A Narrative Bibliography of Canadian Criticism

The Year's Work in English Studies, Vol. 64: 1983, ed. Laurel Brake et al (For the English Association, London: John Murray; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: 1986), xxxvii + 745 pp.

The scholars who contribute to volumes such as The Year's Work in English Studies, which introduces with Vol. 64 "expanded coverage of other literature in English" ([p. v.]) besides British and American, almost never receive the full credit that they deserve. For putting aside their own work to carry out the extremely time-consuming business of reading, evaluating, and summarizing a large body of material, the editors and contributors involved in The Year's Work in English Studies, deserve the thanks of everyone involved in the teaching of literature in English. One of these contributors is Charles Steele, whose section on "Canada" in YWES, 64, pp. 557-574 is a model of its kind — a "selective, comprehensive, and evaluative narrative bibliography of scholarly writing in the field. . . " ([p. v.]) that can be read with profit and pleasure by students and scholars of Canadian writing both in Canada and elsewhere. This is a modest but valuable achievement, and Steele deserves credit for taking what was probably a tedious task and making of it a "narrative" that is both informative and readable. 

      Steele's entry, like others in the YWES, is divided into four parts: (a) General, (b) Prose, (c) Poetry, and (d) Drama. By and large, this is a sensible plan that does justice to the material covered, though occasionally it leads to the dismemberment or arbitrary classification of authors whose work falls into more than one category. In Steele's hands, the four-part structure of the YWES essay results in an acceptably proportioned treatment of the material to be covered; the Drama section (1-2 pp.) is somewhat shorter than the other three (General: 6 pp.; Prose: 6-7 pp.; Poetry: 4-5 pp.), but this, like the length of these other sections, is an appropriate reflection of the amount of criticism and scholarship to be covered. The treatment of individual items within sections is judicious and— bar a very few errors of spelling and gender attribution — accurate. By comparison with its nearest competitor, the "extensive but not exhaustive bibliography of Canadian literature" (p. 557) that appears annually in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Steele's entry in the YWES is more inclusive, comprehensive and balanced in its presentation and discussion of "scholarly writing" on Canadian literature.

     Steele lives steadfastly up to the claim of the Preface of YWES that his narrative'' will be ''evaluative" as well as ''comprehensive." The kindergarten attitude of "a prize for everyone" does not pertain here. Many of Steele's evaluations are crisply to the point. In his essay in Perspectives on Regions and Regionalism, Robin Mathews offers "characteristically strident fulminations" (p. 558); in a piece entitled "Two Sutherlands: the Status of Criticism in Canada" in Essays on Canadian Writing, John Harris argues "intemperately and with little persuasiveness" (p. 560); in "Crouched in Dark Caves: the Post-Colonial Narcissism of Canadian Literature" in the Yearbook of English Studies, David Staines "rehearses the standard, facile definition of the development of Canadian literature as laggingly derivative for its first century or more, to be replaced by an adolescent fixation on the future from the 1920s to the 1950s, then finally to blossom in the last couple of decades into a culturally mature orientation on the past. The scheme is neat but does not provide sufficient detail of its initial assumptions to be convincing" (p. 558). By comparison, Carl Berger's Science, God and Nature in Victorian Canada is 'convincing' and Clifford G. Holland's essay on William Dawson LeSueur in Canadian Literature is "relatively convincing" (p. 559). Occasionally, Steele states his point less emphatically, as for example in the understated but evident distaste of his remark that "Canadian literary historians still concentrate their attention upon the recent past . . ." (p. 560). Here as elsewhere in the entry on Canada in YWES Steele both acknowledges and regrets the reluctance of much contemporary criticism to confront and assimilate the literature of the pre-modern periods.

      There is a penetrating critical intelligence at work in the Canada entry in YWES, and many of its insights deserve to be repeated and pondered: for example, on T.D. Maclulich's "Our Place on the Map: the Canadian Tradition in Fiction": "He addresses the question of a Canadian tradition, but sees no irony in his importation of an American scheme of anatomizing that tradition" from "Leslie Fiedler's The Vanishing America . . ." (p. 563) and on Marian Fowler's Redney: a Life of Sara Jeanette Duncan: "Gothic romance threatens in her depiction of Duncan's relationship with Joaquin Miller and in her attribution to Duncan of a father-fixation" (p. 564). Or there is the following comment on Judith Owen's essay on Ondaatje's Billy the Kid: "her emphasis on Billy as a psychological entity and as author-narrator misreads the poem's multiple voices and misplaces the focus which should, I think, be on the reader's responses" (p. 572). As Steele makes his way through the bibliographies, biographies, interviews, and studies published in 1983, his smoothly written and refreshingly frank commentary often surprises and delights with the clarity of its perceptions and the shrewdness of its judgments.

      Some reflections about the state of the academic study of Canadian literature in the nineteen eighties are inevitably provoked by Steele's contribution to YWES, 64. The first is that in 1983 (less so now that the Klein, Pratt and Carleton editing teams, amongst others, have begun producing results), there were notably few scholarly or critical editions of Canadian writers coming from the country's presses. The second is that, while our books and journals have recently been full of close studies of individual writers and works, there have been few attempts to produce synoptic overviews of the field of Canadian literature — a lack that has left the door of academic criticism open to such regurgitations of ideas from the 'sixties as Gaile McGregor's The Wacousta Syndrome (1985). And the third is that many of the "strident," "unconvincing," "facile" and "intemperate" pieces whose weaknesses Steele chronicles probably should never have found their way into print at all, and probably would not have done so — to judge from the recurrence of certain publishing outlets in the background of the articles and books that are more-or-less castigated by Steele — if the editors of various presses and publications (most notably the proceedings of conferences and symposia) were to have exercised more rigorous control over their authors. For its comprehensiveness, for its evaluative stance, for its penetrating insights, and for its perspective on recent Canadian criticism, Charles Steele's entry on Canada in YWES, 64 deserves to be read with care and gratitude by students and teachers of Canadian literature.

Allan Mortifee