The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium: Reappraising a Reappraisal
The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium, edited and with an introduction by Glenn Clever. Reappraisals: Canadian Writers: 10. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1984. xiv + 249 pp.
The recent activity in Roberts studies has been remarkable. A Collected Poems is imminent as I write and should have been published by the time his review appears. A Collected Letters is in the last stages of completion, both a biography and a bibliography are well on the way, and between October 1982 and April 1983 two Roberts conferences took place, one of which resulted in the book under review. In addition, there have been a considerable number of articles devoted to his work, and scattered articles and stories by Roberts have been collected, edited, and made generally available. All this academic interest is gratifying to those of us who remember the long period of neglect that extended up to the not-so-distant past. But such volte-faces are troubling, and one is tempted to ask: is there a genuine sign of revival here, or has Roberts merely become the subject of an "industry" like so many other figures in our Ph.D.-saturated world?
I admit, then, to approaching this volume cautiously. At 249 pages it is noticeably fatter than its predecessors in the University of Ottawa "Reappraisals" series. It contains fifteen essays plus the traditional panel discussion and a "Preliminary Bibliography." Somewhat cynically, perhaps, I find myself asking: how much of all this represents genuine scholarly discovery and how much is mere routine academic make-work? Mean-spirited or not, this seems a not wholly inappropriate mood in which to approach the reviewing task. I should, however state immediately that, in the remarks to follow, I am criticizing approaches rather than individuals. The critics themselves carried out their assignments adequately and appropriately. The awkward question I pose is: are the critical approaches themselves adequate or appropriate?
The book begins with two essays devoted to retch in progress. John Coldwell Adams, at work on a biography, writes about the possible influence of Joseph Edmund Collins on Roberts while Laurel Boone reports on the University of New Brunswick letters project. According to my acid-test, neither of these papers can be said to be in any way outstanding. Adams's piece is presumably a spin-off from the biography, but there are too many "perhapses" and "may-haves" in the account, and anyone who has read Louis Riel and Annette the Métis Spy may be forgiven for wondering what on earth Roberts had to learn from Collins. Boone gives a preliminary glimpse of the contents and variety of the letters but does little more than whet our appetites. To be fair, though, she could hardly be expected to do anything more.
There follow no less than six papers on Roberts' poetry, the subject that should be of particular interest to readers of this journal. Together, they display interesting instances of possible critical approaches, but I confess to being somewhat disappointed in the overall result. However, in the first contribution Fred Cogswell brings mellow wisdom to bear on a study of Roberts's classical poems, and does much to explain the young poet's interests in a sub-genre which is no longer fashionable. The material is not in itself of major importance, but Cogswell's remarks are fresh and valuable.
Three writers sensibly choose to concentrate, with varying results, on individual Roberts poems. Tracy Ware is useful and business-like on the background to "Ave." My appreciation was not startlingly enriched (in my case he was preaching to the converted), but the article constitutes a useful gathering of information about a fine poem. On the other hand, Don Conway puzzled me in his reading of "The Squatter." Naive enough to suppose that the poem was about a squatter, I was surprised but not enlightened when told that it contained "a thoroughly modern statement of the subjective and limited nature of all conscious deliberation." I was further jolted by being informed that "the most obvious feature of 'The Squatter' is that it is constructed of tercets grouped to form a strophe, antistrophe, a second strophe, and then a second antistrophe, . . . and finally an epode." I confess I had not noticed, and on going back to the poem cannot say that I am illuminated. There is always the possibility, of course, that I am just thick-headed, but I honestly wonder whether such abstract intellectualizing and formal docketing help anyone to appreciate an essentially poetic achievement. The method is fashionable, but it seems to me an arid one. Les McLeod's study of the scientific and philosophical backgrounds to ''The Iceberg" seemed more "relevant," though I was confused by his first using the iceberg's account as an illustration of Frye's "vast unconsciousness of nature" and then, a page later, acknowledging "a suggestion of the berg's coming to a knowledge of itself." McLeod is interested in the paradox of the poem's attributing "consciousness to an unconscious being," but does little more, I think, than draw attention to the paradox.
D.M.R. Bentley's long essay on New York Nocturnes is a study of the volume's thematic and intellectual coherence, and as such is something of a novelty. We know, for instance, that Yeats planned his volumes with extreme care, and it would be nice to think that Roberts did the same. Bentley brings all his considerable knowledge of nineteenth-century British poetry and practice to bear in order to demonstrate (or assert?) a consistent structure and a progressive development. Yet I finished the paper with a sense more of the critic's skill and ingenuity than of the poet's deliberate subtlety. None the less, Bentley is both an honest and a sensitive critic, and is prepared to admit in a somewhat defensive final paragraph that "poetry cannot live on pattern and concept alone." I am forced to disagree, however, when in his (half-hearted?) defence of the "lack of verbal interest" in New York Nocturnes he suggests that Roberts was "attempting through the flatness of certain poems to convey something of the banality of city life." Polonius is a consummate portrait of a bore but he never bores the audience; a poet does not reveal dullness by being dull. None the less, Bentley persuades me that we need to pay more attention to the formal coherence of individual Roberts volumes. This, then, was a worthwhile experiment even if its results were not wholly convincing.
Finally, so far as the poetry is concerned, Robert Allan Burns takes a healthily independent stance and concentrates on the "failure of vision" in Roberts. He argues firmly that, too often, Roberts begins a poem with a promising stanza but fails to maintain the initial momentum and standard. This is not merely a phenomenon observable in Roberts's poetry, he argues; it often becomes the subject of individual poems. For Burns is by no means wholly negative, and his extended examination of "The Skater" as a paradoxically successful poem about failure (one thinks of Coleridge's triumphant "Ode to Dejection") is perhaps the best piece of poetry criticism in the book. Moreover (and the point needs stressing), it is all the more persuasive within a context of tough challenge.
Perhaps because criticism has traditionally concentrated on Roberts's verse, the commentators on his prose works, on balance, have better opportunities. The first two articles, however, though diligent and scholarly, are hamstrung by their subjects. Elizabeth Waterston, in "Roberts, Parker, and the Uses of History," compares the careers and attitudes of the two authors contributing to what she is prepared to describe as "the fad for historical romance." And William Owen dutifully examines "Vision and Revision in Roberts' Acadian Romances." For work of demonstrable importance, such studies would be valuable. The critics are themselves solid and draw upon disciplined research. But and to some this may seem the height of cynicism is it worth it? How many of us, if we have read The Forge in the Forest, A Sister to Evangeline, By the Marshes of Minas, and The Prisoner of Mademoiselle, feel any desire to read them again? Do they need to be considered just because Roberts wrote them? Can scholarship afford to pay such extravagant attention to (let's be honest) the third-rate? Isn't there anywhere else Waterston and Owen would rather be?
If I were asked to give a prize for the best essay in the collection, I would assign it unhesitatingly to Terry Whalen's "Roberts and the Tradition of American Naturalism." Here is an excellent example of the kind of paper that such a symposium ought to encourage into being. By means of an astute comparison between Jack London's wilderness fiction and Roberts's, Whalen makes an original contribution that is genuinely illuminating and ought to persuade anyone of the scholarly significance of the subject. Here Roberts, who too often appears in a literary vacuum, is seen as very much a man of his time responding to literary movements around him. This is, I would argue, the one article in the collection that permanently alters the way we look at Roberts.
Robin Mathews and Michael Hornyansky are both eloquent, challenging, stimulating writers and teachers worth reading even if one disagrees with them. I have difficulty in accepting Mathews's "Novel of the Land" as a stable genre when asked to fit The Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure, The Man from Glengarry, The Heart of the Ancient Wood, Surfacing, and Bear into a single pigeon-hole. None the less, his argument is a healthy counter to Frye's "terror" theory of Canadian nature (which is ripe for "deconstructing"). There is an urgency and interest in Mathews from which some of our staider critics might well learn, and his keen eye for a continuing Canadian tradition deserves sympathetic attention. In "Roberts for Children," Hornyansky discusses Children of the Wild, The Heart of the Ancient Wood, and In the Morning of Time. Once again, we have some stimulating, independent commentary, though I wish he would have explained why he considers the last two within the context of children's literature. In this context, Hornyansky is excellent on Walt Disney but a little unfair to A.A. Milne, whose characters are animated toy-animals transferred to a pastoral countryside, not wild animals condescendingly sentimentalized. Let us be thankful, however, for a commentator who thinks for himself and who writes so attractively.
L.R. Early takes Roberts's criticism as his subject. This does not immediately present itself as a fascinating topic, but Early constructs a valuable case for considering Roberts's aesthetic position as more consistent and more cogent than we have hitherto thought. Here again a seemingly peripheral subject is made central. This is an important, pioneering study.
Finally, no contemporary conference would, it seems, be complete without its deconstructive component, and Ed Jewinski duly raises the sanctioned difficulties. In "Michel Foucault, the AuthorS Charles G.D. Roberts, and Some Post-Structuralist Implications for Canadian Criticism," he proceeds to deconstruct not only Roberts but authors in general, literary criticism, literary critics (notably Robin Mathews and myself) and, by extension, the whole symposium (including, presumably, his own contribution). The participants, one imagines, duly applauded and then, if the panel discussion is at all representative, went on as if nothing had happened. Which is probably the right response. "What is an author?" said jesting Jewinski, and would not stay for an answer. He picked a few real and some perversely imaginary holes (there's an intriguing concepts for you) in all our literary-critical assumptions, but, like most deconstructionists that I have encountered, remains unblushingly open to the tu quoque. Like the satyr-play within the Greek dramatic festival, his contribution provides a change, yet I cannot help feeling that it will date quickly.
Apart from the inevitably spotty panel discussion, that is about that. But my "finally"at the opening of the previous paragraph was not strictly accurate. Appended to the book, not (I assume) a part of the conference itself, is an extremely valuable bibliography by John Coldwell Adams that lists not only books and articles but the first appearance in periodicals of poems and short stories. It makes no claim to absolute completeness, but is easily the most comprehensive bibliographical aid yet available and thus one of the most worthwhile contributions to the book. Until the appropriate volume of the Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors appears, this will be an essential list for all Roberts scholars.
In my opinion, then, the significance of this book does not quite fall where the organizers of the conference clearly believed that it should. It raises, perhaps unwittingly, some important questions about the direction of Canadian criticism in the immediate future. Certainly, our earlier authors need to be reassessed. Of course, as time goes by, we shall find greater interest in some of them and less in others. Naturally, specialist scholars need to reconsider the relative emphasis placed on these writers of whom they have made a detailed study. But we must beware of research for the sake of research. I do not relish the prospect of being expected to read in the future articles on "Psychological Imagery in Reube Dare's Shadboat," "Roberts and the Development of the Rondeau," or "New Light on The Backwoodsmen," etc. That is the way to literary-critical suicide. We live in a world glutted by literary commentary, and there is no reason to add to its gratuitous fringes. While grateful for the occasional insights provided by this book, I nevertheless wonder, perhaps uncharitably, whether it is not the process of criticism itself that needs to be the subject of "reappraisal."