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English-Canadian Literature

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

1. English-Canadian Literature is marked by the weaknesses as well as the merits of colonial life. The struggle for existence, the conquering of the wilderness, has left scant room for broad culture or scholarship, and the very fact that Canada is a colony, however free to control her own affairs, has stood in the way of the creation of anything like a national literature. And yet, while Canada’s intellectual product is essentially an offshoot of the parent literature of England, it is not entirely devoid of originality, either in manner or matter. There is in much of it a spirit of freedom and youthful vigour characteristic of the country. It is marked by the wholesomeness of Canadian life and Canadian ideals, and the optimism of a land of limitless potentialities.

The first few decades of the period of British rule were lean years indeed so far as native literature is concerned. This period of unrest gave birth to little beyond a flood of political pamphlets, of no present value save as material for the historian. We may perhaps except the able though thoroughly partisan writings of Sir John Beverley Robinson and Bishop Strachan on the one side, and Robert Fleming Gourlay and William Lyon Mackenzie on the other. In the far West, however, a little group of adventurous fur-traders, of whom Sir Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, Alexander Henry and Daniel Williams Harmon may be taken as conspicuous types, were unfolding the vast expanse of the future dominion. They were men of action, not of words, and had no thought of literary fame, but their absorbingly interesting journals are none the less an essential part of the literature of the country.

Barring the work of Francis Parkman, who was not a Canadian, no history of the first rank has yet been written in or of Canada. Canadian historians have not merely lacked so far the genius for really great historical work, but they have lacked the point of view; they have stood too close to their subject to get the true perspective. At the same time they have brought together invaluable material for the great historian of the future. Robert Christie’s History of Lower Canada (1848-1854) was the first serious attempt to deal with the period of British rule. William Kingsford’s (1819-1898) ambitious work, in ten volumes, comes down like Christie’s to the Union of 1841, but goes back to the very beginnings of Canadian history. In the main it is impartial and accurate, but the style is heavy and sometimes slovenly. J.C. Dent’s (1841-1888) Last Forty Years (1880) is practically a continuation of Kingsford. Dent also wrote an interesting though one-sided account of the rebellion of 1837. Histories of the maritime provinces have been written by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Beamish Murdoch and James Hannay. Haliburton’s is much the best of the three. The brief but stirring history of western Canada has been told by Alexander Begg (1840-1898); and George Bryce (b. 1844) and Beckles Willson (b. 1869) have written the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Much scholarship and research have been devoted to local and special historical subjects, a notable example of which is Arthur Doughty’s exhaustive work on the siege of Quebec. J. McMullen (b. 1820), Charles Roberts (b. 1860) and Sir John Bourinot (1837-1902) have written brief and popular histories, covering the whole field of Canadian history more or less adequately. Alpheus Todd’s (1821-1884) Parliamentary Government in England (1867-1869) and Parliamentary Government in the British Colonies (1880) are standard works, as is also Bourinot’s Parliamentary Procedure and Practice (1884).

Biography has been devoted mainly to political subjects. The best of these are Joseph Pope’s Memoirs of Sir John Macdonald (1894), W.D. le Sueur’s Frontenac (1906), Sir John Bourinot’s Lord Elgin (1905), Jean McIlwraith’s Sir Frederick Haldimand (1904), D.C. Scott’s John Graves Simcoe (1905), A.D. de Celles’ Papineau and Cartier(1904), Charles Lindsey’s William Lyon Mackenzie (1862), J.W. Longley’s Joseph Howe (1905) and J.S. Willison’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1903).

In belles lettres very little has been accomplished, unless we may count Goldwin Smith (q.v.) as a Canadian. As a scholar, a thinker, and a master of pure English he has exerted a marked influence upon Canadian literature and Canadian life.

While mediocrity is the prevailing characteristic of most of what passes for poetry in Canada, a few writers have risen to a higher level. The conditions of Canadian life have not been favourable to the birth of great poets, but within the limits of their song such men as Archibald Lampman (1861-1891), William Wilfred Campbell (b. 1861), Charles Roberts, Bliss Carman (b. 1861) and George Frederick Cameron have written lines that are well worth remembering. Lampman’s poetry is the most finished and musical. He fell short of being a truly great poet, inasmuch as great poetry must, which his does not, touch life at many points, but his verses are marked by the qualities that belonged to the man—sincerity, purity, seriousness. Campbell’s poetry, in spite of a certain lack of compression, is full of dramatic vigour: Roberts has put some of his best work into sonnets and short lyrics, while Carman has been very successful with the ballad, the untrammelled swing and sweep of which he has finely caught; the simplicity and severity of Cameron’s style won the commendation of even so exacting a critic as Matthew Arnold. One remarkable drama—Charles Heavysege’s (1816-1876) Saul (1857)—belongs to Canadian literature. Though unequal in execution, it contains passages of exceptional beauty and power. The sweetness and maturity of Isabella Valency Crawford’s (1851-1887) verse are also very worthy of remembrance. The habitantpoems of Dr W.H. Drummond (1854-1907) stand in a class by themselves, between English and French Canadian literature, presenting the simple life of the habitant with unique humour and picturesqueness.

The first distinctively Canadian novel was John Richardson’s (1796-1852) Wacousta (1832), a stirring tale of the war of 1812. Richardson afterwards wrote half a dozen other romances, dealing chiefly with incidents in Canadian history. Susanna Moodie (1803-1885) and Katharine Parr Traill (1802-1899), sisters of Agnes Strickland, contributed novels and tales to one of the earliest and best of Canadian magazines, the Literary Garland (1838-1847). The Golden Dog, William Kirby’s (1817-1906) fascinating romance of old Quebec, appeared in 1877, in a pirated edition. Twenty years later the first authorized edition was published. James de Mille (1833-1880) was the author of some thirty novels, the best of which isHelena’s Household (1868), a story of Rome in the 1st century. The Dodge Club (1869), a humorous book of travel, appeared, curiously enough, a few months before Innocents Abroad. De Mille’s posthumous novel, A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), describes a singular race whose cardinal doctrine is that poverty is honourable and wealth the reverse. Sir Gilbert Parker (b. 1862) stands first among contemporary Canadian novelists. He has made admirable use in many of his novels of the inexhaustible stores of romantic and dramatic material that lie buried in forgotten pages of Canadian history. Of later Canadian novelists mention may be made of Sara Jeannette Duncan (Mrs Everard Cotes, b. 1862), Ralph Connor (Charles W. Gordon, b. 1866), Agnes C. Laut (b. 1872), W.A. Fraser (b. 1859) and Ernest Thompson Seton (b. 1860). Thomas Chandler Haliburton (q.v.) stands in a class by himself. In many respects his is the most striking figure in Canadian literature. He is best known as a humorist, and as a humorist he ranks with the creators of “My Uncle Toby” and “Pickwick.” But there is more than humour in Haliburton’s books. He lacked, in fact, but one thing to make him a great novelist: he had no conception of how to construct a plot. But he knew human nature, and knew it intimately in all its phases; he could construct a character and endow it with life; his people talk naturally and to the point; and many of his descriptive passages are admirable. Those who read Haliburton’s books only for the sake of the humour will miss much of their value. His inimitableClockmaker (1837), as well as the later books, The Old Judge (1849), The Attaché (1843), Wise Saws and Modern Instances (1853) and Nature and Human Nature (1855), are mirrors of colonial life and character.

For general treatment of English-Canadian literature, reference may be made to Sir John Bourinot’s Intellectual Development of the Canadian People (1881); G. Mercer Adam’s Outline History of Canadian Literature (1887); “Native Thought and Literature,” in J.E. Collins’s Life of Sir John A. Macdonald (1883); “Canadian Literature,” by J.M. Oxley, in the Encyclopaedia Americana, vol. ix. (1904); A. MacMurchy’s Handbook of Canadian Literature (1906); and articles by J. Castell Hopkins, John Reade, A.B. de Mille and Thomas O’Hagan, in vol. v. of Canada: an Encyclopaedia of the Country (1898-1900); also to Henry J. Morgan’s Bibliotheca Canadensis (1867) and Canadian Men and Women of the Time(1898); W.D. Lighthall, Songs of the Great Dominion; Theodore Rand’s Treasury of Canadian Verse (1900); C.C. James’s Bibliography of Canadian Verse (1898); L.E. Horning’s and L.J. Burpee’s Bibliography of Canadian Fiction (1904); S.E. Dawson’s Prose Writers of Canada(1901); “Canadian Poetry,” by J.A. Cooper, in The National, 29, p. 364; “Recent Canadian Fiction,” by L.J. Burpee, in The Forum, August 1899. For individual authors, see Haliburton’s A Centenary Chaplet (1897), with a bibliography; “Haliburton,” by F. Blake Crofton, in Canada: an Encyclopaedia of the Country; C.H. Farnham’s Life of Francis Parkman and H.D. Sedgwick’s Francis Parkman (1901); and articles on “Parkman,” by E.L. Godkin, in The Nation, 71, p. 441; by Justin Winsor in The Atlantic, 73, p. 660; by W.D. Howells, The Atlantic, 34, p. 602; by John Fiske,The Atlantic, 73, p. 664; by J.B. Gilder in The Critic, 23, p. 322; “Goldwin Smith as a Critic,” by H. Spencer, Contemp. Review, 41, p. 519; “Goldwin Smith’s Historical Works,” by C.E. Norton, North American Review, 99, p. 523; “Poetry of Charles Heavysege,” by Bayard Taylor,Atlantic, 16, p. 412; “Charles Heavysege,” by L.J. Burpee, in Trans. Royal Society of Canada, 1901; “Archibald Lampman,” by W.D. Howells,Literature (N.Y.), 4, p. 217; “Archibald Lampman,” by L.J. Burpee, in North American Notes and Queries (Quebec), August and September 1900; “Poetry of Bliss Carman,” by J.P. Mowbray, Critic, 41, p. 308; “Isabella Valency Crawford,” in Poet-Lore (Boston), xiii. No. 4; Roberts and the Influences of his Time (1906), by James Cappon; “William Wilfred Campbell,” Sewanee Review, October 1900; “Kingsford’s History of Canada,” by G.M. Wrong, N.A. Review, I p. 550; “Books of Gilbert Parker,” by C.A. Pratt, Critic, 33, p. 271.

(L. J. B.)

2. French-Canadian Literature at the opening of the 20th century might be described as entirely the work of two generations, and it was separated from the old régime by three more generations whose racial sentiment only found expression in the traditional songs and tales which their forefathers of the 17th century had brought over from the mère patrie. Folk-lore has always been the most essentially French of all imaginative influences in Canadian life; and the songs are the quintessence of the lore. Not that the folk-songs have no local variants. Indian words, like moccasin andtoboggan, are often introduced. French forms are freely turned into pure Canadianisms, like cageux, raftsman, boucane, brushwood smoke, portage, &c. New characters, which appeal more directly to the local audience, sometimes supplant old ones, like the quatre vieux sauvages who have ousted the time-honoured quatre-z-officiers from the Canadian version of Malbrouk. There are even a few entire songs of transatlantic origin. But all these variants together are mere stray curios among the crowding souvenirs of the old home over sea. No other bridge can rival le Pont d’Avignon. “Ici” inC’est le ban vin qui danse ici can be nowhere else but in old France—le ban vin alone proves this. And the Canadian folk-singer, though in a land of myriad springs, still goes à la claire fontaine of his ancestral fancy; while the lullabies his mother sang him, like the love-songs with which he serenades his blonde, were nearly all sung throughout the Normandy of le Grand Monarque. The habitant was separated from old-world changes two centuries ago by difference of place and circumstances, while he has hitherto been safeguarded from many new-world changes by the segregative influences of race, religion, language and custom; and so his folk-lore still remains the intimate alter et idem of what it was in the days of the great pioneers. It is no longer a living spirit among the people at large; but in secluded villages and “back concessions” one can still hear some charming melodies as old and pure as the verses to which they are sung, and even a few quaint survivals of Gregorian tunes. The best collection, more particularly from the musical point of view, is Les Chansons populaires du Canada, started by Ernest Gagnon (1st ed. 1865).

Race-patriotism is the distinguishing characteristic of French-Canadian literature, which is so deeply rooted in national politics that L.J. Papineau, the most insistent demagogue of 1837, must certainly be named among the founders, for the sake of speeches which came before written works both in point of time and popular esteem. Only 360 volumes had been published during 80 years, when, in 1845, the first famous book appeared—François Xavier Garneau’s (1809-1866) Histoire du Canada. It had immense success in Canada, was favourably noticed in France, and has influenced all succeeding men of letters. Unfortunately, the imperfect data on which it is based, and the too exclusively patriotic spirit in which it is written, prevent it from being an authoritative history: the author himself declares “Vous verrez si la défaite de nos ancêtres ne vaut pas toutes las victoires.” But it is of far-reaching importance as the first great literary stimulus to racial self-respect. “Le Canada français avait perdu ses Ictlres de noblesse; Garneau les lui a rendues.” F.X. Garneau is also remembered for his poems, and he was followed by his son Alfred Garneau (1836-1904).

A. Gérin-Lajoie was a mere lad when the exile of some compatriots inspired Le Canadien errant, which immediately became a universal folk-song. Many years later he wrote discriminatingly about those Dix ans au Canada (1888) that saw the establishment of responsible government. But his fame rests on Jean Rivard (1874), the prose bucolic of the habitant. The hero, left at the head of a fatherless family of twelve when nearly through college, turns from the glut of graduates swarming round the prospects of professional city-bred careers, steadfastly wrests a home from the wilderness, helps his brothers and sisters, marries a habitante fit for the wife of a pioneer, brings up a large family, and founds a settlement which grows into several parishes and finally becomes the centre of the electoral district of “Rivardville,” which returns him to parliament. These simple and earnest Scènes de la vie réelle are an appealing revelation of that eternal secret of the soil which every people wishing to have a country of its own must early lay to heart; and Jean Rivard, le défricheur, will always remain the eponym of the new colons of the 19th century.

Philippe de Gaspé’s historical novel, Les Anciens Canadiens (1863), is the complement of Garneau and Gérin-Lajoie. Everything about the author’s life helped him to write this book. Born in 1784, and brought up among reminiscent eye-witnesses of the old régime, he was an eager listener, with a wonderful memory and whole-hearted pride in the glories of his race and family, a kindly seigneur, who loved and was loved by all his censitaires, a keen observer of many changing systems, down to the final Confederation of 1867, and a man who had felt both extremes of fortune (Mémoires, 1866). The story rambles rather far from its well-worn plot. But these very digressions give the book its intimate and abiding charm; for they keep the reader in close personal touch with every side of Canadian life, with songs and tales and homely forms of speech, with the best features of seigniorial times and the strong guidance of an ardent church, with voyageurs, coureurs de bois, Indians, soldiers, sailors and all the strenuous adventurers of a wild, new, giant world. The poet of this little band of authors was Octave Crémazie, a Quebec bookseller, who failed in business and spent his last years as a penniless exile in France. He is usually rather too derivative, he lacks the saving grace of style, and even his best Canadian poems hardly rise above fervent occasional verse. Yet he became a national poet, because he was the first to celebrate occasions of deeply felt popular emotion in acceptable rhyme, and he will always remain one because each occasion touched some lasting aspiration of his race. He sings what Garneau recounts—the love of mother country, mother church and Canada. The Guerre de Crimée, Guerre d’ltalie, even Castel-fidardo, are duly chronicled. An ode on Mgr. de Montmorency-Laval, first bishop of Quebec, brings him nearer to his proper themes, which are found in full perfection in the Chant du vieux soldat canadien, composed in 1856 to honour the first French man-of-war that visited British Quebec, and Le Drapeau de Carillon (1858), a centennial paean for Montcalm’s Canadians at Ticonderoga. Much of the mature work of this first generation, and of the juvenilia of the second, appeared in Les Soirées canadiennes and Le Foyer canadien, founded in 1862 and 1863 respectively. The abbé Ferland was an enthusiastic editor and historian, and Etienne Parent should be remembered as the first Canadian philosopher.

At Confederation many eager followers began to take up the work which the founders were laying down. The abbé Casgrain devoted a life-time to making the French-Canadians appear as the chosen people of new-world history; but, though an able advocate, he spoilt a really good case by trying to prove too much. His Pèlerinage au pays d’Evangéline (1888) is a splendid defence of the unfortunate Acadians; and all his books attract the reader by their charm of style and personality. But his Montcalm et Lévis (1891) and other works on the conquest, are all warped by a strong bias against both Wolfe and Montcalm, and in favour of Vandreuil, the Canadian-born governor; while they show an inadequate grasp of military problems, and practically ignore the vast determining factor of sea-power altogether. Benjamin Sulte’s comprehensive Histoire des Canadiens-français (1882) is a well-written, many-sided work. Thomas Chapais’ monographs are as firmly grounded as they are finely expressed; his Jean Talon (1904) is of prime importance; and his Montcalm (1901) is the generous amende honorable paid by French-Canadian literature to a much misrepresented, but admirably wrought, career. A. Gérin-Lajoie’s cry of “back to the land” was successfully adapted to modern developments in Le Saguenay (1896) andL’Outaouais supérieur (1889) by Arthur Buies, who showed what immense inland breadths of country lay open to suitable “Jean Rivards” from the older settlements along the St Lawrence. In oratory, which most French-Canadians admire beyond all other forms of verbal art, Sir Wilfrid Laurier has greatly surpassed L.J. Papineau, by dealing with more complex questions, taking a higher point of view, and expressing himself with a much apter flexibility of style.

Among later poets may be mentioned Pierre Chauveau (1820-1890), Louis Fiset, (b. 1827), and Adolphe Poisson (b. 1849). Louis Fréchette (1830-1908) has, however, long been the only poet with a reputation outside of Canada. In 1879 Les Fleurs boréales won the Prix Monthyon from the French Academy. In 1887 La Légende d’un peuple became the acknowledged epic of a race. He occasionally nods; is rather strident in the patriotic vein; and too often answers the untoward call of rhetoric when his subject is about to soar into the heights of poetry. But a rich vocabulary, a mastery of verse-forms quite beyond the range of Crémazie, real originality of conception, individual distinction of style, deep insight into the soul of his people, and, still more, the glow of warm-blooded life pulsing through the whole poem, all combine to give him the greatest place at home and an important one in the world at large. Les Vengeances (1875), by Leon Pamphile Le May, and Les Aspirations (1904), by W. Chapman, worthily represent the older and younger contemporaries. Dr Nérée Beauchemin keeps within somewhat narrow limits in Les Floraisons matutinales (1897); but within them he shows true poetic genius, a fine sense of rhythm, rhyme and verbal melody, a curiosa felicitas of epithet and phrase, and so sure an eye for local colour that a stranger could choose no better guide to the imaginative life of Canada.

A Canadian drama hardly exists; among its best works are the pleasantly epigrammatic plays of F.G. Marchand. Novels are not yet much in vogue; though Madame Conan’s L’Oublié (1902) has been crowned by the Academy; while Dr Choquette’s Les Ribaud (1898) is a good dramatic story, and his Claude Paysan (1899) is an admirably simple idyllic tale of the hopeless love of a soil-bound habitant, told with intense natural feeling and fine artistic reserve. Chief-Justice Routhier, a most accomplished occasional writer, is very French-Canadian when arraigning Les Grands Drames of the classics (1889) before his ecclesiastical court and finding them guilty of Paganism.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things