Foreign Writers on Canada in English

Canada has inspired a substantial literary response from foreign as well as native-born and resident authors.
Canada has inspired a substantial literary response from foreign as well as native-born and resident authors.

Brooke, Francis

Foreign Writers on Canada in English

Canada has inspired a substantial literary response from foreign as well as native-born and resident authors. Besides writers of travel narratives, which are considered elsewhere (see Exploration and Travel Literature in English), many poets, novelists and even a few dramatists from the two major anglophone nations have written about the country. Much of this material belongs to popular culture rather than art, but a few authors and works have risen to a significant aesthetic level, especially in the years after 1970.

The British Experience

The earliest English literary responses to Canada have to do with exploration, settlement and war. Martin Parker's England's Honour Revived (1628) is a broadside ballad celebrating the temporary capture of Québec from the French. Robert Hayman's Quodlibets, Lately Come over from New Britaniola, Old Newfoundland (also 1628) is a collection of verse epigrams celebrating the British colony. The Anglo-French wars of the 18th century inspired a number of works, beginning with the closet drama Liberty Asserted (1704) by John Dennis. The fall of Québec in 1759 prompted several tributes, including J. Patrick's Québec: A Poetical Essay in Imitation of the Miltonic Style (1760) and George Cockings's The Conquest of Canada; or, The Siege of Québec: An Historical Tragedy in Five Acts (1773). The structural formality and neoclassical bombast of these works also govern the first American literary response to Canada, Hugh Henry Brackenridge's verse drama The Death of General Montgomery in the Storming of the City of Quebec (1777).

In the last quarter of the 18th century, American writers were too busy celebrating their own nascent nationalism to pay much attention to the northern colonies, but a few British writers were discovering in Canada new inspiration for prospect poetry and travelogue fiction. Frances Brooke's epistolary novel The History of Emily Montague (1769) is the most literate of these effusions, being a sincere attempt to evoke impressions of the climate, the French-speaking inhabitants and the Indians. George Cartwright's Labrador: A Poetical Epistle (1792) is a more fanciful view of the colonies, while J. Mackay's Quebec Hill: or Canadian Scenery (1797) and Cornwall Bayley's Canada: A Descriptive Poem (1806) are conventional nature poems.

Throughout the 19th century, Canada was a popular setting for many British novels which interspersed adventure with romance, nature description and sometimes immigration propaganda. John Galt's Bogle Corbet (1831) is the earliest and most realistic of such works, taking a rather bleak view of the pioneer experience and criticizing British immigration policies, but Marryat's The Settlers in Canada (1844) celebrates the values of British imperialism while exploiting scenes of hunting, Indigenous fighting and land clearing. Marryat's model is followed by R.M. Ballantyne in Snowflakes and Sunbeams (1856), Ungava (1858) and several other novels. The most prolific worker in this genre was William Henry Giles Kingston, whose many Canadian novels include The Log House (1864), Snow-Shoes and Canoes (1876) and The Frontier Fort (1879).

American Writers

In the US, Canadian settings were occasionally incorporated into frontier adventure fiction inspired by James Fenimore Cooper, but American writers were interested in themes and images different from those that preoccupied the British. Instead of celebrating imperialism, Americans denounced it, along with provincial submissiveness and lack of initiative, French Roman Catholicism and northern primitivism. In historical romances such as Harriet Vaughan Cheney's The Rivals of Acadia (1827), Catherine Williams's The Neutral French; or The Acadians of Nova Scotia (1841), and Mary Catherwood's The Romance of Dollard (1889) and her many other novels of New France, the French are often simultaneously praised for their opposition to British tyranny and condemned for their adherence to Roman Catholicism. American antipathy to the French Canadians' religion reached depths of Gothic scurrility in such trashy but popular works as George Bourne's Lorette: The History of Louise, Daughter of a Canadian Nun (1833), the anonymous Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836) and Benjamin Barker's Cecilia; or, The White Nun of the Wilderness (1845). One famous literary work that counteracted these libels on French Canada was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline (1847), which represented the French-speaking Acadians as prelapsarian innocents whose way of life is despoiled by British imperialism.

The evils of Roman Catholicism and the superiority of republicanism over colonialism are recurrent themes throughout the 19th century in American works dealing with English as well as French Canada. Jesse Walker's travelogue novels Fort Niagara and Queenston (both 1845) gloat over the alleged backwardness of the provinces, while P. Hamilton Myers's more literate Prisoner of the Border (1857) condemns the reactionary loyalty of Canadians during the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837-38. R.T.S. Lowell's The New Priest in Conception Bay (1858) and Mary Savage's Miramichi (1865) criticize the social and religious primitivism of the maritime provinces. These and other American works propagate stereotypes of ethnic inferiority and political instability while celebrating the American way of life.

Among all the clichés and simplifications, at least two writers of the late 19th century achieved some degree of sophistication in their use of Canadian materials. The scholarship of Francis Parkman's multivolumed history France and England in North America (1865-92) has long been superseded by modern research, but his dense and intricate narrative of the rise and fall of France in the New World stands as one of the monumental achievements of 19th-century creative literature. On a less ambitious but equally sensitive level, William Dean Howells's earliest ventures into realist fiction, Their Wedding Journey (1872) and A Chance Acquaintance (1873), use the popular tourist regions of the St Lawrence as background for thoughtful explorations of Canadian-US differences.

The Romance of Northern Adventure

By the beginning of the 20th century, both British and American literary responses to Canada were becoming dominated by the romance of northern adventure, a genre governed by the conventions of the "western" and given new impetus by the fiction of Jack London as well as by a surge of immigrants and foreign travellers into the Northwest. Among British writer-adventurers of the time were Ridgwell Cullum, whose many northern romances include The Hound of the North (1904) and The Triumph of John Kars (1917), and Harold Bindloss, who produced at least 30 Canadian novels, beginning with Alton of Somasco (1906). Most of this fiction celebrates the English adventurer who, by the strength of his arm and the moral superiority of his purpose, brings British values to the outposts of empire. The writers themselves had usually travelled and adventured in the colonies, but their personal experiences seldom show through the clichés of frontier fiction. A more distinguished literary traveller was the Gothic novelist Algernon Blackwood, whose wanderings in Canada produced some striking adaptations of Indian legend and pioneer experience, collected in The Wolves of God and Other Fey Stories (1921) and other volumes. Another outstanding literary exploitation of the northern adventure tradition is Sick Heart River (1941), a haunting study of spiritual introspection by the eminent novelist of empire and onetime governor general John Buchan.

In the US, Jack London expounded his naive but humanistic version of Spencerian determinism in many short stories and novels of the Klondike, including The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). But most of London's imitators abandoned any pretense of intellectual sophistication in favour of the conventions of the sentimental romance. The dean of the northern romance was James Oliver Curwood, who made a fortune from such novels as The Danger Trail (1910), The Country Beyond (1922) and 30 or 40 others. Sinclair Lewis's Mantrap (1926), set in Manitoba, is a clever satire on this kind of fiction. Curwood also exploited the history of New France in several novels including The Plains of Abraham (1928), and his example has been followed in works too numerous to survey in detail but generally dominated by such book-club ephemera as Grace Stone's The Cold Journey (1934) and Muriel Elwood's Heritage of the River (1945). The eminent midwestern author Willa Cather managed a strikingly original adaptation of this genre in Shadows on the Rock (1931), which sees pre-Conquest New France as an elusive, Utopian ideal.

In the last half of the 20th century, both British and American authors have occasionally turned to formats other than the historical romance and adventure fiction to express their impressions of Canada. In general, there is an inclination among some British writers to satirize imperial idealism and Canadian provincialism. Americans, on the other hand, show a tendency to idealize Canada as an alternative to the disappointments of their own country, or to reveal the disillusionment that often follows such idealism.

Australian-born, London-based novelist James Aldridge sets his novel The Hunter (1950) on the north shore of Lake Huron, and focuses on the experiences of an aging woodsman to develop a sensitive portrayal of the conflict between natural ecology and human needs. British novelist Margaret Bullard produced an intolerant but witty satire on Canadian urban life in Wedlock's The Devil (1951). Wyndham Lewis expresses similar disenchantment with Canadian cities in Self Condemned (1954). The satire continues in playwright Simon Gray's early novel Colmain (1963), set in Nova Scotia. The American midwestern novelist Wallace Stegner has used Saskatchewan settings in On a Darkling Plain (1940), about the spiritual rejuvenation of a war veteran, and in The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Wolf Willow (1963), respectively fiction and nonfictional explorations of the human and geographical interconnections of the American and Canadian plains.

Canada as Refuge

In the social upheavals of the 1960s, marginalized and dissenting American writers tended to concentrate on subject and settings derived from their own country, but by the 1970s some of these writers were turning their attention to Canada, especially in the light of Canada's emergence as a refuge for American dissent during and after the Vietnam war. John Birmingham's novel The Vancouver Split (1973) is an interesting chronicle of the experiences of American draft resisters and social protesters in Canada. Ishmael Reed, who remains so far one of the few black American writers to take up Canada as a subject, resurrects the image of the northern country as a haven for fugitive slaves in Flight to Canada (1976), a darkly comic novel about the black American search for refuge in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Recent American feminist authors who have discovered Canada include Deborah Eisenberg, whose title story in Transactions in Foreign Currency (1986) is a fable of female self-exploration and psychological disorientation, set in Montréal. Kathryn Davis's novel Labrador (1988) uses the far north as the setting for both a mythical and real escape from the dysfunctions of American middle-class life. The feminist message of E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer-prize-winning The Shipping News (1993) is embodied in an aging but indefatigable Newfoundland woman who helps her American nephew discover in the island province a flawed but hopeful alternative to American civilization.

Recent exploitations of Canada by male foreign authors have included both sophisticated and stereotyped images. American popular novelist James Michener recreates the northern romance of Curwood in Journey: A Quest for Canadian Gold (1988), a historical novel about the Klondike gold rush. Dick Francis, the prolific writer of mystery stories with a horse-racing milieu, sets The Edge (1989) on the trans-Canada train between Toronto and Vancouver. Among more sophisticated literary uses of Canada, Mark Helprin's short story "Passchedale" (published in The New Yorker18 Oct 1982) involves a BC rancher whose dreams of war and love express his historical disappointments and romantic yearnings. In John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) an American who moved to Toronto as a Vietnam war protester in the 1960s is haunted by memories of his childhood in New Hampshire and by an obsessive political anger against his native country which, to his frustration, he finds native-born Canadians do not share. North Dakota novelist Larry Woiwode's story "Black Winter" (in his Silent Passengers, 1993) uses the bleakness of a Winnipeg winter, the personal anxiety of an aging Canadian man and the imaginative evocation of the Gulf War to suggest the political, psychological and ecological degeneration of the US and the modern world.

Ambitious Literary Use

The most ambitious American literary use of the Canadian past since Parkman's history is undoubtedly William T. Vollman's massive novel Fathers and Crows (1992), a 900-page retelling of the history of the Catholic missions in 17th-century New France, featuring personages such as Champlain, Brébeuf, and the Mi'kmaq chieftain Membertou, as well as various fictional Indigenous and European people.

Further Reading

  • James Doyle, North of America: Images of Canada in the Literature of the United States, 1775-1900 (1983); R.G. Moyles and Doug Owram, Imperial Dreams and Colonial Realities: British Views of Canada, 1880-1914 (1988); Greg Gatenby, ed, The Wild is Always There: Canada through the Eyes of Foreign Writers (1993); The Very Richness of That Past: Canada through the Eyes of Foreing Writers, vol.2 (1995).