Literary History in English 1620-1867

Literary History in English 1620-1867

The writing that critics identify as the earliest ENGLISH-LANGUAGE LITERATURE in Canada was produced by COLONIAL governors, soldiers, MISSIONARIES, settlers, European EXPLORERS and travellers, NEWSPAPER journalists, and community figures who in time began to consider the BRITISH NORTH AMERICAN colonies their home. Many were WOMEN. Few writers, to start, considered themselves "Canadian" (a term early reserved for the francophone settlers in QUEBEC). Most wrote for European readers (SeeFOREIGN WRITERS ON CANADA IN ENGLISH). Their work reflected European values (largely Judaeo-Christian and Hellenic), and from the early 17th to the early 19th century, colonial practice imitated changing literary fashions in England.

For instance, Quodibets (1628), the Jacobean POETRY of Robert Hayman, a governor in HARBOUR GRACE, drew on the conventional idea that four humours balance the universe; praising the colony, it expresses the Renaissance delight in the existence of a "new-found-land" (or "terra nova") across the seas. A century later, Frances BROOKE, a successful theatrical entrepreneur in London who had married a military officer in the English garrison in Quebec, wrote what has been generally accepted as the first NOVEL written in North America. Called The History of Emily Montague (1769), and written in the new epistolary style, it drew on Voltaire's Candide and Rousseau's Émile to tell the stories of two women, one living a pastoral romance, the other coquettishly critical and wittily independent. After the AMERICAN REVOLUTION in 1776, LOYALIST writers such as Jonathan ODELL (The American Times, 1780) and Jacob Bailey (The Adventures of Jack Ramble, 1785) adopted the techniques of Augustan satire to attack the politics of the revolutionaries (SeeLITERATURE AND POLITICS). By the 19th century, writers of political comment, historical romance, TRAVEL narrative, and personal sketch were drawing variously on notions of the Picturesque and Sublime in art (as articulated by William Gilpin and Edmund Burke), the conventions of Sentimentalism, and ANGLICAN or METHODIST frames of order (or more rarely Roman CATHOLIC, as in the Quebec fiction of Rosanna LEPROHON). FOLK traditions, deriving from IRISH and SCOTS Gaelic sources especially, thrived in the Atlantic colonies and still survive in song and story, as in the work of writers from Johnny BURKE to Alistair MACLEOD (SeeORAL LITERATURE). Newspapers, established as early as 1752 in Halifax, provided another venue for political debate, whether "Tory" (Joseph HOWE's NOVASCOTIAN, est. 1824) or "Reform" (George BROWN's Globe, est. 1844).

While colonial culture can in this way be read as indebted to European models, it can also be seen as itself a colonizing agent: of land and SLAVES (at least 3600 in 1759, many but not all BLACK), as well as of the many separate FIRST NATIONS peoples who already occupied "Canadian" territory. European attitudes to land and to ownership fed colonizing practices. North America was first called terra incognita ("unknown land") and represented by blank spaces and monstrous figures on maps, then deemed to be terra nullius ("no-one's land"), hence available for occupation. "Wilderness" meant any territory beyond the edge of "Civilization," by definition "European" in this set of syllogisms, and those who might live there were deemed wild, "savage" or monstrous, without civilization, and therefore ripe for conquest or conversion. Rousseau's notion of the "Noble Savage" distorted reality in another way. This colonial frame of reference reinforced much English, French, and Spanish exploration and missionary narrative in North America.

The "captivity narratives" of John Gyles (Memoirs of Odd Adventures, 1736) and John JEWITT (Adventures and Sufferings, 1815) tell of being held prisoner among the MALISEET and NUU-CHAH-NULTH (formerly "Nootka") respectively. Although the first English-language memoir by a First Nations writer, George COPWAY (OJIBWA), appeared in 1847, sensitive recognition of the complexity of INUIT and First Nations songs, tales, and humour, including the great HAIDA narratives, as well as of the creation, trickster, transformation, and cautionary stories of Raven, Coyote, Dsonoqua, Turtle, Sedna, and Gitchi-Manitou, awaited much later times.

Of the numerous narratives of EXPLORATION in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several stand out: those that chart sea encounters (by George VANCOUVER on the West Coast and Sir John FRANKLIN in the Arctic) and discovery across land (by Peter FIDLER, Simon FRASER, Samuel HEARNE, Anthony HENDAY, Henry KELSEY, Alexander MACKENZIE, Peter POND, and David THOMPSON). The disappearance of Franklin on his last voyage led to numerous searches for him and subsequent literary renderings, from documentary to popular song. Vancouver's work, like Mackenzie's, was largely designed to advance trade or political advantage, though Vancouver's descriptions repeatedly draw on Sublime conventions, and Mackenzie's text, when first published, was radically rewritten by the English writer William Combe, changing the unelaborated empirical observations in Mackenzie's manuscript so that they accorded with British assumptions about wilderness. Thompson's work combines empirical record with greater stylistic flair. Hearne's account of his trip to the mouth of the COPPERMINE is more a travel journal than an exploration document; its observations, often cast as narrative, display the clear bias of AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL perspective.

While captivity and other narratives often exaggerated experiences for effect, some personal records, such as the 1832 sketches of William "Tiger" DUNLOP, claimed "statistical" neutrality. Travellers, too, documented their observations, but frequently they drew partisan conclusions; throughout the 19th century, American travellers from Walt Whitman to Henry James assumed that Canada would be subsumed into the United States. Works by such observers as Pehr KALM, George HERIOT, Charles Dickens and Anna JAMESON reveal European travellers' perspectives. Some local writers, such as Thomas MCCULLOCH and Thomas Chandler HALIBURTON, declared their political biases through satire (SeeHUMOROUS WRITING IN ENGLISH). McCulloch's eponymous figures carry such names as Drab, Tipple, and Stepsure. Haliburton's sharp- tongued Yankee pedlar Sam Slick, introduced in the three series of THE CLOCKMAKER (1836-40), won a huge international readership. Criticizing inertia in the MARITIME PROVINCES and Yankee aggrandizement, the Sam Slick tales and those in The Old Judge (1846-9) also admired Yankee energy and ingenuity and challenged Maritimers to develop their own resources. Witty, but marked by the racist attitudes of the time, Haliburton's prose contributed numerous, now almost proverbial, words and phrases to the English language.

Other writings openly admitted the individuality of their point of view. One of the first books by a Black writer in Canada was the autobiographical Life of JosiahHENSON, formerly a Slave (1849). Many women, moreover--among them Elizabeth SIMCOE and Anne Langton in what is now Ontario--wrote diaries and letters that reveal much about both domestic experience and public life. (Parallel journals, including those by Susan Allison and Georgina Binnie-Clark, emerged in Western Canada much later, reflecting the later timing of European settlement.) Chief among these UPPER CANADA writers were the Strickland sisters--Susanna MOODIE and Catharine Parr TRAILL (THE BACKWOODS OF CANADA, 1836; Canadian Wild Flowers, 1868)--whose works have become the classics of 19th century Canadian literature. Traill's work, the more empirical, provides practical settlement advice and detailed botanical observations, while Moodie's ROUGHING IT IN THE BUSH (1852), written to warn the English middle class against emigrating to Canada, relies on cautionary Sentimental anecdote and narrative sketches of character. In other genres, Traill wrote successfully for CHILDREN (Canadian Crusoes, 1852), and Moodie wrote several conventional romantic novels. Moodie published much of her work serially in John Lovell's The Literary Garland and her own Victoria Magazine, two of several PERIODICALS to emerge at this time as venues for social and moral comment. The sketch form, which Moodie learned in part from reading the "village sketches" of Mary Russell Mitford, proved a flexible and durable genre, leading over the century into the earliest forms of SHORT FICTION.

In poetry and fiction, tensions between romantic styles and empirical observations persisted, even sometimes in the same work, as in Oliver GOLDSMITH's long poem The Rising Village (1825; rev. 1834). In the first 30 years of the 19th century, the sentimental poetry of Margaret Blennerhassett gave way to the satires of George Longmore (The Charivari, 1824) and the closet DRAMAS of Charles HEAVYSEGE (Saul, 1857). By mid-century the work of Charles SANGSTER was lauded, though the Spenserian stanzas and avoidance of detail in The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay (1856) led later critics to read his poetry with less enthusiasm. Julia Catherine Beckwith HART's novel St. Ursula's Convent (1824) was a melodrama. John RICHARDSON's novels, especially WACOUSTA (1832), were read as historical adventure, though later commentary focussed more on conventional stereotyping and the psychological implications of the Gothic romance. That said, politics was never far from literature. Tales translated from First Nations and Québec sources were intended for a readership that romanticized indigenous cultures and agrarian values.

By the 1860s, with talk of a national CONFEDERATION underway, local textbooks were being published in Upper Canada, universities had opened in almost all the colonies, the MECHANICS' INSTITUTES' libraries were helping to extend LITERACY, newspapers were widespread, and the bilingual INSTITUT CANADIEN led to an exchange of scientific, literary, political and cultural ideas. In the 1871 reprint of Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie added a sketch called "Canada: A Contrast," extolling the new nation she had now come to identify as her own.


Suggested Reading

Donna Bennett and Russell Brown, eds., An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English (3rd ed., 2010); Jennifer Blair et al., eds., ReCalling Early Canada: Reading the Political in Literary and Cultural Production (2005); Daniel Coleman, White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada (2006); Gwendolyn Davies, Studies in Maritime Literary History: 1760-1930 (1991); Mary Alice Downie and Barbara Robertson, eds., Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914 (2010); Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallican, and Yvan Lamonde, eds., History of the Book in Canada: Beginnings to 1840 (2005); Carole Gerson, Canadian Women in Print, 1750- 1918 (2010); Coral Ann Howells and Eva-Marie Kroller, eds.,The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature (2009); Carl F. Klinck, ed., Literary History of Canada, 3 vols (2nd ed., 1976); Richard J. Lane, The Routledge Concise History of Canadian Literature (2011); Lorraine McMullen, ed. Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers (1990); Laura Moss and Cynthia Sugars, eds., Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts (2009); W.H. New, ed., The Literary History of Canada (2nd ed., Vol. 4, 1990); W.H. New, A History of Canadian Literature (2nd ed., 2003); W.H. New, ed., Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002); William Toye, ed., The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983).

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