Literary History in English 1914-1940

The FIRST WORLD WAR featured variously in Canadian LITERATURE: as historical subject and setting, metaphor of personal conflict and national coming-of-age, test of loyalty, instance of officiousness, and prototype of political bias (SeeFIRST WORLD WAR IN CANADIAN LITERATURE).
The FIRST WORLD WAR featured variously in Canadian LITERATURE: as historical subject and setting, metaphor of personal conflict and national coming-of-age, test of loyalty, instance of officiousness, and prototype of political bias (SeeFIRST WORLD WAR IN CANADIAN LITERATURE).

Literary History in English 1914-1940

The FIRST WORLD WAR featured variously in Canadian LITERATURE: as historical subject and setting, metaphor of personal conflict and national coming-of-age, test of loyalty, instance of officiousness, and prototype of political bias (SeeFIRST WORLD WAR IN CANADIAN LITERATURE). The rhetoric of loyalty that governed numerous wartime poems and stories by Jean Blewett, Basil King, Katherine Hale, Helena Coleman, Ralph CONNOR, and John Murray GIBBON, among others, was composed in the shadow of sloganeering--the novelist Gilbert PARKER was Director of the British propaganda program in North America. After 1918, as writers began to represent the First World War as a symbolic moment when Canada "matured," the names of battle sites--YPRES, VIMY RIDGE--quickly became iconic allusions to the waste of war as well as to heroism. In John MCCRAE's 1915 rondeau "IN FLANDERS FIELDS," the imagery of Empire continues to resonate, but writings by other combatants, including Robert SERVICE, insisted on gritty realism. Some 65,000 Canadians, McCrae among them, were killed in the war. One "war poet" who survived, left-leaning Frank "Toronto" Prewett, later joined the Bloomsbury Group in London.

The war fictions that critics came to praise over the next decades dealt with military bureaucracy, the irrationality of combat, and the realities of trench foot, infection, and poison gas. Chief among these is Charles Yale HARRISON's NOVELGenerals Die in Bed (1930). Several books by women, including Francis Marion BEYNON's Aleta Day (1919), focussed on serious conditions on the home front. As a background against which violence happens or as a violent memory sublimated through some psychological counterpart, the First World War continued to capture the attention of Canadian writers for many decades, as in novels and plays (SeeDRAMA IN ENGLISH) by Robert STEAD, Colin McDougall, Douglas Le Pan, Timothy FINDLEY, John GRAY, Jack HODGINS, and Joseph BOYDEN.

By the end of the First World War social attitudes were changing, exemplified in part by J. Georgina SIME's 1919 collection of SHORT FICTION, Sister Woman, with its clear case for women's equality (SeeWOMEN'S MOVEMENT). Women acquired voting rights in most jurisdictions by 1925 (SeeWOMEN'S SUFFRAGE). In 1929 Emily MURPHY (who wrote as Janey Canuck), with Nellie McClung and three other Alberta women (SeeFAMOUS 5), also successfully challenged legal convention; their action, known as the "PERSONS CASE," recognized women as "persons" under the terms of the BNA ACT, an early stage in establishing gender equality in Canadian LAW (SeeWOMEN AND THE LAW). Political attitudes also changed. Canada, which had gone to war automatically in 1914 as part of the British Empire, signed the peace treaty and joined the LEAGUE OF NATIONS separately. With the BALFOUR REPORT (1926) and the signing of the STATUTE OF WESTMINSTER (1931), equal status among members of the new COMMONWEALTH was affirmed, modifying the hierarchical structure of Empire. With Britain becoming a less dominant cultural moderator, Canadians sought further models in the USA and Continental Europe. NATIONALIST enthusiasm thrived, yet exile also appealed. Asian and European IMMIGRATION increased; in reaction, the Asiatic Exclusion League formed. SEPARATIST sentiment followed the 1917 CONSCRIPTION Crisis in Quebec, and voices in all parts of the country asserted their political differences. Anti-war arguments spread.

Some writers who turned away from the war sought the ostensible security of time past, as in various Biblical and Oriental fictions, Georgian poems (Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, Audrey Alexandra Brown), and rural idylls (Grace CAMPBELL). Constance Lindsay SKINNER published POPULAR novels about the KLONDIKE and the frontier, but proved to be more influential as a New York literary editor. Most successful was the JALNA saga by Mazo DE LA ROCHE (16 volumes, 1927-60), which championed property and precedence. ACADIA was read in the shade of Longfellow's EVANGELINE, Quebec by romancing the ancien régime (Philip CHILD, Alan Sullivan). Established critics tended to favour these older fashions. While new MAGAZINES (SeeLITERARY MAGAZINES, LITERARY PERIODICALS) appeared (Canadian [later Author &] Bookman 1919; CANADIAN FORUM 1920; DALHOUSIE REVIEW 1921; CHATELAINE 1928; UTQ 1931, with its "Letters in Canada" annual supplement; Canadian Poetry Magazine 1936), they were often resistant to new writers' innovations. Early winners of the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARDS (est. 1936) also tended towards the conventional. Yet changes were underway. As with several publishing endeavours, Lorne Pierce designed his "Makers of Canada" series for RYERSON PRESS as a way to foster national pride through present literature as well as past. Still favouring a conservative style, William Arthur DEACON's ESSAYS and GLOBE reviews denounced sloppy writing, old or new. When the Canadian Forum in 1926, however, dismissed the "inflated rhetoric" of conventional Canadian writing, the voice of a new and rebellious generation was being heard.

Parallel changes in COMMUNICATIONS and the visual ARTS would also affect literature. French surrealism and German expressionism asked viewers to consider the process of seeing, not just the thing seen. The GROUP OF SEVEN (est. 1920)--though attacked by the art critic Hector CHARLESWORTH--brought new techniques of colour and form to painting, which the young poets Frank SCOTT and A.J.M. SMITH welcomed (SeePOETRY IN ENGLISH), as did Herman VOADEN, in multi-media theatre that has been characterized as "Northern Modernism." Emily CARR developed techniques that feminist writers would later embrace. Bertram BROOKER stood for free- form painting and verse; David MILNE followed the New York Fauvist school; and the Canadian-born painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis (who influenced the 1960s surrealist poet-dramatist Wilfred WATSON) embraced the principles of Vorticism. FILM was also emerging as a new genre, and the filmmaker Ernest SHIPMAN adapted early Canadian novels by Ralph Connor and others to a visual medium. In 1928 the Aird Commission recommended a national BROADCASTING system, which, at the urging of Graham SPRY and others, led to the Broadcast Act of 1932 and the founding of the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION (CBC). Over the next decades RADIO would become a major medium both of communication, gradually adopting vernacular Canadian speech, and of literature, broadcasting plays, stories, and commentary.

Such developments underscore the appeal of Modernism to young artists at the time. Wishing to break from tradition aesthetically as well as in social attitude, they professed more interest in the world at large than in the empty nationalism of the past; objected to war and existing social systems, including religion and history; acknowledged T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson as influences rather than Longfellow and Sir Walter Scott; interested themselves in Freud, Marx, Stein, Einstein, and Picasso; and dismissed the notion of an absolute "Truth." Arguing that a decorous style had served the values of Empire, they turned to irony and satire. While they accepted subjectivity (the psychology of perception taking precedence over the existence of a fixed external reality), they doubted the validity of any sense of a uniform identity. Refusing standard literary paradigms (beginning/middle/end), they favoured fragmentary and multiple points of view rather than strict linearity.

The primary voices of the new Modernism in Canada were F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, and Leo KENNEDY, whose manifesto appeared in The Canadian Mercury (1928-9), successor to The McGill Fortnightly Review (1925-28). Their associates included Abraham KLEIN, Leon EDEL, and Jean Burton. The Montreal Group, as they came to be known, also included the older Newfoundland-born poet E.J. PRATT, whose lyrics and atypically long, verbally clever narratives addressed issues in science and nature. Of the group, Smith adhered most to conventions of Imagism, and became the most influential critic; Scott was the most satiric, and actively political, writing the Regina Manifesto for the CCF. Together they assembled several far-reaching anthologies of Canadian POETRY. Scott's social and legal writings influenced a later prime minister, Pierre Elliott TRUDEAU. Klein was the first major Jewish poet in the country (SeeJEWS, JEWISH WRITING), and his work reveals still other dimensions of Modernism: the politics of ethnicity and, in a series of major lyrics, the tensions between an inherited system of belief and a distrust in language as a device to express meaning. Largely dismissive of both the Confederation poets and the Montreal Group (and noted less in the 1920s than several decades later), the Ontario poet W.W.E. ROSS (Laconics, 1930) was experimenting with Imagist and surreal techniques, attempting to craft a specifically Canadian poetic form. Other poets of the time include Kenneth Leslie, Charles BRUCE, Floris Clark McLaren, F.O. CALL, and Anne MARRIOTT. Watson KIRKCONNELL's Canadian Overtones (1935), an anthology of translations, was the first to represent Canadian poets, such as Stephan STEPHANSSON, who wrote in languages other than English or French.

In prose, Raymond KNISTER's 1928 anthology Canadian Short Stories marked a comparable change in literary practice. Himself the author of several novels and sketches, Knister highlighted the work of Morley CALLAGHAN and other young writers, leading B.K. SANDWELL, in SATURDAY NIGHT, to question how to read narrative strategies that he found unfamiliar - but which were to become mainstream by 1960. Callaghan and John GLASSCO sought the Paris milieu of Stein and Hemingway in the 1920s; both Callaghan and Glassco later published fictionalized AUTOBIOGRAPHIES of the time. Glassco went on to publish poetry and erotica. Callaghan, as in A Native Argosy (1929) and SUCH IS MY BELOVED (1934), was to emerge as the preeminent prose stylist of the time. Influenced by Hemingway, praised in the United States, and committed to using a complex, allusive, but seemingly plain vocabulary, he probed the relevance of Catholic values to contemporary urban problems of RACISM, CLASS, and POVERTY).

Narratives by Callaghan and others often depicted social change as a clash between generations. In Frederick NIVEN's work young men rebel against Puritanical fathers and seek independence in Western Canada; in Malcolm LOWRY's early work, young men flee Methodist fathers for some alternative in America or at sea; in the symbolic plays of Gwen Pharis RINGWOOD, patriarchs and the young come into conflict. Martha OSTENSO's WILD GEESE (1925) portrays a tyrannical prairie father. Frederick Philip GROVE's fiction and autobiography (Settlers of the Marsh, 1925; A Search for America, 1927) follows characters who struggle to find their path in a land rife with corruption.

Grove, who affirmed the importance of self-knowledge and practical action, and was praised in the day as a consummate realist, was nonetheless himself performing an identity: later research proved him to be a German novelist, Felix Paul Greve. This focus upon, and play with, identity was not uncommon in the writing of the time. In one of the most successful literary hoaxes in Canadian history, Archibald BELANEY passed himself off as an OJIBWA wilderness spokesman named "Grey Owl." In The Yellow Briar (1933), "Patrick Slater" (John Mitchell) imagines another "autobiography," this time of an emigrant Irish orphan. Laura SALVERSON's fiction and life story tell of her ICELANDIC immigrant upbringing. Sinclair ROSS's periodical stories (collected in 1968 as The Lamp at Noon), tell more of ambiguous identity and marital tension than of a generational divide. Howard O'Hagan's Tay John (1939) heralds an interest in Jungian mythic constructions of identity that would surface again thirty years on. Bertrand Sinclair's novel The Inverted Pyramid (1924) acknowledges a debt between generations but castigates the moral corruption of industrial greed. Much of the writing of these decades was called "realistic" because it challenged standards in place: stories of economic collapse countered faith in an idealized agrarian past, life on an urban street countered conventional images of wilderness and pastoral nature. Yet violence could itself be sentimentalized and violent images become conventional. Real life could intervene.

The WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE of 1919, pitting workers against the violence of police and other authorities, foretold conflict to come. When social and industrial struggle increased with the GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s and the breakout of the Spanish Civil War, art (for example, the paintings of Paraskeva CLARK) and literature responded. New left-wing journals were founded: Masses (1932), New Frontier (1936). Dorothy LIVESAY, Earle BIRNEY, and Ted ALLAN variously espoused Marxist and Trotskyite solutions to society's disparities--Birney influenced by Auden, Livesay (in poems such as "Day and Night") by Lorca. Oscar Ryan's agitprop theatre Eight Men Speak (1934), closed by authorities after the first night of its performance in 1933, was later accepted as a graphic expression of its time (SeeLITERATURE AND POLITICS). The New Theatre in Winnipeg, the Progressive Arts Club in Vancouver, and Theatre of Action in Toronto attracted playwrights Salverson, Reuben Ship, and Len PETERSON. Irene BAIRD's Waste Heritage (1939) renders a 1938 strike in British Columbia. Political allegiances would alter after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. After the SECOND WORLD WAR sensibilities would change society and literature yet again.


Further Reading

  • Donna Bennett and Russell Brown, eds., An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English (3rd ed., 2010); D.M.R. Bentley, The Gay]Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry 1690-1990 (1992); Gregory Betts, Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: the Early Manifestations (2012); Cecily Devereux, Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism (2005); James Doyle, Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a Politically Radical Literary Tradition in Canada (2002); Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, eds., The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (1967); Barbara Godard and Di Brandt, Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry (2009); Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971); Colin Hill, Modern Realism in English-Canadian Fiction (2012); Coral Ann Howells and Eva-Marie Kroller, eds., The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature (2009); Dean Irvine, Editing Modernity: Women and Little Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956 (2008); Dean Irvine, ed., The Canadian Modernists Meet (2005); Clarence Karr, Authors and Audiences: Popular Canadian Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century (2000); Carl F. Klinck, ed., Literary History of Canada, 3 vols (2nd ed., 1976); Richard J. Lane, The Routledge Concise History of Canadian Literature (2011); Laura Moss, ed., and F.R. Scott, Leaving the Shade of the Middle Ground: The Poetry of F.R. Scott (2011); Laura Moss and Cynthia Sugars, eds., Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts (2009); Nick Mount, When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005); 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); Ken Norris, The Little Magazine in Canada, 1925-80 (1984); Candida Rifkind, Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, & the Left in 1930s Canada (2009); A. J. M. Smith, ed., Modern Canadian Verse in English and French (1967); William Toye, ed., The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983); Brian Trehearne, Aestheticism and the Canadian Modernists (1989)