Literary Images of Ontario

by W. J. Keith,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0802034705

An Independent Stance

by W. J. Keith,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0889841217

Post Your Opinion
The Critic Criticized
by Clint Burnham

AT THE START of An Independent Stance, W. J. Keith forthrightly states his guiding theory for literary criticism: the enterprise is an ethical art, and must not shirk the task of evaluation. This stance is demonstrated ably in this volume, as well as his Literary Images of Ontario: my problem is that I don't think the position is really "independent," nor do I think that Keith shows why criticism should be that evaluative art.

Keith is a petit John Metcalf, but his attempts to distance his project from the past few decades of literary theory lack

Metcalf's rigour and acidity. Metcalf's willingness to name names forces his broadsides to be accurate and specific. Keith is vague and merely shrill when puts forward the argument that recent decades have seen an upsurge of literary classification in the tradition of Linnaean botany ... literary critical articles are often adorned with complex, scientific diagrams ... [and] literary theories are propounded and propagated like scientific hypotheses....

The charges are so wide open that it's difficult to know if Keith is critical of genre theory, semiotics, or narratology: and most critics, on the contrary, usually stick with one form of theory. More likely, Keith is unhappy with the variety of interpretive positions available to young critics today, an unhappiness that comes to the fore when he uses an unpublished feminist essay (presumably by a student) as the occasion for the closing piece in An Independent Stance, "Interpreting and Misinterpreting 'Bluebeard's Egg': A Cautionary Tale." Keith warns the reader "of what can happen if one begins from a theoretical position and imposes it upon a work of art to which it is not suited." Oddly enough, Keith is not able to resist, in the course of this book, using some of the terminology of literary theory, particularly "deconstruction": Munro "deconstructs the story she appears to be creating," Lady Oracle is "a deconstruction -of virtually everything," and, in a passage that undoubtedly alarmed Metcalf, Keith says that he cannot "go along with you [Metcalf! totally in your 'deconstruction' of the idea of a Canadian tradition." The amusing idea of Metcalf and Jacques Derrida sharing laughs over a Pernod notwithstanding, Keith's sloppy and even journalistic use of "deconstruction" demonstrates a fundamental inadequacy at the heart of his critical enterprise.

This is also evident in Literary Images of Ontario, a catalogue of English writing and description about Ontario since the early 19th century. The book is a lugubrious memorial both to Keith's methodology"going through the book marking such words" is what he calls it in An Independent Stance - and to a WASPish set of literary giants (Lampman, Moodie, Hood, Munro). Keith focuses on images in a remarkably static way: for instance, he sees the Lampman sonnet "Solitude," where the rhetoric of the sublime is forced up against a raucous wildlife, as merely "reproducing a personal, human experience." And where Morley Callaghan's novels of the '30s frequently describe the encroachment of a modem electrified city upon the old brick Toronto, Keith finds only a prose where "moral landscape takes precedence over realistic topography."

Keith's image-hunt is also limited by his view of non-Anglo-Saxon writers. Austin Clarke and Mary di Michele are trapped in the role of providing new and exotic views of Rosedale and Toronto, their places prescribed by their ethnic origins in ways that Margaret Atwood's or Christopher Dewdney's never were. Caribbean and "oriental" people also play a role in Keith's curious epilogue, where he describes the people who frolic on the park near his house. "Now I lay down my pen, move to my window, and look out over the leafy expanse of green to Wells Hill Park from the house in which I have lived for over twenty years," Keith writes (or, we presume, dictates, since he's put his pen down), adding his own images of multicultural voyeurism to a waning tradition already replete with Anglo-Saxon presumption.


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