Two Views of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, ed. by William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1983, 843 pp.

The 1983 Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature is, as we are all perhaps too consciously aware, a cultural production of considerable significance.  It is the first Companion to be devoted exclusively to Canadian literature; it has been produced from a great English house noted for excellence in scholarly and educational publishing; it takes its place beside The Literary History of Canada, the on-going Dictionary of Canadian Biography and the Dictionnaire Des Oeuvres Litteraires Du Quebec.  Handsomely bound and tastefully designed, it asserts yet again, apparently, the coming of age of a culture and a literature that can unpretentiously stand on their own two feet.  The arrival of the Companion, therefore, provides an opportunity for an assessment and an evaluation of our literary condition.  It permits us to look backwards and forwards and, even, perhaps, to see the historical moment and cultural context of its appearance with a clarity that we might not manage without the light that it throws on our present consciousness.  Because The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature is a huge act of discrimination about the literature and the literary tradition, the volume permits us to examine the assumptions and the function of criticism at the present time.  Who, in the mind of the Companion's general editor, may be permitted to step from the past and present roll of scribblers onto the enduring — or semi-enduring — pages of this record?  Who may be approved of?  Who disapproved of?  What view of literature and the literary creator will be put forward?  What ideas, models, opinions, and literary prejudices is a reader invited, albeit surreptitiously, to take away from contact with the book?

     The general editor, William Toye, tells us that the Companion is part of a "famous series," that it is, moreover, partly the result of an enormous, relatively recent outpouring of all the materials that make such a volume possible.  He tells us the Companion encompasses two literatures and that it combines "useful information and thoughtful and illuminating (though succinct) literary discussions by contributors who are authorities on their subjects."  This last statement might, perhaps, make us pause, for surely a Companion should provide only documentation, the facts for which a reference manual is so often, and properly, consulted — should fulfill only the role which permits Burt Heward to call it "Oxford's monumental dictionary-style guide. . ." ("Christmas Present to the Nation," Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 24, 1983, p. 48).  This Companion, however, provides something that is different from "useful information."  It provides, "thoughtful and illuminating . . . literary discussions" — in short, evaluative material so that the reader may learn what some present "experts" believe are the right attitudes to at least a portion of the factual information permitted between the Companion's covers.

     The departures Toye makes from the Norah Story Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature (1967) are many.  She was almost wholly responsible for the huge and impressive task of researching and writing that remarkable book, a task which took many years.  The new Companion is the work of many hands over three years.  The Story Companion had no intention of going very far beyond "useful information."  The Toye Companion claims a critical and evaluative function.  It also claims a heightened consciousness of region, minority, and cultural growing.  It expands the genre surveys, the treatment of dramatic literature, and the information about Canadian philosophy.  This last item certainly deserves special notice.  In a book that has to be described as eccentric and uneven, the serious introduction of material on Canadian philosophy and philosophers constitutes a major advance in the treatment of intellectual history.   Philosophy departments in Canada harshly reject the idea of a serious treatment of Canadian philosophy and philosophy in Canada.  Perhaps the new Companion may go some way towards changing that situation.  Despite the changes in the new Companion, however (and partly because of them) the Norah Story volume will maintain a usefulness and a practical importance.  Her volume places in juxtaposition matters historical and literary, a combination which engenders richness of a kind that the Toye Companion cannot have.  To give a simple example:  both Companions report on Charles Beardsley's The Victims of Tyranny, an early political novel involving the war of 1812, but, while Norah Story's Companion has entries for four of the characters treated in the novel, Toye's has none.  Story's volume, moreover, provides entries for many literary and near-literary figures whom Toye drops altogether or treats in a fragmented way that is difficult to make sense of.  The Story Companion is better organized, more effectively cross-referenced, contains fewer errors, and is significantly less likely to say foolish things.  In their reach for "thoughtful and illuminating . . . literary discussions" Toye's con tributors sometimes make judgements that obscure the works under examination or provide assessments that begin, already, to look old-fashioned.

     A further obstacle to ready reference makes the Toye Companion difficult to use:  it has no index.  The problem of an indexless reference book is exacerbated by the fact that Toye has expanded general categories to include people and book titles with no separate entries of their own, but in no comprehensive or predictable way.  There is no means, therefore, of knowing whether someone or some title is in the volume at all, or several times.  The Companion needs a simple person/title index, particularly because of the eccentricity of selection.  Again, an example or two is useful:  in 1980 an anthology of forty one Prince Edward Island poets was published by Ragweed Press and, in 1973 and 1974, Square Deal Publications published — among a large number of other important Prince Edward Island publications in the decade — gatherings of women poets, folklore and folk music.  Toye's Companion contains no entry for either press.  The Ragweed anthology, moreover, is not recorded, and only the folk music publication of Square Deal is named, but without the press receiving credit for producing it.  Such evidence points to an obnoxiously abridging attitude to so-called 'regions,' though the Companion affects to champion the idea of regional legitimacy.  The conclusion that is most difficult to enunciate about The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature — most difficult because one argues against oneself about it for a long time — is that the book, especially in its English Canadian parts, is repetitive, significantly more narrow than one would expect, very incompletely cross-referenced, apparently without consistent policy about entries, unpredictable in its provision of supplementary bibliography, strongly biased in its ideological presuppositions, and tyrannical in its presentation of a single contemporary view of literature, writers, and the tradition.  One argues with oneself about a conclusion of this kind because it is such a savage condemnation of a major press.  But it is the only conclusion to which one can fairly come.  The Toye Companion, at least in the English Canadian portion, represents a very distinct aspect of the function of criticism at the present time:  not only does it rewrite history (as a writer friend of mine points out) but it also manipulates language (in a way George Orwell describes) in order to replace information with fantasy and to support a single, indefensible view of our literary tradition.

     No one would deny that the task of organizing a Companion is difficult.  But the new Companion, having dropped the historical component, is still remarkably and unaccountably incomplete on literary subjects.  Surprisingly, the entries under letters A and B alone drop over a dozen literary writers who were included in the Norah Story Companion.  For example, Michel Bidaud, writer of the first book of poems by a French Canadian, is gone, Nathaniel Benson, important for three plays — and other work — is gone, and Jessie L. Beattie is gone.  (Two of her novels appear in a general section, but her very important novel, Strength For the Bridge [1966], an early and significant novel of Japanese-Canadian life, seems to have disappeared completely.)  Some of the Companion's deletions in the very small portion that I have checked are of early writers whose work is properly named the literature of exploration.  Herman Buller, a strange but important writer, also disappears completely:  significant for his writing about Quebec and especially for his novel of revolutionary thought and violence, Days of Rage (1974), he appears nowhere in the Toye Companion.  Among the many who wrote of French/English tensions between 1960 and 1982, neither Buller nor his kind of fiction is entered.  While Buller is omitted, the section on novels in English between 1960 and 1982, contains some twelve to fourteen pages on writers who are covered elsewhere at least once — sometimes more than once.  While sub-categories are opened in the section for experimental fiction, minority fiction, and regional fiction, no category is opened for the important production of novels (and other works) about francophone/anglophone relations.

     Robertson Davies has called attention to a number of irregularities in the English Canadian parts of the volume.  Even more important, he points out that the contributors "seem to be writing without reference to anyone else in the book. . ." ("Sober Proof of a Literature," Globe and Mail, December 17, 1983,p. E7).  Davies wonders how Toye could permit George Woodcock, writing of Northrop Frye, to refer to Carl Jung as "the maverick psychologist Carl Jung."  That is like, Davies says, "calling Thomas Aquinas a maverick theologian."  The general editor allows such foolish bias and error to appear embarrassingly often.  As long as a certain group is praised, no praise is inordinate; as long as certain others are aspersed, no irrationality used in the process is trimmed or corrected.  Even stranger anomalies than that of Woodcock on Jung occur in Toye's Companion.  In the entries for individual francophone novels, L'influence d'un livre (1837) the first French Canadian novel is reported.  But La terre paternelle (1846) published less than a decade later is given no entry, though the genre it originates — the roman de la terre — makes it more important in many ways than the first novel.  Dennis Duffy's entry on John Richardson claims the author of Wacousta (1832) is "Canada's first native-born novelist."  But Gwendolyn Davies, in the entry for the novel St. Ursula's Convent (1824) reports it is the "first novel published in British North America by a native-born author."  Julia Catherine Beckwith wrote other novels besides St. Ursula's Convent.  Is she not, indisputably, "Canada's first native-born novelist?"

      Reviewers of the Companion in the popular press have, generally, welcomed the book, welcomed its shifts and changes, and been relatively uncurious about the aesthetic philosophy at its base and the motivating forces powering its editorial judgements.  But those matters are of fundamental importance to an understanding of the volume, as a few more instances of its anomolies will show.  If, for example, one goes to look for The History of Emily Montague (1769), the first novel set in North America, one will not find it listed under its correct title; rather, it appears as Emily Montague and as a cross-reference to another entry. Eight Men Speak, one of English Canada's most interesting and historically important plays is not present either under its title, under the names of its authors, or under the section on collective theatre; moreover, though famously produced in 1933 (and published in 1976) Eight Men Speak is not in the section on drama, "Beginnings to 1953."  One of Canada's most important plays from a number of points of view — historical, aesthetic, political — is thus unfindable in the new Companion.  The policy ruling the entry of single titles — even when they are discussed elsewhere — is incomprehensible and eccentric.  Four central novels in Canadian litera ture, for example — The Master of the Mill (F.P. Grove), The Watch That Ends the Night (Hugh MacLennan), The Sacrifice (Adele Wiseman), and The Clockmaker (T.C. Haliburton) — are unlisted by title, even as a way of directing a reader to entries where the works are discussed.  But Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton do have separate entries.  There is no separate entry for any work by F.P. Grove or Charles G.D. Roberts.

     The make-up of the Companion is not, however, an accident.  Its general editor seems less interested in providing access to fundamental information than he is in the formation of a canon and the presentation of a literary ideology. Eight Men Speak is not findable in the Companion, probably because it is an expression of Left-wing art and philosophy.  But why is it that The Watch That Ends the Night and Master of the Mill — two of the most important works of the twentieth century — have no entry?  Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie is separately entered, and with a long discussion which reports that, according to Atwood, "we are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here . . . we remain detached and critical observers." Indeed, it is notable that only three entries exist for books of poems in English:  Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Jay Macpherson's The Boatman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfelow's Evangeline.  Such volumes as Dorothy Livesay's Day and Night, Earle Birney's David and Other Poems, E.J. Pratt's Newfoundland Verse, Charles G.D. Roberts' Orion, and Other Poems, Charles Sangster's The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Archibald Lampman's Among the Millet — all works of extraordinary importance — are not listed, even as cross-references to sections where the works are discussed.  The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature begins to look ridiculous in its handling of English Canadian material.  And ridiculous it is — in ideology, in construction, and in scholarship.

     As intimated by examples in the previous paragraph, it favours a certain group; friendship seems to explain some otherwise inexplicable entries (and omissions).  Apart from certain historically important works which cannot be left out, entries in the Companion, and the treatment of material entered, seem based upon a single contemporary aesthetic and upon social and political alliance.  Broadly described, the Companion is sympathetic to continentalist, modernist/post modernist, anarchistic, archetypal, liberal individualist writers and work.  The Frye school, The Canadian branch of the U.S. Black Mountain school, and the New Colonials, generally, are given loving treatment.  Writers who take Canada seriously, who write work of social significance, who are historically oriented who are concerned with class and politics, who have a strong sense of community — and of a developing Canadian community — are either subjected to pejorative criticism, given short shrift, or given no shrift at all.  While, for instance, the space and attention paid to James Reaney (the Frye school) seems reasonable, the fawning attention to Atwood is deeply embarrassing.  Eli Mandel (of the same school) is given as much space as Earle Birney — a giant beside Mandel.  In fact, Mandel is given more space than Dorothy Livesay, Alden Nowland, and Milton Acorn — all significantly more important writers.  The space and attention devoted to Jay Macpherson is, quite simply, indefensible and ridiculous.  The statement by Rosemary Sullivan, moreover, that Macpherson's The Boatman is "one of the best known works of poetry in Canadian literature" reveals the absurd parochialism guiding the Companion.  Rosemary Sullivan is even permitted to describe Elizabeth Smart's novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) as a "classic."  By contrast, Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising (1941) is grudgingly allowed by D.O. Spettigue to be "a minor classic of Canadian fiction," and one of MacLennan's most compelling and extraordinary characters, Jerome Martell, from The Watch That Ends the Night, is tucked away as "more romantic than real."  Of some of Dorothy Livesay's strongest poetry, poetry which, incidentally, has significance in Canadian intellectual history, Frank Davey is permitted to write with pejorative condescension.  Davey describes Day and Night (1944), Poems for People (1947), and Call My People Home (1950) as "overtly political poetry."  He claims that most of the poems in the books are "marred by unconvincing dramatic voices and simplistic political diction."  In the case of Dorothy Livesay, major work cannot be removed from literary history, as Eight Men Speak, apparently, can be.  But where Livesay's work offends post-modernist, anarchist continentalism, it can be declared unreadable.

     The situation that exists in relation to books of poetry is repeated when literary criticism and anthologies of poetry are represented.  Only two books of literary criticism are treated as separate entries:  Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972) and W.E. Collin's The White Savannahs (1936).  The choice of titles is absurdly representative of the Toye ideology to which I have referred.  As if neglect of major historic texts is not enough, Rosemary Sullivan permits no negative criticism to enter the bibliographic supplement to her discussion of Survival.  In fact, she cites only one item of supplementary bibliography, a publication which is made up mostly of eulogy, and whose only real relevance to the Companion entry seems to be one photograph (among a great many) of Atwood taken "at the home of William Toye."  The two critical works given entries are, of course, works which cosmopolitanize English Canadian literature — works which archetypalize it, deny historical relevance, and prepare it for continentalization.  In the case of The White Savannahs Germaine Warkentin makes a dubious claim for the work:  "This is the first booklength work on English-Canadian literature written from a purely critical standpoint, that of the modernist movement. . . ."  Warkentin admits, however, that Collin's easay on Marie Le Franc is "somewhat unrelated to the others," and she ignores the fact that Collin judges Marjorie Pickthall with an extravagant lack of balance.  Warkentin attempts, too, to erase serious literary criticism that preceded The White Savannahs (1936).  In Highways of Canadian Literature (1924), however, J.D. Logan writes of his book:  "In scope it is a complete or comprehensive survey of literary 'epochs' and 'movements' in Canada, beginning with the Puritan Migration from the American Colonies in 1760 and closing at the end of the first quarter of the 20th century.  In method it is both historical and critical."  There is no reason, whatever (unless one is propagandizing for the absolute primacy of modernism and post-modernism) for not saying of Highways of Canadian Literature that it is 'the first booklength work on English-Canadian literature written from a purely critical standpoint, that of historical criticism. . . .'  To suppose that a critic as conscious, as disciplined, as completely possessed of a world view as John D. Logan would somehow not be writing from a purely critical point of view, but that Collin, in a work that, by Warkentin's own admission is patchy and uneven, would be doing so is arch, prejudiced nonsense.  As might be expected, the only anthology of poems in English that Toye includes as separate entry, is the anthology New Provinces (1936) which is acceptable to the architects of the New Colonialism in Canadian culture because they see that work as announcing the advent of the 'modern.'  The choice of one anthology only in the face of four or five major anthologies in our literary history is ridiculous; it is, moreover, only explicable in terms of the Companion being written as a propaganda paper for a partisan aesthetic and ideological group.

     The same may be said for the eccentric set of entries for publishers.  Important publishers of major collections and other literary works (some nowhere mentioned in the book) have no entry:  in addition to Square Deal Books and Ragweed Press, omitted publishers include Breakwater Books (Newfoundland), Clarke Irwin (Ontario), Newest Review and Newest Press (Alberta/Saskatchewan) Tundra Books (Quebec), and Turnstone Press (Manitoba).  Yet — and, again as might be expected — a little semi-publishing adventure called Emblem Books that was run by Jay Macpherson between 1954 and 1962 in Toronto and which published seven or eight small booklets is given entry and solemn treatment.  Anansi Press is included, too, of course, providing further evidence that presses and journals connected with the ideology of cosmopolitan modernism or with the Toronto friendship group receive entry.  The others appear by hazard, or, in some important cases, do not appear at all.  Volumes like The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature often seem, at first glance, to be objective surveys conducted from Olympian heights.  And, indeed, there are many contributors of impeccable scholarship and objectivity at work in the Companion.  But they are all — even the most absolutely scrupulous reporters among them — in the arranging hands of a general editor.

     The parochialism and the 'claque' aspect of the Companion's presentation of English Canadian literature needs no more demonstration.  As a result of an unrelievedly ideological bias, significant writers and literary events have been dropped from the Companion and its scope narrowed.  Moreover, the in-group nature of certain selections and the repetitive treatment of a narrow group of people have kept the list of events, works, and writers from the last sixty years very much smaller than it should be.  There is no point either in naming other living writers who should have had an entry or serious treatment in the Companion or in referring to additional 'claque' and ideological entries that are grossly overblown or that should not be in the Companion at all.  To do the former would be to embarrass many worthy people who have already been treated with contempt by The Oxford University Press; to do the latter would be to attenuate a point already made embarrassingly clear.  One wonders how long the assumptions represented by the Companion can persist.  The answer is, of course, partly ideological and partly a function of the history of taste.  Canada's utterly unique colonial position among the advanced industrial nations that operate under liberal individualist rhetoric will probably maintain the hegemony expressed in the Companion until the death of its articulators.  Then Margaret Atwood will become the Marjorie Pickthall of her generation and John Metcalf the Madge MacBeth.  Maybe around that time a Canadian publisher in Fredericton or Winnipeg or Vancouver, tired, at last, of Toronto decadence, will publish a top-quality companion to Canadian Literature.

     There are irregularities in the coverage of francophone material in the Companion, but I do not observe the same faults as are present in the anglophone material.  Someone from Quebec might very well do so, although the francophones seem much more willing to embrace the variety and contradictions of their culture than the Toronto anglophones are.

     Finally, then, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature shows that the function of criticism at the present time in English Canada is still very much to battle for hegemonic power, to put out of court anyone of unsympathetic ideological conviction, and to raise up and mummify the especially chosen members of the claque and the others who meet claque approval.  Despite its show of historical reach, this Companion is branded with the characteristics of its ideology:  in-group personalism, parochial adoration of so-called big figures, colonial-minded fixation on the cosmopolitan, focus on the ahistorical, and a passionate desire to seem sophisticated.  Criticism and scholarship in Canada, the Companion reveals, are, at least in some areas, less serious than when Norah Story published her Companion sixteen years ago. The role of foreign publishers in Canada, it shows us, is still as dicey as it ever was.  Would a Canadian publisher have dared to produce the Companion we have before us?  At any rate, the ideology which characterizes the Companion is the same one that is most sweet to multi-national corporations at work in Canada.

     The nagging realization that comes to a reader who examines the new Companion closely is that it declares embarrassingly the continuing colonial-mindedness of our culture.  Fortunately, works like the Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionnaire Des Oeuvres Litteraires Du Quebec are being completed with fidelity to scholarship and with untroubled self-confidence in the face of the country and culture out of which the material for those works has come.  The same cannot be said of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature.  At the same time as it seems to herald a new maturity in cultural understanding, the Companion gives off all the signs of a frightened colonialism:  fear of the real Canadian culture; fixation on so-called cosmopolitan ideas; embarrassment at unique Canadian consciousness; and an attempt to prove by means of internationally approved ideas that Canada "can hold its head up."  The Companion is an embarrassing achievement.  When one thinks what might have been achieved with only a consistent, unbiased editorial determination to be, fairly, what the title describes, one is deeply depressed.  Not only does the Companion refuse to face the major disintegrating forces in the culture today, but it embraces those forces, attempts to exclude other forces of significance, and promulgates a view of literary culture which destroys evidence of the full flowering of Canadian writing and the truly varied expression of national life and diversity.  And, incredibly, one cannot help believing — as one examines the Companion closely — it was produced, consciously, with those purposes in mind:  to embrace the continentalist, to exclude all other views of life and culture, and to destroy any part of the tradition that resists the placing of a few, ephemeral Toronto people and their associates in the central, commanding, definitive position in Canadian literature:  its alpha and omega.  Parochialism knows no richer expression.

Robin Matthews