The Lack of Ghosts: A Review of Recent Criticism on Pre-Confederation Literature

     “It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.

     Not so; it’s just that we refuse to recognize them, to acknowledge that our past, and particularly our literary past, was, and is, prologue to our present. “There is no fog but in the will / the iceberg is elective.” We wilfully persist in the romantic notion that we are a generation sprung fully-formed from our own Jovian temples, self-made (or perhaps, in the appropriate jargon, “self-realized”). In our perilous disregard for our own past, we are, ironically, much more the naive pursuers of Eden than the predecessors against whom we have often made this accusation. And, in electing Horatio Alger and ignorance, we are surrendering much more than a past we would like to believe dispensable; we are relinquishing a very significant dimension of the present, of ourselves, and of the future.

     We may believe enthusiastically, and, I think, correctly, that Canadian literature has never been more vital, more mature, than at present. We may assert, again I think, with some validity, that there is little evident, direct continuity between this present, excellent, generation and those past, apparently less accomplished, generations of Canadian writers. But we should remember that continuity is not defined by lineal descent alone, nor solely by the medium of direct influence, however this latter intangible may be measured. Continuity between cultural and literary generations may be established by any one, or combination, of a variety of seemingly ephemeral, or tangential congruities. John Newlove, for example, contends with conviction in his poem “The Pride” that the shared experience of place alone, regardless of temporal difference, links races as well as generations in a radical way. Many of our contemporary writers, from Margaret Atwood in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, to Rudy Wiebe in The Temptations of Big Bear, to Sharon Pollock in her play Walsh, have been imaginatively acknowledging the significant presence of our Canadian ghosts. Canadian critics should extend similar acknowledgement to those literary eidolons as yet too little regarded.

     It is not a heartening fact for either Canadian education or Canadian literary studies that less than five percent of the theses (held over, completed, in progress) recorded in Journal of Canadian Fiction 16: 1976 attended in any significant way to pre-Confederation literature while more than eighty percent of those same theses were focussed upon living Canadian authors. This is surely an alarming imbalance, even if one were to concede aesthetic differences (and I doubt that aesthetics was often a major determinant). These proportions, however, are representative of the contents of our critical publications of the last two years.

     Much of the work that has been published recently on pre-Confederation literature has been of good quality: sound, interesting and informative. Some, of course, has been disappointing. Doug Fetherling’s attempt (“The Canadian Goldsmith”, Canadian Literature, 68-69: Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 121-124) to turn Goldsmith into a Canadian McGonigle, to “rescue” him as a Kamp figure, must be regarded as merely trivial, especially when he claims that Goldsmith was the initiator of a tradition (later to include E.J. Pratt) “that wished itself epic but instead was merely historical.” This kind of debunking debunks only Fetherling himself.

     Equally disappointing is T.E. Farley’s facile, clichéed categorizing in his exiles and pioneers: two visions of Canadas future (Borealis Press). He employs jaded terms such as “loyalist response” to articulate strident, but unconvincing, political rhetoric to which the literature itself is clearly secondary. It is, further, rhetoric which Robert Prowse, in his review in Essays on Canadian Writing (6: Spring 1977, pp. 155-157), aptly characterizes as “essentially an example of cultural colonialism which tells us nothing about where we are and attempts to manipulate where we have been.

     A much sounder piece of work is Sandra Djwa’s introduction to the Literature of Canada series edition of Charles Heavysege’s Saul and Selected Poems (University of Toronto Press, 1976). But there is evident here too a tendency to belabour unhelpfully the critical cliché of colonialism. How useful is it to apologize yet one more time for the aesthetic deficiences of our early writers by descrying the “absence of a supportive cultural milieu,” something that itself has never been adequately defined? And how convincing can denunciations of the colonial outlook of nineteenth century Canada be when the twentieth century writer who utters them herself evokes the authority of British and American critics (Coventry Patmore, Bayard Taylor)?

     A similar confusion in the use of what has become a commonplace thematic category in its application to pre-Confederation literature appears in Robin Endres’ article, “Robert Hayman’s Quodlibets,” Canadian Literature, 73: Summer 1977, pp. 68-78. On the one hand, Endres perceptively points out that Hayman’s verse is an exception to the normal propagandistic verse in that “it attempts to give a realistic picture of the advantages and disadvantages of life in the colonies, without the usual overly optimistic and sometimes fantastic claims made for the new world.” No simplistic Edenic vision here, then, one would think, and a reading of Quodlibets supports this conclusion. Yet, for some reason, Endres feels that the tag must be applied, and proceeds to apply it with the aid of a strained and vapid symbol:

This is the genre of new world poetry which does not look backward and base itself on the ancient myths of the mother culture (as William Vaughan’s Golden Fleece does), but which rather looks forward to a newEden of the future — symbolized by the potential of the unripe ears of corn.

And, Eden had long been incorporated into the mythology of Hayman’s “mother culture”.

     Still it is heartening to see the kind of close attention represented in Endres’ article extended to the earliest Canadian writing, and in something other than an apologetic or condescending fashion. This is certainly preferable to the utter disregard of pre-Confederation literature that as yet too often characterizes the work of even well-established critics. I have in mind in particular the recent special issue on Canadian literature of the Review of National Literatures 7 (1976). Its editor, Richard J. Schoeck, in his essay “Reflections on Canadian Poetry” (pp. 67-82), completely ignores pre-Confederation verse, and Ronald Sutherland likewise ignores pre-Confederation fiction in his article “Canadian Fiction — Comparatively Speaking” (pp. 13-36). Sutherland explains this disregard when he says that “the literature of Canada, like the nation itself perhaps, has been late in blooming”, but he should pursue further the implications of his own metaphor to the realization that the bloom is not the only significant part of the plant, and, in fact, is given existence, and identity, by a relatively long and important process of germination and growth.

     These early stages of Canadian literary growth need, as I have been saying, to be examined much more fully than they have been. Not simply catalogued and described as in the Literary History of Canada, first and second editions, the latter (University of Toronto Press, 1976) little altered in its pre-Confederation sections from the former. Nor is it sufficient simply to reprint early texts with adumbrated scholarly and critical introductions attached. Reprints are valuable certainly; they make accessible basic primary sources and thereby stimulate explorations of our literary beginnings. Reprint series such as the University of Toronto Press’s Literature of Canada Series or The Golden Dog Press’s Early Canadian Poetry Series perform very valuable functions when they give us such items as Heavysege’s Saul and Selected Poems (mentioned above), Richardson’s The Canadian Brothers (ed. Carl F. Klinck, University of Toronto Press, 1976), or George Longmore’s The Charivari (introduced by Mary Lu MacDonald, The Golden Dog Press, 1977). Less valuable are the abbreviated republications of McClelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library series which has recently given us half of John Galt’s Bogle Corbet (ed. Elizabeth Waterston).

     The introductions to these volumes vary in scholarly and critical worth. All are hampered by the brevity and superficiality imposed by the primacy of publishing and marketing over critical and scholarly considerations. The most interesting and exciting of the introductions, however, belongs to Mary Lu MacDonald who illustrates, by identifying George Longmore to be the author of a poem previously thought to have been composed by Levi Adams, that some very interesting and rewarding basic research remains to be done for Canadian literature.

     This lesson is supplemented by two volumes of lesser literary stature. Mary Brown’s edition of The Wait Letters (Press Porcepic), and Jane Vansittart’s Lifelines: The Stacy Letters (Peter Davies), prove that the discovery of primary sources is also still an achievement possible in pre-Confederation studies.

     Some of these sources reside in relatively accessible areas (thanks largely to the Canadian Library Association micro-filming activities). Newspapers and periodicals, as some critics are insisting, are essential areas of study. As David Arnason points out, in his introduction to his Nineteenth Century Canadian Stories (Macmillan, 1976), a good collection of nineteenth century short fiction, in colonial Canada “newspapers and periodicals became the intellectual and cultural centre of community life.” George Parker puts the case even more strongly:

. . . the periodicals are the proper starting point for discussing what is in fact an abundant quantity of imaginative writing. The story of the literary newspapers and magazines is now relatively unknown, yet the genres, the preoccupations, and the cultural trends we find in them reflect a far more complex intellectual climate than we have hitherto acknowledged.

Mr. Parker’s article (“Literary Journalism Before Confederation”, Canadian Literature, 68-69: Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 88-100) proves with its good survey of pre-Confederation periodicals that closer analyses of these would be as fruitful as he contends. Conversely, Frances M. Frazer’s survey of Prince Edward Island writing in the same issue of Canadian Literature (“Island Writers”, pp. 76-87) demonstrates the deficiency of a vision which does not take account of these media. Because she ignores the “newspaper ephemera” of the “some thirty newspapers . . . published on the Island for varying periods between 1787 and 1867,” her article gives the impression that Prince Edward Island was a cultural vacuum prior to Confederation, an impression which a thorough examination of these papers would disprove.

     Some of the humbler, more mundane spirits of the Canadian literary past, then, need to be accorded serious recognition. But Malcolm Ross reminds us that there are also less humble, tangential figures to excite our interest, figures such as Bishop Medley of mid-nineteenth-century Fredericton who contributed significantly, albeit in non-literary fashion, to the definition of the local cultural ethos which produced Roberts, Carman, Sherman, and others. There is a good deal more of this kind of work to be done.

     Basic textual scholarship of the kind called for in Schoeck’s Review of National Literatures essay needs to be undertaken. That it can be both intriguing and productive is demonstrated by M.G. Parks who argues convincingly in a Canadian Literature article (“Strange to Strangers Only” 70: Autumn 1976, pp. 61-78) that James de Mille’s A Strange Manuscript was written prior to 1867 and hence could not be the creature of influence that many other critics have made it appear to be.

     Ironically, the criticism of pre-Confederation literature of late has tended to be less vibrant, less interesting than the scholarship. Tom Marshall’s unimaginative, rather too pat, contention that Haliburton was articulating through his Sam Slick stories a Canadian via media between American republicanism and British monarchism is an example (“Haliburton’s Canada”, Canadian Literature, 68-69: Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 134-138). A little more interesting is Marjorie Whitelaw’s competent overview of the range of Thomas McCulloch’s imaginative work (“Thomas McCulloch”, Canadian Literature, 68-69: Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 138-147). Robert A. Lecker’s “Patterns of Deception in Wacousta” (Journal of Canadian Fiction, 19: 1977, pp. 77-85) provides us with some interesting critical perspectives on motifs and themes within Richardson’s novel, but is not finally convincing. Thomas B. Vincent’s critical look at the work of Alline and Bailey (“Alline and Bailey”, Canadian Literature, 68-69: Spring- Summer 1976, pp. 124-133) offers its most salutary conclusion in the assertion that “they were part of a cultural milieu marked not by uniformity but by diversity of assumptions, expectations, and attitudes.

     The most substantial work of criticism on pre-Confederation literature to appear in the last eighteen months is Carol Shields’ Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (Borealis Press, 1977). Ms. Shields focusses upon three major themes: complex personality, sexual reversal, social structure, and while she presents these with interest and a degree of conviction, they seem to require even further development, fuller treatment. But Ms. Shields has provided a good beginning for a more complete recognition of one of our more prominent literary ghosts.

     We are gradually electing cognizance of our past and of ourselves. Clearly, I believe that our efforts are yet inadequate. “It is not easy to free myth from reality”, but the longer we ignore our eidolons the more completely they evanesce into myth, and the more difficult becomes our task to ascertain the reality they contain which is ourselves.

Charles R. Steele