Northern Reviews Re-viewed
Hilda M.C. Vanneste, Northern Review 1945-1956: a History and an Index. Ottawa: The Tecumseh Press, 1982.
One of the problems with Canadian literature as a field for academic inquiry is the dearth of published literary history and factual analysis. Many critics are ready to write explication and interpretation, much of it very good, but there are too few scholars willing to do the slow, often tedious spadework. Such work is necessary, for we can best understand literature, literary movements, and literary figures when we know the contexts in which they worked, the forces with which they contended, their personalities, and the people they met who shaped their writing. Northern Review 1945-1956; by Hilda M.C. Vanneste is such a work. It is a detailed examination of the seminal Canadian literary magazine of the 'forties and 'fifties.
The author has done an admirable job of research into books, articles, theses, and especially little magazines. Even more important is her delving into previously unpublished sources, especially the John Sutherland papers at Concordia University in Montreal. Particularly interesting is a letter (reproduced on pp. 82-83) describing an attempt by F.R. Scott, A.M. Klein, Patrick Anderson, and Neufville Shaw to take over editorial control of Northern Review. It gives a fascinating insight into the literary politics of the time, the underground struggles which do not usually come to light. Even poets who go on to become eminent professors can be guilty of dirty pool.
The kind of resources upon which Vanneste relies can cut two ways. On the one hand she has amassed a remarkable compendium of interviews, letters, correspondence, and articles about Northern Review, most of them done by the people who participated in it. She could, however, have subjected their words to a more critical scrutiny. After all, here are people in the enviable position of contributing to their own histories. A certain amount of self-justification will always creep in. The principal player, John Sutherland, does not have this luxury of retrospective self-justification since he has been dead for nearly thirty years. One of my major complaints about this book is that it does not say enough about the growth and development of Sutherland's thought. He was a better critic than Smith or Pacey and he needs to be better known.
Vanneste devotes a whole chapter to the merger between First Statement and Preview but there are one or two key omissions. Although she refers to Sutherland's irascible character and Anderson's role as mediator I would have liked to see more emphasis on personalities. Such an approach would have been particularly good in this chapter to explain the coming together and the falling apart of the First Statement / Preview alliance. Why, for example, did the fiery Irving Layton, the most rigidly doctinaire of the First Statement poets keep so quiet?
Another key omission is the lack of any reference to Unit of 5, a poetry anthology edited by Ronald Hambleton containing work by Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster (both First Statement writers), P.K. Page (a Preview leader), James Wreford, and Ronald Hambieton (both sometime Preview contributors). The book foreshadowed the creation of Northern Review. When Sutherland reviewed it in First Statement volume 2, number 11 (pp. 30-31) his tone hinted at some sort of truce between the two groups. His treatment of Page, Wreford, and Hambleton is, if not warm, at least civil. He concludes that "taken as a whole Unit of 5 testifies to the wealth of creative talent in Canada today. Mr. Hambleton deserves congratulations on rendering a valuable service to Canadian poetry" (p. 32). Perhaps both sides were in the process of recognizing that to tap the wealth Sutherland refers to they had to end their war and work toward the common goal of providing Canada with modern poetry. The country, let alone Montreal, was not big enough to support two warring factions of poets. Indeed, there was some doubt about the country's willingness to accept any modern poetry.
I also have some reservations about Vanneste's chapter of conclusions. It relies too heavily upon Wynne Francis and the false premise that the nationalist/cosmopolitan friction has been ended with the victory of the cosmopolitan/internationalist way of looking at things. Statements such as "Modernism exists within an a-national context" (p. 184) and "Sutherland's Canadianism, no matter how critical, was regressive in an age of internationalism" (p. 190) are simply wrong, at least when applied to the Canadian situation. The conflict between nationalist and cosmopolitan forces has always been a part of Canadian literary life. It was there before the McGill group, as Smith recognized in his famous Introduction to The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943), and it is still around today. I doubt if the conflict will ever be resolved and I hope it never is. It provides a kind of honing edge which sharpens the combatants' wits.
At one point Vanneste quotes Miriam Waddington as stating that "we certainly didn't give him [John Sutherland] the recognition he deserved" (p. 191). I am afraid this is true of Vanneste's conclusions and of much of her book. Again, it is a case of having to rely upon surviving participants telling history from their point of view. Sutherland is not around to tell his side of the tale and he gets short shrift.
Vanneste does, however, give an accurate summary of Northern Review's role and place in our literary history:
In addition to a history of Northern Review Vanneste has produced a 101 page index of the contents of the magazine. It will be of invaluable use to people doing research in the period or in the early careers of major figures such as Layton, Dudek, Souster, Waddington, and Reaney.
This book does what every good piece of scholarly writing should do. It questions, informs, and stimulates.