Literary History in English 1940-1960 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literary History in English 1940-1960

Literary History in English 1940-1960

From the beginning of the SECOND WORLD WAR in 1939 to the early 1960s, Canada was negotiating its new-found international role, joining the UNITED NATIONS, developing the NORTH, and opening its borders more widely to IMMIGRANTS and REFUGEES--and to a tenth province, NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR, which in 1949 voted to join the Canadian CONFEDERATION. In the wake of fascism and the Holocaust, ANTI-SEMITISM in the country was slowly starting to wane, though the discrimination that had held many people in camps during the war (especially JAPANESE CANADIANS, their plight recreated in Dorothy LIVESAY's Call My People Home, 1950, and by the works of Muriel Kitagawa, Joy KOGAWA, Roy MIKI and others late in the century) continued for many years. "DIEPPE" became a cautionary watchword and memory, and when the VIETNAM WAR began in 1955 and the SUEZ CRISIS occurred in 1956, Canada officially remained uninvolved. That said, many Canadians participated in individual military actions and all Canadians were touched by the decades-long COLD WAR. LITERATURE reflected this political milieu, repeatedly marking how individuals lived their lives in the specific contexts of their upbringing and their time. Prime Minister Mackenzie KING's wartime phrase "Conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription" became a cultural catch-phrase, and King (like his predecessors Sir John A. MACDONALD and Sir Wilfrid LAURIER, and a future prime minister Pierre Elliott TRUDEAU) became an iconic figure in Canadian writing. Contrarieties abounded, and the image of Canada as a "mosaic," however misleading the image proved to be, captured the popular imagination.

The 1940s and 1950s, following wartime rationing of food and of paper (affecting the PUBLISHING industry), constituted a period of widespread prosperity, suburban growth, and a rapid rise in the birth rate: the "BABY BOOM" lasted into the 1960s. Security and safety governed many decisions. Some critics have argued that it was consequently a time of unadventurous art, though many individual works and careers counter this position: James HOUSTON's recuperative Eskimo Art (1955) signalled one change in cultural appreciation. National TELEVISION broadcasts began in 1952 and the STRATFORD FESTIVAL in 1953, leading social historians and artists to examine further the cultural impact of TECHNOLOGY and tradition. With remarkable foresight, these decades also put in place the social network that supported Canadian values at least until the early 21st century, and laid the foundation for the burst of artistic creativity that would follow in the 1960s and 70s.

Literature textbooks, which had regularly included some examples of Canadian writing such as ROBERTS, SETON, CARMAN, DRUMMOND and D.C. SCOTT, slowly increased their Canadian content. Carl KLINCK and R.E. Watters produced substantial BIBLIOGRAPHIES and historical enquiries; their Canadian Anthology appeared in 1955, widely used as a textbook and for a time establishing a literary canon. Jack MCCLELLAND's paperback New Canadian Library, edited by Malcolm ROSS and later by David STAINES (1957-d.), made a series of out-of-print prose works by Frederick Philip GROVE, Sinclair ROSS, Susanna MOODIE, Stephen LEACOCK, Frances BROOKE, and others (sometimes, early on, in a condensed version), accessible in inexpensive paperback, extending readers' familiarity with their own developing culture, both in the home and in schools. Separate university courses in Canadian literature were instituted by 1958, and rapidly multiplied.

Of critical importance was the rendering of Canadian vernacular speech, a trend that was most apparent in RADIO, where broadcast news, music, opinion, humour, talks, and DRAMA all trained readers to be listeners, and writers to render speech rhythms believably. The names of radio dramatists Lister SINCLAIR, Fletcher Markle, Andrew ALLAN, Mary Grannan (for CHILDREN), and Reuben Ship became familiar across the country, as did the acerbic voice of the critic Nathan COHEN (SeeENGLISH- LANGUAGE RADIO DRAMA). Ship's The Investigator (1954) fiercely pilloried the egregious McCarthy witch-hunts in the USA. Markle and Mordecai RICHLER went on to write film scripts, in Hollywood and England. Along with other writers (Hugh GARNER, Joyce Marshall, W.O. MITCHELL, Mavis GALLANT), Richler and Alice MUNRO had their early SHORT FICTION broadcast on radio; their careers were encouraged by the influential editor (TAMARACK REVIEW) and anthologist (OXFORD UP) Robert WEAVER, who joined the CBC in 1948. Stage plays also appeared in greater number in the 1940s, in part due to amateur play societies (the DOMINION DRAMA FESTIVAL) and the LITTLE THEATRE MOVEMENT, but especially because of Dora Mavor MOORE's New Play Society (est. 1946) in Toronto, which produced work by Gwen Pharis RINGWOOD, Patricia JOUDRY, John REEVES, and John COULTER, among others (SeeENGLISH-LANGUAGE THEATRE).

In this period many of the writers who had emerged in previous decades published the last works of their careers (Leacock, D.C. Scott) or some of their most noteworthy works--for example, Abraham KLEIN's THE ROCKING CHAIR (1948; poems critical of Mayor Camillien HOUDE's Montreal) and The Second Scroll (1951), a linguistically innovative allegory of the travels of modern Jewry. Klein also translated some of the Yiddish poetry of Rachel Korn and Y.Y. Segal. E.J. PRATT published his long nationalist poems, Brébeuf and His Brethren and Towards the Last Spike (his Collected Poems appearing in 1958); Emily CARR her sketches of her encounters with West Coast FIRST NATIONS life, KLEE WYCK (1941); Malcolm LOWRY his passionate and dense revelation of an alcoholic's last day, Under the Volcano (1947); and Sinclair Ross his psychological anatomy of a prairie minister's wife, AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE (1941). Earle BIRNEY wrote his anti-war satire Turvey (1950) and, while he would go on to revise and experiment with poetic form, some of his most familiar poems, "DAVID" and "Canada: Case History."

Other writers used humour as a gentle reconstruction of childhood, as with W.O. Mitchell in WHO HAS SEEN THE WIND (1947) and Robert Fontaine in The Happy Time (1945); or as a form of social critique (Bob Edwards, Eric NICOL, Pierre BERTON); or to parody literary pretension (Robertson DAVIES in Leaven of Malice, 1954, and Paul HIEBERT in SARAH BINKS, 1947). Some writers, including Will BIRD and Thomas COSTAIN, continued to write conventional narratives; others tried to invest conventional realism with strains of symbolism or to cast psychological trauma as narrative, as in popular works by Thomas RADDALL (The Nymph and the Lamp, 1950) and Ernest BUCKLER (THE MOUNTAIN AND THE VALLEY, 1952). Translations of works by Gabrielle ROY, Roger LEMELIN, Ringuet (Phillipe PANNETON) and others appeared, many of them urban in subject and anti-clerical in stance. Some critics focussed on freshness of topic as a determiner of literary importance, as with Gwethalyn GRAHAM's best-selling Earth and High Heaven (1944), about a "mixed marriage" (i.e. JEWISH and non-Jewish); Igor GOUZENKO's The Fall of a Titan (1954), a fictional version of his defection from the Soviet embassy; and Hubert EVANS' Mist on the River (1954), about cross-cultural encounters in a First Nations community on the Skeena River.

The works of Hugh MACLENNAN received most attention during this period, praised for their voice - that of the narrating observer rather than the traumatized protagonist - and for their concern to make Canadian topics the legitimate subject of serious literature. In much of his writing MacLennan favoured allegory, as in BAROMETER RISING (1941), which rendered the HALIFAX EXPLOSION (hence the FIRST WORLD WAR) as a key moment when Canadians reappraised themselves. The phrase he borrowed from Rainer Maria Rilke for the title of TWO SOLITUDES (1945), in order to characterize FRANCOPHONE-ANGLOPHONE RELATIONS (that two solitudes "protect, touch, and greet each other"), has been widely misinterpreted and misapplied in Canadian cultural studies. Other works address Canadian-American connections, the rivers of Canada, and the ambivalent character of courage. The Watch that Ends the Night (1959) is loosely based on the life of Norman BETHUNE - whose biography, by Ted ALLAN, appeared in 1952. One other writer of the period, Ethel WILSON, won comparable critical attention more slowly, for several novels and stories about women's lives. From Hetty Dorval (1947) to SWAMP ANGEL (1954) to the eighteen stories collected as Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories (1961), Wilson demonstrated how an allusive style could express remarkable empathy, and eloquent understatement reveal depths of character.

For contemporary critics, the main achievements in prose during these two decades proved to be a magisterial theory of myth and literary mode (Northrop FRYE's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, 1957); competing volumes of Canadian history from conservative (Donald CREIGHTON), liberal (Frank UNDERHILL), and populist (Bruce HUTCHISON) perspectives; nature writing by Roderick HAIG-BROWN and Farley MOWAT; philosophy by George GRANT; and two volumes of COMMUNICATIONS theory (Harold Adams INNIS's Empire and Communications, 1946; The Bias of Communication, 1951). Innis argued that any communications system biases the message it transmits--a contention that influenced the work of Marshall MCLUHAN in The Mechanical Bride (1951) and later works.

Four NOVELS also attracted greater attention after the fact than at the time of publication. Mordecai Richler's THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1959), the first major success of his long career, uses a street-smart style to tell of an ambitious Jewish anti-hero in Montreal and to undercut conventional social mores. Elizabeth SMART's genre-crossing By Grand Central Station I Lay Down and Wept (1945), initially banned in Canada, recounts in prose poetry a fictional version of the author's unconventional love affair with the British poet George Barker. Written more in a cyclic than in a linear fashion, so as to convey the consciousness of its central character, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano further illustrates the appeal of late Modernism, as does Sheila WATSON's THE DOUBLE HOOK (1959). Watson's novel tells the story of a murder, but its distinctive elliptical prose eschews conventional plotting, asking readers to be guided by Coyote, the trickster, and to immerse themselves in the physicality of language, not just accept language as a transparent conveyance of story.

A more obvious resistance to convention took place in POETRY. Some fifty or so poets of distinction were writing at the time, and any list would include such names as A.G. BAILEY, Elizabeth BREWSTER, Fred COGSWELL, Roy DANIELLS, Robert FINCH, R.A.D. FORD, George JOHNSTON, Douglas LE PAN, James REANEY, Dorothy Roberts, Kay Smith, Francis SPARSHOTT, Miriam WADDINGTON, Joe Wallace (the Communist "worker-poet"), and Anne WILKINSON. Their work ranged from rhymed sonnet and vernacular local myth to free verse engagements with social disparity, sexual identity, landscape spirituality, and international politics. It was encouraged (as was that of young poets such as Leonard COHEN whose careers would flourish a decade later) by the emergence of new journals--Alan Crawley's CONTEMPORARY VERSE, Aileen Collins's CIV/n--but especially by two rival journals in Montreal: Preview (involving Patrick ANDERSON, P.K. PAGE, and others, interested in Freud and Eliot) and First Statement (involving Irving LAYTON, Louis DUDEK, and Raymond SOUSTER, more interested in Ezra Pound and working-class aesthetics). These two journals later combined as NORTHERN REVIEW (ed. John SUTHERLAND). Arguing that the "new NATIONALISM" of the previous generation (Smith, Scott) was just a different version of the "old nationalism" of LAMPMAN and Roberts, the First Statement poets espoused a different idiom for poetry. Whereas P.K. Page was noted for the vivid visual imagery with which her lyrics enacted behaviour--brief observed moments turned into large psychological revelations-Layton became better known for the cocky physicality of his verse and his public performances. By turns tender, bawdy, political, and hectoring, Layton's poetry celebrated life in all its chaotic forms, constantly challenging the limitations that "safe" society imposes and probing religious, social, sexual, and linguistic alternatives wherever he found convention. SMALL PRESSES proliferated, expressing the voices of coteries and producing some of the most innovative work of the time. Souster founded CONTACT and Combustion, and Contact Press. Dudek, admired for his long poems, went on to found Delta, where his interest in language as a medium of thought was further honed.

The period closed on the threshold of a new wave of nationalism and creative energy. The report of the Massey Commission (ROYAL COMMISSION ON NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES) led, with the financial support of the Izaak Walton KILLAM family, to the creation of the CANADA COUNCIL for the Arts in 1957. It also encouraged concentrated support of Canadian CULTURE in ways that would allow it tangibly to develop. Several anthologies were published; critical surveys became available; the journal CANADIAN LITERATURE was founded in 1959 (the first critical journal to focus on Canadian writers and writing), with the libertarian historian George WOODCOCK as editor. The stage was set for a new generation of writers in the 1960s.


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