Documenting His / story; Engendering Myth: Re-reading Malcolm’s Katie

by Cecily Devereux


The epic man found in laying the forest giants low; the drama in the passionate welfare of his family; and the lyric, in the smiles and tears of her who rocked and watched far into the night the tender and fragile flower that blossomed from their union and love.
                                                  —Thomas O’Hagan
, Canadian Essays (55)

The long narrative poem has been regarded as a "Canadian" "national" genre since Dorothy Livesay’s discussion of the "documentary poem" in 1969. Well before Livesay’s articulation of the importance of this genre to Canadian nation-building, Northrop Frye had made a case for the centrality of "the narrative tradition in English-Canadian literature." What Susan Stanford Friedman has shown in the American long poem, however, is also evident in the Canadian tradition: even as the genre engenders history as a national subject, both the history and the story that it constructs are gendered. In Canada, the genre has served, as Livesay has pointed out, to "document" the history of the nation, but it has done so by "using language," as Frye puts it, "as one would an axe" (230); and the axe, to paraphrase Jane Austen, has been in male hands. Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie (1884) and Hugh and Ion (1977) are the only long "nation-building" poems by a female author in nineteenth-century Canada to be included in the canon of "the narrative tradition" in poetry. Unless we are swayed by the rhetoric of Tennyson’s poem The Princess and conclude that women simply cannot write narrative verse, the singularity of Crawford can only "document" the restrictions imposed by gender and by genre upon the production of stories of "epic" conquest by female poets in Canada.

One approach to Malcolm’s Katie—as well as to Hugh and Ion— has been to return to the myths upon which the poem is seen to be structured and to reposition them in relation to a feminist critique. Another approach might be to bring the poem into alignment with "women’s history" and the study of gender constructions in late nineteenth-century English Canada, with particular reference to the western expansionist movement. Another related approach, and what I have undertaken here, is to look at the poem as what Teresa de Lauretis calls "an engraving of the history of [gender] construction" (3): that is, to read the poem both as a female-authored narrative and as a poem which works against a male tradition of narrative (myth and history), in light of the gender conflicts which are inevitable in the interpretation of Malcolm’s Katie as a "story" of "man’s conquest" of the west. These conflicts provide a context both for Crawford’s writing and for our reading of the poem, since the gendered imperatives of genres—and especially of narrative poetry—are indicated in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary critical discourse.

O’Hagan’s comments on the genres of pioneering poetry in Canada underscore the process of literary nation-building (implicitly by critics, explicitly by poets) as a gendered one, for they also draw attention to the construction of history in literature through the symbolic alignment of text with context. The suggestion that "man" found the epic in the process of conquering an army of "forest giants" arises from the assumption that it was there to be found, that the process of colonization is made intelligible only in terms of this literary/historical/mythological genre, and, most significantly, that both the physical experience and its "translation" into literary terms are available only to men. What O’Hagan in effect does is to impose a narrative (a "story") simultaneously upon "history" and its representation. The crucial restriction inherent in this narrative is twofold: first, it mist be performed (physically) by a man and, second, it must be written by a man, the man, implicitly, who performs the tasks. Thus the extrinsic "text" (the context) and the intrinsic or imaginative "text" are equally produced—and reproduced—by men. Women writers such as Crawford, even if they have made "the best image a poet has given us of Canadian living in the years following Confederation" and possess "the most remarkable mythopoeic imagination in Canadian poetry" (Frye 147-48), are effectively denied access to Canadian history—at least the history of nation-building—and thus to the genres which "document" it or, in fact, construct it. Both history and myth, that is, are simultaneously gendered and engendered.

The gendering of the "epic" of nation-building is a tradition of long standing in English Canada, and converges, in the late nineteenth century, with the allocation of literary genres within the ideological framework of separate spheres for men and women. The Canadian version of this issue merges the kind of rhetoric disseminated by misogynist commentators and anthologists in England and in the United States with a growing nationalist (and of course imperialist) interest in establishing a mythology and a history which would demonstrate the triumph of "civilization" in Canada.1 Thus, W.D. Lighthall writes in his Introduction to the 1889 anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion, "The poets whose songs fill this book are voices cheerful with the consciousness of young might, public wealth, and heroism…The tone of them is courage;—for to hunt, to fight, to hew out a farm, one must be a man!" (xii; my emphasis). Lighthall’s anthology is composed of lyrics, but, as his subheadings suggest, these songs are strung together in such a way as to constitute an imaginative narrative, and "taken all together," as he puts it, convey a "history" of the "Great Dominion" that is the "story" of man’s conquest.

Although women are well represented in Lighthall’s anthology (Crawford, for instance, has four poems in the "Settlement Life" section, two in "Sports and Free Life," and one in "Seasons"), the "virility" of Canadian verse is made explicit in this first paragraph on the Introduction, and re-emphasized in his subsequent comments about "lady singers" who write "with the power and spirit of masculinity" although they do not necessarily transgress either sexual labour divisions or gendered literary genres: "How these women," he marvels, "sympathise with the pluck of the heroes!" (xxxii; my emphasis). Such "heroes" as these build nations, figure in the documentation of the processes of nation-building, produce the texts and read them. When women trespass upon this ground, they must write as men ("with the power and spirit of masculinity") and follow the prescribed narrative that is "history" or, more precisely here, his/story, mythologized in terms of (epic) male conquest.

The compromised praise that is usually accorded Crawford even by her most ardent supporters bespeaks a problem that is still pressing for contemporary criticism of women’s writing in Canada. While it is probably misguided to postulate that Crawford was denied recognition in her own lifetime because she was a woman writer—the nineteenth century in English Canada, after all, was a period of enormous literary production by women in almost every genre but narrative poetry—it is possible to see how the construction of a narrative/history/myth of Canada as a "male" space leads to a considerable diminishment of the "poetic value" of her long narrative works. Its "truth," while foregrounded as the most valuable feature of the poem, is also undermined by her own "failure" either to participate in the history of nation-building that she "documents" in Malcolm’s Katie or to suit her genre to her gender: she "chose to waste her talents writing about men with axes, whom she did not understand" (Newton 12-13). Few critics question her ability to write lyrics; her narrative poems have proved to be intensely problematic precisely because they are not only at the edge of genre, as Smaro Kamboureli puts it, but also at the border of gender, even, on occasion, transgressing the boundaries, as she writes the kind of poem that men are to produce in conjunction with/as a representation of their pioneering processes in the business of building a nation. The problem is the fact of Crawford’s gender and the immutability of the history and myth with which she engages as male-identified processes.

To read and to value Malcolm’s Katie only, or primarily, as a "document" of western expansion is to position Crawford (and the poem) as an intermediary between "texts" that she has not written at all—the "history" and the "myth" of the frontier. It is, moreover, to fix this "history" as the only "true" story of Canada, and the "myth" as the only viable interpretation of that story, and, thus, to reaffirm a standard of "truth" which can never be made available to women writers, either now or retroactively, to "express" their own experiences in nineteenth-century Canada. Like literary forms, myths, Kamboureli has suggested, "are ready-made grids, codes of experience prepared in advance. Their content is that of doxa, a system of thought pronounced with the vigor of truth but lacking truth itself" (1985, 107). When female poets "use" myths, Kamboureli argues, they do not "use [them] as referents, as stories denotating experience. Instead, they break through this dialectic shield of ‘illusive’ truth and reach to an open field, the meadow, their psyche inhabits" (1985, 108).2 Such an interpretation may well explain what Dorothy Livesay sees as the deposition of "old myths" in Malcolm’s Katie: although Livesay’s perception of this exchange is couched within a rhetoric of the New World displacing the Old, rather than of the female poet rupturing the dialectic of "truth," it nonetheless situates the poem in (albeit against) what Kamboureli identifies as "the male praxis of thought and interpretation" itself (1985, 107). If the myth and the history essentially tell the same "story," in so far as they are equally and simultaneously constructed within the gender-specific "praxis of thought and interpretation," and we accept Crawford’s act of writing against this particular narrative, then the "story" of Malcolm’s Katie must also be seen as working against history as his/story.

It is possible to see, through a re-consideration of this central problematic of Malcolm’s Katie, that women’s narrative poetry in the nineteenth century, as Susan Stanford Friedman has argued it does in the twentieth, works fundamentally against history and myth as epic.3 That Crawford’s poem does indeed work against history and myth should be evident in the failure of the heroic narrative to be conclusively resolved. Although Max "conquers" the terrain, he is reminded of the tenuous nature of his success when he is pinned by a falling tree; moreover, he is not permitted to represent his success as the happy ending of the Eden myth in the New World, or to close the poem as its authoritative poet-hero. That this process is directly relevant to the constitution of the women as subject (reader/ writer/heroine) in the poem should be evident in the success with which Katie redirects the narrative and empties Max’s symbols and literary/mythological patterns of meaning. In Malcolm’s Katie, the process of working against the male modality of narrative is neither an act of subversion nor one of subterfuge, but one of decentring: Katie’s narrative is not the poem’s "subtext," hidden beneath its seemingly benign reproduction of male history/myth/narrative, but is constituted as "story" and positioned, gynocentrically, in the same time and space that Max occupies. In this way, the woman writer (Crawford) puts herself into that text— "as into the world and into history," as Hélène Cixous argues the woman writer must do— by her own movement (875). She thus draws our attention as readers to the presence of women in the text and the reader is invited to interpret the "story." It is not, therefore, necessary—and may well be counterproductive—to treat Max’s story as the "surface" text, a mimetic and "truthful" account of pioneering beneath which lies a seething, erotic, and politically charged talk of angry feminism. Indeed, Katie’s "stories" on the "surface" produce the "love story" the poem announces as its organizing principle. Katie’s story has been more or less obscured by the predominance of one myth and one history and by the critical positioning of the nation-building epic as the primary narrative model in English-Canadian literature of the last century. It is this "story" that a feminist reading of Malcolm’s Katie must work against, just as Katie does throughout the poem, because, as Tania Modleski has put it, "[i]f…we wish to participate in and elucidate the ongoing process that makes up female subjectivity, feminists at this historical moment need to insist upon the importance of real women as interpreters" (135), now and in other "historical moments."

If Malcolm’s Katie fundamentally fails as a "document" of pioneering because its female author is excluded from the experience that leads to both mimetic and mythopoeic reproduction of these processes of nation-building, it cannot be read solely as an image of them. Indeed, if the social interactions that contextualize the poem in nineteenth-century English Canada and in relation to its female author are ever to be categorized and analyzed, Malcolm’s Katie has to be pried loose from its critical context of history and the "epic man found." Since any interpretation of the poem within or against the praxis of either myth, as Kamboureli demonstrates, or history, such as is indicated in the "gendered process" of pioneering, leaves intact a narrative in which neither the woman in the text nor the women producing it can participate, the poem will remain in static constellation with the "story" of colonization, its "value" calculated in relation to the impossible paradox of a nineteenth-century woman writer producing a "truthful" account of a process in which she did not engage, but which is nonetheless identified as the one "true" and valuable story of the whole business of building a nation. Don Precosky would like us to see Malcolm’s Katie as undeservedly canonized though "the coming together of feminism and myth criticism" (94), but the fact is that a feminist analysis of the poem should begin with a separation of the two, since the myth— and the myths of Canadian history—effectively erase the female author from the scene of the poem.

The first step, therefore, is to disengage the narrative from the story of Max: this is the "story" of his winning of Katie and "winning through" the obstacles presented by a voracious Nature, to establish a "new" Eden in the "New World," a prevalent myth in colonialist literatures. This epic of prelapsarian recovery is told, however, in the most ambiguous terms, and, like the romantic quest charted in Crawford’s other major narrative poem of the mid-’eighties, Hugh and Ion, Max’s romance of colonization is forestalled. Although Max clings to his vision of himself as a conquering hero ("[p]oor soldier of the axe" [1: 24]) throughout the poem, he is unable to define the garden he finally recovers as paradise. As Robin Mathews has pointed out, "[t]he rejection of Eden [in Malcolm’s Katie] cannot be stressed enough. Crawford is not postulating a new Eden; she is rejecting the Eden idea" (59).4 In fact, it is Katie who articulates the distinction between Max’s vision and the domestic tableau which closes the poem. When Max returns at the end of the poem to his notion

"…that Eden bloom’d
"Deep in the heart of tall, green maple groves,
"With sudden scents of pine from mountain sides,
"And prairies with their breasts against the skies.
"And Eve was only little Katie’s height…,"
                                                          (7: 23-27)

his fantasy of recovery is immediately deflated by Katie, who "reads" the landscape against this myth, and, at the same time, debunks the myth Max is still anxious to impose as a cultural and narrative pattern. To her father’s comment that Max "speak[s] as every Adam speaks / About his bonnie Eve" (7: 27-28), she responds in such a way as to separate the narrative of which she is the eponymous heroine from the history and myth which exclude her:

"O Adam had not Max’s soul," she sa[ys];
"And these wild woods and plains are fairer far
"Than Eden’s self. O bounteous mothers they!…

                                                         •      •      •

"I would not change these wild and rocking woods,
"Dotted by little homes of unbark’d trees,
"Where dwell the fleers from the waves of want—
"For the smooth sward of selfish Eden bowers,
"Nor—Max for Adam, is I knew my mind!"
                                                   (7: 30-32; 36-40)

Katie’s negation of Max’s story and its attendant myth displaces his story and clears a space for a story of her own.

Although the poem does not disturb the separate spheres of male and female physical work—Max, after all, chops down trees and Katie "wield[s] it right queenly there and here, / In dairy, store-room, kitchen—ev’ry spot / Where woman’s ways were needed on the place" (3: 33-35)—it does question, as D.M.R. Bentley indicates, the necessary correlation of man’s tasks with the organization of narrative and the representation of history. Notwithstanding the fairly close attention paid to Katie’s work at home (3: 19-35), what is shown to be the basis of the poem’s interpretive problematic in terms of its historical context is her simultaneously central position as the poem’s subject and her inability—as a woman whose domestic tasks are carefully outlined—to engage in the physical processes of pioneering and, consequently, in this "story" of nation-building. The "need" for a male to reproduce this "story" is pointed out by her father Malcolm, who, although he coaches Katie in farm work as he would a son (3: 36-41), also stops short of regarding her as able to sustain the infinite repetition of his/story. If she does not marry, this "story" (his own and the nation’s, at least the part of it he "made") will be at an end: "God sent a lassie," says Malcolm, "but I need a son" (3: 42). The foregrounding of Katie’s gender and its rupturing of the "story" the narrative purports to relate—or to document—establishes as a crucial problematic the disjunction between the woman and the patriarchal narrative/history/myth.

If this "story" "documents" the interaction of women in nineteenth-century English Canada with the myths and literature of pioneering as dominant cultural patterns, we see that it does so first by representing a woman’s "household ways" (2: 246) and thus foregrounding women’s work in the whole business of nation-building. More importantly, however, it positions the woman in the poem as an interpreter of the gendered discourse of colonization. In this sense, it also establishes the female author as the interpreter of the social order being addressed in the poem, an astute reader of the story. This is emphatically not to suggest that Katie is a mimetic stand-in or persona for Crawford herself: if Crawford cannot be aligned with Max not only because she is not male but because she did not go west, she cannot in this way be aligned with Katie either, or seen to be recounting her own experiences. Where Crawford can be seen to be representing social interactions specific to herself as a woman writer is in the directing of our attention to the story of Malcolm’s Katie, a narrative which traces Katie’s negotiation of processes which exclude her, as they also simultaneously exclude the female writer and, subsequently, the female reader, who will of necessity be prevented from being interpellated, or "address[ed] directly [by the narrative, which] offer[s] the reader as the position from which the text is most ‘obviously’ intelligible, the position of the subject in (and of) ideology" (Belsey 593).5

Katie’s function in the poem as a "reader" is also the reader’s access to her story which is positioned against the myth (and ideology) of the patriarchal history of nation-building; indeed, the centrality of this "story" within the narrative is indicated not only retroactively in the final line of the poem, but almost at the very beginning. The "love story" begins with Max’s giving Katie "A silver ring that he had beaten out / From that same sacred coin—first well-priz’d wage / For boyish labour, kept thro’ many years" (1: 2-4). The ring is both testament of his devotion and text of his desire to conclude the love story with a happy marriage: "‘I had no skill to shape / Two hearts fast bound together, so I grav’d / Just K. and M., for Katie and for Max’" (1: 5-7). Katie’s first act in the poem is to interpret this "text," marker of the verbal and social economy within which the poem is contextualized, simultaneously explicating it to the reader and removing it from Max’s control: "But look," she says, "you’ve run the lines in such a way, / That M. is part of K., and K. of M. /…Did you mean it thus?" (1: 8-10; my emphasis). With this gesture of textual interpretation, the woman reader is immediately hailed as the subject who makes the text intelligible, and the "story" is established as an imaginary version of real social relationships that do not have relevance only to men.

The focus on Katie’s interpretive activities is sustained in this crucial opening section of the poem, and her position as the poem’s subject rather than its passive object is emphasized in her resistance to Max’s early attempt to configure the "love story" as his of conquest and her being won by the most powerful and persuasive suitor. To his articulation of anxiety about her constancy and, indeed, about her ability to think for herself, Katie responds with another, more extensive, intervention in his "text," and a compelling appropriation of his metaphor of the "perfect rose" "swept beyond [its] ken" by a "strong, wild wind" (1: 32, 33):

"O, words!" sa[ys] Katie, blushing, "only words
"You build them up that I may push them down;
"If hearts are flow’rs, I know that flow’rs can root—
"Bud, blossom, die—all in the same lov’d soil’
"They do so in my garden. I have made
"Your heart my garden. If I am a bud
"And only feel unfoldment feebly stir
"Within my leaves, wait patiently; some June,
"I’ll blush a full-blown rose, and queen it, dear,
"In your lov’d garden. Tho’ I be a bud,
"My roots strike deep, and torn from that dear soil
"Would shriek like mandrakes—those witch things I read
"Of in your quaint books."
                                                                      (1: 35-47)

Although Katie appears to be endorsing the generally Ruskinian metaphors used by Max, she is also reconfiguring the metaphor to foreground not her "blind" swaying but her conscious desire for Max. She significantly displaces the story of the rose as he would tell it, and draws attention to its implicitly textual constructedness with her reference to his "quaint books" (Relke 53-4). "I have made/ Your heart my garden" (my emphasis), she says, thus taking creative control of the "love story" ("I have made") and establishing her "version" of the garden as the central figure of the poem, significantly reversed to represent Max and not herself as the figural body upon which the text is inscribed.6 He may wish to carve his name into nature-as-woman with his axe, but she will match his "saga" with the internalized narrative in which he is the object (of desire) and she is the thinking / acting subject. She "writes" this story upon her own heart, with Max’s heart as its metaphorical counterpart, thus writing and, in effect, righting the (female) body, as she reverses—and symbolically re-verses—the poem’s expected narrative organization. In Katie’s hands, the garden is both the site for the unfolding of her "story" and the sign of the process through which this myth is displaced. By insisting, moreover, upon her own authority as the creator and interpreter of the garden "text," she also ensures that she will not become the poem’s metonymic figure for domesticated nature, or, for that matter, Max’s text, bearing his word, as Margaret Homans puts it, at the expense of her own enunciation.7

The tension created in the poem between the stories of male conquest and of female intervention in the processes of history and its myth-making is significantly dramatized when Max responds to Katie’s appropriation of his metaphors with a long speech resonating with the rhetoric of colonization and of the prominence of the male hero in the processes of nation-building. His repetition of what these processes "mean" (1: 94, 104, 109, 110) show him to be struggling to maintain control of the narrative and to direct it back to the "true" story in which only he can be the subject. Significantly, Katie cuts him off before he can conclude his self-directed saga, intervening with a return to her own desires and her own place in the story: to his list of anticipated possessions, she adds her own "heart" (1: 116). What is important in this gesture is not the seeming affirmation of herself as commodity but the insistence on her conscious desire: she gives him her heart, and refutes, in doing so, the story he wanted to tell of her "blind" swaying. Katie effectively resists Max’s interpretation of herself as text, as she will also resist Alfred’s, showing that they are not "true."

When "[t]he wooer…Max had prophesied" (3: 55) actually does appear on the scene, it is not in fulfillment of Max’s "story"(1: 32), but in support of Katie’s. The "truth" of the "text" that Katie reads in her heart and Max’s (the original symbols, after all, which Max had attempted to engrave on the ring, and for which he had substituted the more explicitly textual letters, and thus the "text" she interprets throughout the poem) is validated, rather than diminished, by the appearance of Alfred. Although Alfred interprets Katie‘s unspoken resistance to his desire correctly (she "said him ‘Nay,’/ In all the maiden, speechless, gentle ways / A woman has" [3: 88-90]), he persists in trying to force the "story" to follow his imperatives (a narrative of male conquest, like Max’s, but in which nature-as-woman is conquered in the vanquishment of woman herself) and to maintain Katie as the commodity Max also envisioned. "‘So, Katie,’" he says,

             "tho’ your blue eyes say me ‘Nay,’
"My pangs of love for gold must needs be fed,
"And shall be, Katie, if I know my mind."
                                                    (3: 149-51)

Alfred may know his mind, but he underestimates Katie’s. His basis for the ensuing misinterpretation is partly wilful, but he is given a suggestive precedent for seeing Katie as a text upon whom can be inscribed a story of male conquest and patriarchal commodification in her near escape from death in a log-jam. The logs, "all stamp’d with the potent ‘G.’ and ‘M.,’/ Which [Malcolm] much lov’d to see upon his goods" (3: 166-67) are as obviously textual as the ring Max made. Indeed, these initials are also his own—he is Max Gordon and Katie’s father is Malcolm Graeme (see Bentley 1987 xvii). When Katie runs "from log to log" (3: 201) she trespasses upon the myth of conquest in which Max and Malcolm (although not Alfred) are engaged (the logs are "monsters" [3: 203, 223, 236] and we have already seen Max "slaying" the "forest giants"), and has to be rescued by Alfred. The patriarchal narrative, as Alfred might be excused for believing, should support his cause, since it proves averse to Katie’s. However, as he discovers, Katie has a "story" of her own which she wants to see completed, and she resists his advances: implicitly, she holds the text—as least of her story—in her own hands, as she also holds it in her heart and her mind.

The seemingly ambiguous conditional of the final line of the poem, with its suggestive echo of Alfred’s claim that he knows his mind (3: 151), should direct us back to the preceding narrative to ascertain whether or not Katie does in fact "kn[o]w [her] mind’’    (7: 40), particularly since it is evident that Alfred failed to correctly interpret either his own motives or the value of her "text" as a "truthful" index of her subjective authority. What Alfred discovers is the impossibility of changing the story as Katie would have it told. Even though, following his heroic rescue of her from the mythic "woody monsters" that are inscribed with a patriarchal logos, he has "choice of hours most politic to woo" (3: 260), he cannot alter the "text" as Katie has already internalized it. "Katie’s mind," we learn, "was like the plain, broad shield / Of a table di’mond, nor had a score of sides; / And in its shield, so precious and so plain, / Was cut,—thro’ all its clear depths—Max’s name"    (3: 265-68).

The impression of Max’s name thus scored on Katie’s mind might, with the image of the ring that he "grav‘d" and the landscape that he "bites" with his axe, suggest that he is, after all, the metonymic (male) writer and she the passive (female) text who bears the word of his nation-building poem. But Max is also a poor interpreter of meanings: like Alfred’s, Max’s meanings are wilfully imposed. Where Katie, for instance, when presented with Alfred’s (false) story of Max "happy with his Indian wife" (6: 53), remains convinced of the "truth" of the text "grav’d" in the ring, Max falls prey to Alfred’s persuasive account of Katie’s inconstancy as it is encoded in the picture of her he wears (4: 161-70):

"Your Kate! your Kate! your Kate!—hark, how the woods
"Mock at your lie with all their woody tongues.
"O, silence, ye false echoes!"….

                                                    •      •      •

All the blue heav’n was dead in Max’s eyes;
Doubt-wounded lay Kate’s image in his heart,
And could not rise to pluck the sharp spear out.
                                                           (4: 187-89; 191-93)

Unable to see through Alfred’s deceptive re-presentation of the text (here, the "image" of Katie), Max has misinterpreted the "story." Into the breach created by this misinterpretation, Alfred leaps with a continued attempt to direct the narrative to follow his own desires, piling one outrageous story upon another: first he claims that Max is married to another woman (6: 53), then that he is dead (6: 80-85). This last story is too much for Katie, who falls into a stupor, disappearing from the action. Only in this condition can Alfred take possession of—or appropriate—her "constant heart" (6: 91), the metonymic centre of the text which bears Max’s name but which also inscribes her own desire, arguably the dominant impulse of the narrative as a whole.

Even at the height of the clash between Max and Alfred, Katie retains her interpretive control of the story, "reading" Max as she has always done: it is she who perceives that Max (who is still "boyish" in the beginning) has become a man ready to do battle for her on the epic scale that has, up to this moment, been held at bay by the intrusion of Katie’s narrative and by the representation of Max’s nation-building idealism as fantasy. When she opens her eyes,

She [sees] within his eyes a larger soul
Than that light spirit that before she knew,
And reads the meaning of his glance and words.
                                                      (6: 132-34)

Only at this point does she abdicate control of the story to Max: "‘Do as you will, my Max. I would not keep / You back with one light-falling finger-tip" (6: 135-36). For this one moment, his story is dominant: Max’s final heroic act in the poem is his rescue of Katie from Alfred’s nihilistic hysteria (6: 121-25). Concomitantly, Katie’s own self-abnegating gesture is her refusal to watch the battle between Max and Alfred (6: 137-39; 150-53). The disruptive effect of the events of Part 6 is significant: what intrudes here is the story that has not been told, the narrative of the male conquest. The very act of intrusion shows that the story had not heretofore followed this narrative path, but that it has, after all, been Katie’s. This disjunction is emphasized in the rapid return to a focus on Katie’s perception as the poem’s primary method of representation. Katie runs to the scene she has missed and restores her story to prominence though her "reading" of Max:

      …swift, perusing Max’s strange, dear face,
Close clasp’d against his breast—forgot [Alfred] straight
And ev’ry other evil thing upon
The broad green earth.    
                                                                    (6: 167-70)

In the final section of the poem, Katie’s story is concluded with a validation of the "truth" of the text as she reads it. By contrast, Max’s is concluded with a final blow to his interpretive ability, and thus to his function in the poem as a poet-hero. Although the image of the "broad green earth" which appears in the final line of Part 6 suggests that the Eden myth is realized in the narrative, and that the narrative produces a colonial history mimetically and mythopoeically "truthful," the first concern of Part 7 is with the refutation of this myth. That his final gesture against (epic) narrative is performed by Katie is also a last affirmation of her function as subject, not only as she actually speaks the conclusion of the story, but as she reminds us that the poem has not been "about" only Max and his nation-building. It has also been about the recognition of the myth and history of nation-building as a constructed narrative whose ideologies are as much rooted in the doctrine of the separate spheres and the patriarchal (and hierarchical) organization of gender as they are in the imperialist/nationalist imperatives of western expansion; it has also been about woman "put[ting] herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement," telling, that is, her own story.




  1. See, for example Francis Palgrave, The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin, 1991), whose predominantly male-authored contents might best be assessed in relation to Palgrave’s own comments about what he perceives as the biologically determined inability of women to write. (See also Palgrave in Macmillan’s Magazine 12 (1865): 118-27 and 209-21). In the United States, Rufus Griswold prefaces his anthology, The Female Poets of America (1849) with the comment that "[i]t is less easy to be assured of the genuineness of literary ability in women than in men" (7). [back]

  2. For a similarly revisionist approach to myth for women, see Annis V. Pratt, Dancing with Goddesses: Archetypes, Poetry, and Empowerment. Here, as in an earlier work, "Spinning Among Fields: Jung, Frye, Lévi-Strauss and Feminist Archetypal Theory" (1985), Pratt rejects the dichotomies of Jungian and Frygian theory, without dispensing with the myths and archetypes themselves. Feminist readings which analyze Malcolm’s Katie in relation to such myths and archetypes, particularly as they have been discussed by James Reaney in his influential 1959 essay on Crawford, include Catherine Ross’s dissertation, "Dark Matrix: a Study of Isabella Valancy Crawford" (1976) and her article on "Narrative II" (Hugh and Ion) in The Crawford Symposium (1979); Ann Yeoman’s "Towards a Native Mythology: the Poetry of Isabella Valency [sic] Crawford" (1972); and, more recently, Diana Relke’s "The Ecological Vision of Isabella Valancy Crawford: a Reading of Malcolm’s Katie" (1991). Pratt also comments briefly on Crawford (although not on Malcolm’s Katie) in Dancing with Goddesses (260-61). The most useful feminist historical readings are Bentley’s Introduction to the CPP edition of Malcolm’s Katie, as well as his study of the women in this poem and in Archibald Lampman’s The Story of an Affinity, Robert Alan Burn’s articles of 1989 and 1996 and Mary Joy MacDonald’s "Inglorious Battles." Wanda Campbell’s alignment of Malcolm’s Katie and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile is a crucial analysis of gender and genre in the long narrative poem. [back]

  3. See Stanford Friedman 24-5. [back]

  4. See also Zezulka 236-37. [back]

  5. Belsey is discussing "classic realist fiction, the dominant literary form of the nineteenth century and arguably of the twentieth," but her comments are clearly as relevant to any narrative which equally "represents the myths and imaginary version of real social relationships which constitute ideology" (593). [back]

  6. The emphasis that is placed upon Katie’s having "made" the metaphor her own is suggested in Crawford’s revision of the manuscript fragment on which this part of the poem is written: in the ms. version, Katie says, "I have made/ Your heart a garden" (Fragment 1 39-40); in the text of the poem as it is published the indefinite article has been changed to a possessive. See Bentley 1987 79. [back]

  7. The representation of woman as nature and nature as woman is by now too familiar to require much explication here. The feminization of nature is, however, a crucial element of the romance of colonization, and Katie’s resistance to functioning as nature’s representative is thus suggestive of her opposition to the "story" Max would tell. [back]


Works Cited


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Bentley, D.M.R. Introduction. Crawford (1884) 1987. xi-1xi.

——. "Sizing Up the Women in Malcolm’s Katie and The Story of an Affinity." Studies in Canadian Literature 14.2 (1989): 48-62.

——. "Bibliocritical Afterword." In Early Long Poems on Canada. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley London, ON: Canadian Poetry P, 1993. 617-62.

——. Mimic Fires: Accounts of Early Long Poems on Canada. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1994.

Burns, Robert Alan. "The Poet in Her Time: Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Social, Economic, and Political Views." Studies in Canadian Literature 14.1 (1989): 30-53.

——. "Crawford, Davin, and Riel: Text and Intertext in Hugh and Ion." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 37 (1996): 62-78.

Campbell, Wanda. "Isabella Valancy Crawford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 29 (1991): 25-37.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." 1975. Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-893.

Crawford, Isabella Valancy. Malcolm’s Katie: a Love Story. 1884. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London, ON: Canadian Poetry P, 1987.

——. The Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford. 1905. Ed. John W. Garvin. Intro. Ethelwyn Wetherald. Rpt. with intro. by James Reaney. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1972.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays in Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Craving Stories: Narrative and Lyric in Contemporary Theory and Women’s Long Poems." In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994 15-42.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the World: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Kamboureli, Smaro. "Dialogue with the Other: the Use of Myth in Canadian Women’s Poetry."In In the Feminine: Women and Words. Ed. Ann Dybkowski et al. Edmonton: Longspoon, 1985. 105-09.

——. On the Edge of Genre: the Contemporary Canadian Long Poem. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

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Zezulka, J.M. "The Pastoral Vision in Nineteenth-Century Canada." Dalhousie Review 57 (1977): 224-41.