Keith's Canadian Literature

W.J. Keith, Canadian Literature in English. London and New York:
Longman, 1985. x + 278 pp.

At the conclusion of his lengthy review of Carl Klinck's Literary History of Canada (1965) in the University of Toronto Quarterly (30 [1965-66], 107-116), A.J.M. Smith observes that "What is needed now is a comprehensive 'critical history' by a single author who can combine scholarly research with imaginative interpretation and who has enough faith in the literary quality of the best work drawn from all kinds of writing science, history, travel, biography, and autobiography as well as poetry and fiction to make evaluation his first business and let the chips fall where they may." As "one man's reading of Canadian literature in English" (p. x) which approaches its task by "focusing on works that attain a high degree of literary quality" (p. x), W.J. Keith's Canadian Literature in English can be seen as an attempt to answer the need perceived by Smith some twenty years ago; here certainly is a "critical history" (p. 8) of English-Canadian literature by a "single author" who makes no bones about his conviction that "it is the tradition established by the best that sets the standard" (p. x) against which lesser writers and works will be judged. (Those who are suspicious of evaluative criticism will already have been placed on their guard by such terms as "best," "standard," and "literary quality," and this review will have something to say in due course about the assumptions, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, that lie behind Keith's evaluations.) But what about the other components of Smith's "comprehensive 'critical history' " — its combination of "scholarly research" and "imaginative interpretation"?

     Since Keith's book is an entry in the Longman Literature in English series and, as such, a brief "critical introduction" (p. [vii]) rather than a comprehensive 'critical history'," it cannot reasonably be expected to contain much information ("scholarly research") that is new to a specialist in the field of English-Canadian literature. It can, however, be reasonably expected to contain what Keith repeatedly supplies in his characteristi cally clear and readable prose: interpretations which, though possibly less imaginative" than Smith would have wanted, nevertheless succeed well in locating Canadian writing of the "main stream" (p. x) in the context of what Keith sees as a developing Canadian tradition and a continuing process of "transplanting [or 'importing', p. 60] and adapting ... literary modes" (p. 28) from elsewhere to Canadian requirements. Although limited by its format and assumptions, Canadian Literature in English succeeds to a remarkable degree in honouring the Longman requirement of being both "practical and comprehensive" (p. [vii]) as it attends to "the relations between literary forms and their historical context" across approximately two hundred years of Canadian writing. That Keith's book does this in a little over two hundred pages of commentary (the last seventy-five pages of Canadian Literature in English are given over to a Chronology, a short Bibliography, some "Notes on biography, works and criticism" of Individual Authors, and an accurate and fairly thorough Index) is a tribute to its author's skill in making intricate seem straight as he moves from period to period and genre to genre with apparently effortless ease.

     As a brief "critical introduction" rather than a "comprehensive 'critical history'" Canadian Literature in English has its own generic ancestry in Desmond Pacey's Creative Writing in Canada: A Short History of English Canadian Literature (1952, 1961) and, behind that, the handbooks, surveys, and appraisals of Archibald McMechan, Lionel Stevenson, Ray Palmer Baker and others. Its main audience will thus be undergraduate students and general readers both within and without Canada who are seeking and will find in Keith an informed and informative guide to most of English Canada's major writers and their works. Such readers will probably be disappointed with at least two aspects of Canadian Literature in English. The first is the notable slightness (pp. 181-194) of Keith's section on Drama, a form which, to be fair, has been for such a short time a vehicle of accomplished work in Canada that as recently as 1965-66 Smith in his review of the Literary History could omit it entirely from his list of the "kinds of writing" that would figure in his "comprehensive 'critical history'." A second source of possible disappointment in Canadian Literature in English is the very cursory and selective attention given to contemporary Canadian writing. Written in 1982-83 (p. xi), Keith's book will be valued by many readers for what it adds by way of contemporaneity to Pacey's Creative Writing in Canada, a work described by Keith as a "useful survey up to mid-century" (p. 240). But while Canadian Literature in English succeeds to an extent in up-dating its most immediate ancestor, it suffers from a curious lack of currency that can best be illustrated for readers of Canadian Poetry (the field primarily addressed in this review) by noting that Keith's book contains only passing reference to such contemporary writers as Frank Davey (p. 114), Gwendolyn MacEwen (p. 85), Lionel Kearnes (p. 114) and Daphne Marlatt (p. 112) and no reference whatsoever to a host of much-published and frequently-anthologised poets of recent years, includ ing bill bissett, Robert Bringhurst, Christopher Dewdney, bp Nichol, Joe Rosenblatt, Andrew Suknaski, and Tom Wayman ... not to mention the Four Horseman, the Véhicule poets, the Toronto Pataphysical writers. .Of course, nothing is easier than to cavil about the inclusion or exclusion of names in any selective work, be it an anthology, a bibliography, or, as here, a critical introduction to a literature. But the foregoing lists of scanted and omitted poets are useful, not merely as indicators of a possible area of disappointment for general and undergraduate readers of Keith's book, but also as intimations of a probable source of interest for specialist readers of Canadian Literature in English, namely the critical assump tions that lie behind the emphases and omissions of a study which will doubtless help to shape conceptions of Canadian literature in Canada and abroad during the years to come. It is primarily in this light (and with the focus still on Canadian poetry) that the remainder of this review will consider Canadian Literature in English.

     A charitable construal of Keith's less than full coverage of contempo rary Canadian poetry would grant that in the latter stages of Canadian Literature in English he is faced with the nearly overwhelming difficulty of dealing with a welter of writers, many of whom, as he notes (p. [xi] and 106), are not far enough advanced in their creative careers to enable the critic accurately to gauge their place in the country's literary history. "As we draw closer to the present day," says Keith after his witty and enlightening discussions of Purdy and Atwood, "it becomes more difficult to isolate the most promising and significant of the contemporary poets.... It seems wise, then, ... to consider the contemporaries and successors of Purdy and Atwood in groups according to the kind of poetry they tend to write" (p. 102). A more critical construal of Keith's difficulties, however, might include the suggestion that they devolve, less from the state of contemporary Canadian poetry, than from a notorious weakness of nearly all evaluative criticism: the inability to pass confident judgements on authors and works that have not been subjected to the usual forces (including what Wilfred Campbell called literary log-rolling) that lead to the formation of a canon of "central," "important," "major" ("the best") texts. Can sound evaluation ever precede historical process and critical analysis? Many writers (including A.J.M. Smith) have thought not, but Keith is more confident, at least in the early and middle sections of the book: "The true distinction. . . between bad and good writing," he asserts in his discussion of Layton, "requires a subtle exercise of literary discrimination" (p. 93). At bottom, of course, this assertion is circular, for all "literary discrimination" is grounded in the first place in certain (often teleological) assumptions about what constitutes "good" and what constitutes "bad" writing. The next question, then, must be one concerning the nature of the assumptions that lie behind the "subtle exercise of literary discrimination" in Canadian Literature in English.

     In my view, the "literary discrimination" being subtly exercised in Keith's study is one grounded in the assumptions of institutionalized Modernism and its critical correlatives: the discerning appreciation of F.R. Leavis and his followers and, to a lesser extent here, the practical criticism of I.A. Richards and the New Critics. The presence of these assumptions in Canadian Literature in English can be deduced in a variety of ways, one being a recognition that Keith is at his strongest and most enthusiastic when discussing those pre-modern, modern and post-modern poets (Pratt, Livesay, Birney, Dudek, Kroetsch, Lane . . .) whose work seems to him to evince the authentic relation to reality valued by Leavis and others (including the Modernists themselves) and at its weakest and most dismissive when discussing (or ignoring) writers who err from this "standard" in various directions — for example, into (excessive) dreaming, (excessive) rhetoric, and (excessive) experimentation. With Keith's norms on view it becomes easy to see why, on the one hand, Lampman is upbraided for a tendency to "overemphasize imagery of dream and reverie (p. 37) and, on the other, why D.C. Scott is praised for a "blending of a Victorian traditionalism . . . with a modern avoidance of the verbally ornate and an equally modern concern (though . . . via Arnold) for honest precision, 'seeing the object as it really is'"(p. 40). From this perspective, Lampman is at his best in the tetrameter "In November" when he catches "the engaging sharpness of the Canadian landscape that will later impress poets like A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott" (pp. 38-39) and D.C. Scott, "less admired in his time, . . . established the most effective lines of poetic continuity between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canadian verse (p. 40). Similarly, Scott's In the Village of Viger is praised for conveying a "convincing sense of a particular communal life" (p. 46) and The Golden Dog is better than Waco usta because of its "lovingly minute and factually exact descriptions" (p. 44). Throughout Canadian Literature in English this characteristically Modern preference for realism over romance (and Romanticism) is repeatedly evident, undergirding evaluations of writers and works as diverse as Raymond Knister ("at his best, he does not extrapolate from his immediate experience" [p. 59]) and The History of Emily Montague (read now, if at all, for its "documentary qualities.. . [its] touches of unique local colour").

     That Keith's essentially Modernist position entails an acceptance of, amongst other things, ideas of tradition articulated by such writers as F.R. Leavis (The Great Tradition) and T.S. Eliot ("Tradition and the Individual Talent"), also assists an understanding of the hostility in the contemporary sections of his book to writers who contest or ignore the tradition or continuity of which they are a part. After listing the characteristics of "most recent experimental Canadian poets" ("an anti-humanist stance, a determination to challenge traditional modes of expression and so on), Keith observes: "Such assumptions are unlikely to coexist with a strong sense of cultural continuity, so I shall consider them [the poets] only briefly here" (p. 112). And earlier he observes of "the most talented" of the "few working-class poets that Canada has produced": "There is little point in writing much about Milton Acorn here, since this is a book about the continuities of cultural tradition and Acorn's main concern is to challenge the established tradition whenever and wherever he encounters it" (p. 104). Little wonder that bp Nichol and others fall outside the pale of Canadian Literature in English. But surely, whether one likes their assumptions or not, writers who challenge "established tradition" challenge, that is, the elitist and humanistic assumptions of Keith's classic Modernism are as much a part of Canadian literature as those who do not? How complete would a survey of French literature be that ignored or scanted Mallarmé, Jarry, Jacob, Apollinaire ... the Surrealists? How complete is Atwood's Survival, with its blind eye for such writers as Leacock and Lampman who lapse from Canadian grace on account of the lamentable lack of victims in their works?

    If Keith's emphasis on "cultural continuity" and "established tradi tion" results in some regrettable omissions in Canadian Literature in English, it nevertheless issues in a particular and provocative conception of what, apart from attention to authentic experience, constitutes the central line of development along which the "best" Canadian writers and works are located. In this regard, Keith's primary contention is easy enough to state: the best of Canadian writing is that which is a part of"the continuing struggle to create an independent way between [the] very different models" furnished by "the British and American traditions" (p. 6). Not only is a "poised balance" (shades of A.S.P. Woodhouse?) "between British and American models" advanced as "a quintessentially Canadian and independent stance" (p. 116), but it is used as a criterion against which all Canadian writers and their works are judged. Thus Roberts, "in establishing his own voice within a traditional poetic structure, ... attains a characteristic and significant [and 'quintessen tially Canadian'] balance between the sanctioned methods of the Old World and the fresh approaches of the New" (p. 34). By the same token, Avison is "never more Canadian than in her ability to combine [a] spare American neomodernism with a Hopkinsean exuberance" (p. 83). W.W.E. Ross also has "balance" (p. 59), as, in differing ways, do other writers Pratt, Dudek, Birney, Layton, Atwood whom Keith admires. With resonances in a wide variety of Canadian thinkers, including Haliburton and Duncan, the notion of the Canadian way as a via media between Britain and America tends in the poetry sections especially of Canadian Literature in English to confer kudos, not merely on poets who achieve something like an "ideal blend" (p. 5) of qualities associated with the U.S. (savagery, freshness, voice) and the U.K. (sweetness, convention, form), but also on writers such as Birney, Dudek, Pratt, Purdy and D.C. Scott who, by virtue of spanning two literary periods, appear to combine the new with the old. A further consequence of Keith's idealization of balance is his tendency to valorize the most moderate works of extreme writers (Layton is at his best when he is "fine-crude" [p. 93]) and to undervalue writers and works that occupy extreme positions, even if they do so consistently and, in their own terms, successfully. Various poets who fall into this latter category have already been mentioned. Other cases in point are Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman ("Jake is involved in a sordid and sensational sex scandal" and loses our sympathy because "he responds to any sexual reference like one of Pavlov's dog's" [p. 152]) and George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje, two poets who lack the sought-for balance and, thus, rank lower than Patrick Lane (whose "language remains simple and direct but takes on intensity and resonance" [p. 111]) and Robert Kroetsch (whose poems have "verbal poise and control" and an "almost traditional sense of style" [pp. 115-116]). Although not entirely closed to these and other objections (are Britain and America the monoliths that Keith describes? Is George Grant less important as a Canadian writer and thinker for failing to achieve the "poised balance" that Keith admires?), the balance theory of Canadian culture has the merit of permitting Keith to survey and assess Canadian writing without recourse to such old bromides as survival, patterns of isolation and the garrison mentality.

     A further merit of Keith's concentration on a developing Canadian tradition with a central path that leads from past to present (albeit over the heights of Modernism) is that it permits him, like Sandra Djwa (whose work he expands in this respect) to make numerous convincing connections between earlier and later Canadian writers. On occasion, however, Keith's emphasis on tradition encourages him to make connections that are less than convincing. Are Cogswell's "casual sonnets about New Brunswick villagers" better seen as "an adaptation of Robert's example in Songs of the Common Day" (p. 103) than as derivations of the work of E.A. Robinson? What basis is there for claiming that "the intimate colloquial rhythms" of certain passages in The Imperialist "must surely have influenced Leacock" (p. 49). And does Wiebe's Temptations of Big Bear "surely lie ... somewhere behind the method and achievement" (p. 169) of Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter? These and other forced assertions of indebtedness within the Canadian continuity are an aspect of the curiously insistent yet guarded nationalism that surfaces occasionally in Canadian Literature in English, appearing also, for example, in the book's tonally awkward references to "our literature" and "our history."

     One further aspect of Canadian Literature in English that may be related to Keith's Leavisite leanings and his emphasis on the via media is the anti-intellectualism that surfaces both in his commentaries and in his bibliographies. Since Keith observes early in the book that following the Second World War "literary criticism" in Canada has ''multiplied in conspicuous, even alarming fashion" (p. 4), little surprise accompanies the discovery that in his General Bibliographies and his bibliographies of Individual Authors he reveals a strong bias towards studies that emanate from creative writers and/or tend to be relatively unacademic under D.C. Scott, for example, he lists the essay by a poet-critic, Gordon Johnston, in the Canadian Writers and Their Works series, but in the corresponding entry on Archibald Lampman he does not list the equivalent essay by L.R. Early, a scholar-critic. The same bias is revealed in the entry on Irving Layton, where the reader is referred "especially" to essays by two men of letters, Milton Wilson and George Woodcock (also a poet-critic and, of course, a major proponent of the view that Canadian literature really begins with the arrival of Modernism), but no mention is made of the centrally important and valuable essays of Wynne Francis on Layton and Nietzsche. Under Sara Jeannette Duncan, Marian Fowler's novelistic Redney (1983) is listed, but there is no reference to Thomas E. Tausky's Sara Jeannette Duncan (1980), a more critically- and academically- oriented study of the novelist. The bias against academic literary criticism in Canadian Literature in English is, in places, joined by a bias towards Toronto writers and critics, most notably perhaps Robertson Davies who, in addition to being given a high profile as a novelist, provides the only entry in the field of Leacock criticism in the form of Stephen Leacock (1970), an extraordinarily wrong-headed book that is described here as a "Good general introduction by a fellow humorist" (p. 260). Although Torontocentrism is probably not a serious flaw in Canadian Literature in English, it puts in an intriguing appearance on the book's cover an impressionistic depiction of a Toronto street scene complete with paper boys, a street car, and two formally-dressed gentlemen who aptly epitomize Keith's study in its sensible acceptance of the metaphor of Canadian literature as an "offshoot" (p. 4) of the British tradition.

     Canadian Literature in English is attractively produced and as free from errors as might be expected from a long-time editor of the University of Toronto Quarterly, though surely the author of the Stepsure Letters is McCulloch, not McCullogh, and the villain of Crawford's Malcolm's Katie is Alfred, not Adrian (p. 32).  What, then, can be concluded about Canadian Literature in English? Keith has provided non-specialist readers with a lucid and useful overview of his subject and specialist readers with much to ponder about the biases and assumptions of a critic of real stature and importance in Canadian literary studies. A great many surveys of English-Canadian literature can be found in libraries, and Canadian Literature in English is a worthy and worthwhile addition to their number.

D.M.R. Bentley