively. Whatever the hypothetical losses, Canadian literature benefited, he claims, from the American publishing situation that enabled Canadian writers to appear in print when adequate outlets did not exist in Canada itself. In fact, while piping for those who paid the piper, these writers laid a viable foundation for Canadian literary development. It is possible, of course, to formulate counter-arguments, but Mount has done well to open up the issue for further debate, to shatter the assumption that the current favoured version of our literary past is sacrosanct and unchallengeable.
Above all, given Palmer Cox's dramatic descent from fame to oblivion, it would be salutary to reconsider our current tendency to gauge our contemporary literature by reference to sales-figures. Mount questions the assumption, then as now, "that Canadians didn't read books," but notes that Canadian authors in the 1880s and 1890s complained of "the country's deficient readership" because "they just didn't read . . . the right books." Have things changed? Interested persons may consult the best-seller lists in this issue of Books in Canadałand form their own conclusions.

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