Literary History in English 1867-1914 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literary History in English 1867-1914

With Confederation came immediate calls for Maritime separation but also a quickened interest in the growth of a national culture. Journalists and academic essayists earnestly disputed Canada's political destiny.

Literary History in English 1867-1914

With Confederation came immediate calls for Maritime separation but also a quickened interest in the growth of a national culture. Journalists and academic essayists earnestly disputed Canada's political destiny. Fredericton and Montreal became creative centres, and in Toronto the Globe expanded its social and cultural influence. New periodicals--among them Rose-Belford's Canadian Monthly, the Canadian Magazine and Queen's Quarterly--provided space for discussion of science, technological change, politics, and moral progress, as did the Royal Society of Canada (est. 1882). New technologies, such as the telephone, electric light, and the motorized engine, would serve development over the next four decades. Canadian writers, often publishing abroad, still faced economic pressure and the colonial restrictions of international copyright law, but social services, such as free education for children, would advance, and political boundaries expand. A railway to the Pacific (completed 1885) would bring new provinces into Canada during these decades. Author, minister and educator George Monro Grant in 1872 travelled 5000 miles across the country, with Sandford Fleming (who later developed the international system of standard Time Zones) and the railway surveying expedition. In Ocean to Ocean (1873), based on his diaries of the trip, Grant used the phrase From sea to sea, which was later adopted in 1921 as the national motto, A Mare Usque Ad Mari. In 1873, the newly formed North-West Mounted Police would carry order west and north. By expanding continentally through Cree, Blackfoot, and Métis lands, however, this ostensibly orderly version of Canada would have to face a series of alternatives with long-term impact: Louis Riel's resistance movements, an increase in non-British immigration, and the continuing cross-border threat, and appeal, of the USA. With growing literacy and increasing technology came a series of challenges to received notions of cultural uniformity. Such debates helped direct national politics; they also underlay the concerns and techniques of the new national literature.

Many writers in late Victorian and Edwardian Canada debated the relation between science and morality (see Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy), or between contradiction and resolution. Anglican William Paley affirmed that Natural Theology (see Philosophy: History Before 1950) demonstrated a design in nature. Methodist John Carroll sketched the need for moral reform. Medical and physical scientists--esteemed public intellectuals (see Intellectual History) John William Dawson, Andrew MacPhail, Daniel Wilson--embraced the principles of the Scottish Common Sense Movement. Independent journalist and gadfly William Dawson Lesueur rejected all orthodoxies and called for objectivity. Some writers viewed Christian morality and Darwinian theory (see Social Darwinism) as opposing forces; others--those who espoused the Social Gospel movement (such as the philosopher John Watson)--adapted Darwin to religion, arguing that moral progress lay behind social change. The Social Gospel movement would have greater impact on society in the 1920s and 1930s, with the formation of the United Church of Canada and the CCF.

A second set of debates fastened on education and political options. Influential journalists and educators took diverging sides on the future of the new nation. The poet and dramatist Charles Mair (Tecumseh, 1886) cast the War of 1812 as a battle between natural law and the forces of materialism, early espousing the anglo-Protestant Canada First movement (est. 1868). Sara Jeannette Duncan, now generally regarded as the leading novelist of the period, was attracted to the cause of Imperial Federation. The historian Goldwin Smith championed economic union between Canada and the USA, while the educator George Parkin, drawn to the Imperial Round Table Movement, imagined Canada as Anglican and agrarian. Parkin, like George Monro Grant, was an educator; he headed Upper Canada College (est. 1829), where education was deemed to encourage leadership and good breeding among boys. Ideas were crossing disciplinary boundaries while technology and real life were altering social boundaries. Not everyone, however, looked forward. Although in 1880 the Quebec pianist Calixa Lavallée composed the music for what later became the Canadian National Anthem, "O Canada," a more familiar patriotic song at the time in anglophone Canada was Alexander MUIR's imperialist "The Maple Leaf Forever" (1867). In fiction, many writers also looked back to the past, reconstructing Canadian History as costume gothic, a romantic engagement between Protestant manliness on one side and corruption (configured variously as Napoleon, the wilderness, Catholicism, Americans, and the ancien régime in France) on the other. Examples include William Kirby's The Golden Dog (1877) and the novels of T.G. Roberts.

While some writers espoused patriotic causes, others critiqued the emptiness of much political rhetoric and practice. Wilfred Grenfell served as a devout medical missionary in Newfoundland (his life recast in the Christian tales of Norman Duncan) and Canon F.G. Scott wrote poems that espoused an ideal social order; T. Phillips Thompson pointedly argued that the labouring class was largely excluded from prevailing theories of progress. The short fiction writer Susan Frances Harrison insisted that her work be published in Canada because foreign publishers kept distorting the local idiom she was using. The realities of financial constraint nevertheless drew many patriotic writers, such as Lavallée, C.G.D. Roberts, and Bliss Carman, to move to the USA.

Outside the country, the Canadian border was frequently represented as a guarantee of justice and freedom: for example, as "Jordan, the crossing to the Promised Land" in African-American song, and as the protective "Medicine Line" to Blackfoot, Lakota, and other Indigenous nations. Though 19th century Black tales in Canada were not collected till 1931, folksong and folktale (See Folklore) did record many of the events of the time; several songs allude to the Red River Rebellion and the Klondike Gold Rush. Anthropologists vigorously gathered First Nations stories on the West Coast, but popular English-language renderings of Inuit and First Nations tales repeatedly expurgated them, recasting them as quasi-Christian fables for children. The greater presence that some First Nations writers began to acquire in the early 20th century--notably the Mohawk poet and tale-teller Pauline Johnson--marks a slight shift in cultural attitudes.

With social change, including advanced education for women (in 1875 Mount Allison was the first university in the British Empire to award a woman a bachelor's degree), women extended their influence in literature and the community (See Women and Education, Status of Women). Female editors and journalists--among them Alice Jones, Agnes Maule Machar, Sara Jeannette Duncan, Kit Coleman, Jean McIlwraith, Florence Randal Livesay, and Nellie McClung, all active poets or novelists as well--wrote variously about bicycles, independent travel, foreign wars, local politics, and women's rights (See Women's Suffrage, Women's Movement). Duncan (who published as Garth Grafton) was likely the first woman to hold a reporter's desk job at the Globe. She also went on to write a series of comedies of manners, set in India, Canada, the USA and England, each book revealing distinctions of national character and conventions that shaped and limited gender roles. Among her more than two dozen books are A Social Departure (1890), An American Girl in London (1891), The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893), and, writing as Mrs. Everard Cotes after 1894, The Pool in the Desert (stories, 1893), The Imperialist (1904), and Cousin Cinderella (1908). Women were active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Canadian Women's Press Club, the Women's Political Equality League, and the Toronto Women's Literary Club (est. 1876 by Dr. Emily Howard Stowe as a centre of suffragist reform). Anna Leonowens (made famous as the title figure in Anna and the King of Siam, later The King and I) founded the Halifax Council of Women. Sarah Ann Curzon's play Laura Secord, the poetry of Isabella Valancy Crawford and Marjorie Pickthall, the fiction of Joanna Wood and Lily Dougall: all expressed feminist commitments. McClung, who wrote vigorous volumes of autobiography about her political activism, also deliberately crafted her fiction as conventional romance so that her political message on the rights of women would be widely heard. Likely reaching an even wider readership was the internationally successful work of the children's writers Margaret Marshall Saunders and Lucy Maud Montgomery, the latter with Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels.

Male writers, too, achieved some popular success internationally, though many are now largely forgotten. Grant Allen and Albert Hickman featured detectives and the paranormal. E.W. Thomson and W.H. Drummond fashioned mock dialect. Robert Service, still in print and widely enjoyed, published several volumes of rolling rhymes of the Yukon. Ralph Connor (C.W. Gordon), in a series of bestselling novels based in Glengarry County, combined a version of manliness with a commitment to Presbyterian morality that came to be called "Muscular Christianity." Robert Barr and Gilbert Parker penned adventures of war and wilderness. Partly in response to such enterprises, the journalist Peter McArthur wittily satirized social pretensions, and the economist Stephen Leacock parodied literary fads, among them the mannered comedies, melodramas, and historical romances that had by then become clichés. Engagingly ironic, Leacock's Literary Lapses (1910), Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) and other works established his lasting fame as a writer of humour. Less well known are two novels prized now for how they depart from Victorian convention. James de Mille's speculative A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) satirizes the competing arguments of science and religion, emphasizing the artifice of rhetoric. Martin Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West (1908), one of the first novels from the West Coast, reveals how fiction could draw directly on real life - here, the logging industry (See Timber Trade History) - instead of relying on the romantic glow of an imaginary past.

Many literary historians still regard the members of "Confederation Group" as the dominant literary figures of the late 19th century. Only loosely connected, Duncan Campbell Scott, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, and W.W. Campbell together reshaped poetry from the 1880s till the 1920s. While they differed from each other--Carman captivated by song rhythms and the "Unitrinianism" of Mary Perry King, Scott holding to a belief that the First Nations were "a dying race," Roberts often celebratory, Lampman often dour--they were all influenced by the later English Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists. Shunning the verbal ornamentation of most of the poets included in W.D. Lighthall's nationalist 1889 anthology of Canadian verse, they rejected the notion of "sublimity," sought plainer ways to record the beauty and reality of the Canadian landscape, and used natural imagery as a language of spiritual inquiry.

Roberts and Scott were influential prose writers as well. In the interconnected short sketches of In the Village of Viger (1896), Scott introduced psychological realism into narrative form, eulogizing rural Quebec life on the verge of urban change. With their stories of the lives of animals, Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton--best known respectively for The Kindred of the Wild (1902) and Wild Animals I Have Known (1898)--were even more popular. They observed nature closely and imaginatively adapted Darwinian scientific method to tale-telling, yet their anthropomorphism tied them to a romantic as much as an empirical view of nature. In 1903 both writers were lambasted as "nature fakers" in an Atlantic Monthly article by the naturalist John Burroughs; the ensuing controversy involved President Theodore Roosevelt among others. While Scott and Roberts continued to write long after 1914, their work belongs to the decades before. For other writers, the First World War was to change both substance and style.

See Literature in English; Literature in English: Language and Literary Form; Literary History in English 1620-1867; Literary History in English 1914-1940; Literary History in English 1940-1960; Literary History in English 1960-1980; Literary History in English 1980-2000; Literary History in English in the 21st Century.

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