Literature in English: Theory and Criticism | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literature in English: Theory and Criticism

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a principal source of modern literary theory in English, made little direct impression in 19th-century Canada, largely because literary life in Canada shared the anti-theoretical biases of Victorian England.
Northrop Frye, writer
Frye's enormous influence derived from his insistence that literary criticism is a symbolically co-ordinated discipline that outlines the shape of the human imagination itself (photo by Andrew Danson).

Literature in English: Theory and Criticism

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a principal source of modern literary theory in English, made little direct impression in 19th-century Canada, largely because literary life in Canada shared the anti-theoretical biases of Victorian England. Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, the most powerful arbiters of Victorian taste, were convinced moral determinists. For them, good art was "at root" a matter of good morality, directing the sensuous imagination of artist and audience alike; if the artistic vision was true, then technical details of expression would take care of themselves. In taking "vision" in this sense, these authorities effectively denied access to the mystery of art other than by uncritical, unsystematic procedures. Great or successful literature was the occasion for ostensive definition (comparison with similar points of excellence drawn from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare or Milton) or for the invocation of a moral standard; it was not the occasion for reflection on particular literary arts, or for isolation and analysis of a text's distinctive features.

In Canada, LITERARY MAGAZINES provided the first forum for discussion of literary theory. Long before John George BOURINOT'sThe Intellectual Development of the Canadian People (1881) there appeared essays and reviews in the literary press that identified and attempted to assess the vital issues in contemporary Britain and the US. This was not easy, given limited resources and circulation, and the fact that the migration of ideas is constant and complex. Most striking about the early efforts is the shrewdness and clarity with which they established the topics that have remained at the centre of Canadian theoretical debate: the possibility and desirability of a distinctive Canadian literature, and the nature of literature's contribution to the national life.

Although interest in these questions was largely a legacy of the European romantics, Canadians claimed them as their own - not in the first instance through the usual channels of theoretical innovation (new analytical tools and terminology, a new conceptual grounds), but rather through recognition that to address these questions was to deal with the condition of all Canadians, grounded as they were in the historical and geographical reality of Canada itself.

There was no lack of derivative and pedestrian commentary on literary genres, literature as the interplay of fact and precept, and similar topics. And it was easy for Goldwin SMITH to assure the readers of The Week in 1894 that "no such thing as a literature Canadian in the local sense exists or is ever likely to exist." There was little prospect of original theorizing while Canada's cultural autonomy remained in question.

Meanwhile, Canadians could draw on the values and expectations nourished by the Scottish intellectual tradition in immigrants such as Daniel Chisholme, David Wilson and Graeme Mercer Adam, and take heart from the sensitivity shown by native-born Canadians of the calibre of journalist and novelist Sara Jeannette DUNCAN and social commentator John A. Cooper.

 The early 20th century witnessed a steady growth in Canadian literary scholarship, but little innovative theory. Despite the stocktaking of J.D. LOGAN'sAesthetic Criticism in Canada (1917) and A.J.M. SMITH's sardonic demand of 1928, "Wanted - Canadian Criticism," academic conservatism held firm. Canadian PHILOSOPHY and LANGUAGE study continued to be more historical than analytical, while orthodoxy was fortified by scholars such as Pelham Edgar, E.K. BROWN and A.S.P. WOODHOUSE. Even George Whalley's Poetic Process (1953) was more of a tribute to Coleridge than an advance beyond him. However, with the work of Marshall MCLUHAN and Northrop FRYE this situation changed dramatically.

Literary essays written by McLuhan between 1943 and 1962 (collected in The Interior Landscape, 1969) revealed an erudite but profoundly restive mind moving away from "mere literature" and traditional scholarship towards a new vision of cultural history, human cognition and the challenges facing academe. In THE GUTENBERG GALAXY (1962) McLuhan anticipates the concerns of European theorists with the impact of technology on man's responses to the world around him, and reflects on the changes wrought on speech and writing by advances in COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY. He draws on the spiritual and intellectual resources of scholasticism to elucidate the implications of The Gutenberg Galaxy, enriching in the process the vocabulary of literary theory, recognizing the advantage of interdisciplinary studies, and dramatizing the idea that criticism enlivened by radical theory and unafraid of analogy can claim to be not parasitism or prostitution, but creative predation.

Frye, like McLuhan, has written one major work of theory and many subsequent validations of it. Since the appearance of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM (1957), Frye has become a highly influential theorist. Lucid, learned and witty, polemical and yet plausible, Anatomy is a series of interlocking theoretical essays built upon definitions of symbol ("any unit of any literary structure that can be isolated for critical attention"), criticism (which "begin[s] with, and largely consist[s] of, the systematizing of literary symbolism") and related terms - the whole synoptic scheme being held together by the proposition that "in myth we see the structural principle of literature isolated." In collections such as The Bush Garden (1971) Frye refers not to Canadian isolation itself, but to the autonomy-through-isolation enjoyed by "great" literature and literary study.

His works have inspired some of the finest contemporary Canadian writers, but have too often occasioned mere condemnation or rapture within the university community, or led his more careful readers into a no-man's-land between autonomous and socially determined performance, as in Francis Sparshott's The Concept of Criticism (1967). More recently, however, literary theorists have freed themselves from Frye's bias against structuralism and ideologically motivated criticism. Debate is carried on in the LEARNED SOCIETIES and in publications such as the Journal of Literary Theory (1980- ), Taxte (1982- ), Tillottama Rajan's Dark Interpreter (1980), and Identity of the Literary Text, eds Valdés and Miller (1985).

A strong interest in avant-garde and theoretical approaches to literature was nurtured in Open Letter (est 1965), a literary magazine edited by Frank DAVEY. The influence of recent European trends (poststructuralism, deconstruction, narratology, reception theory, etc) can be seen in Linda Hutcheon's Narcissistic Narrative (1980, 1984), E.D. Blodgett's Configuration (1982) and in Labyrinths of Voice (1981), a series of interviews with Robert KROETSCH by Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Perhaps the most important evidence of the new interest in theory is in the works of feminist critics, including Mary Nyquist, Lorraine Weir and the editorial collective "Tessera" (Barbara Godard, Kathy Mezei, Daphne Marlatt and Gail Scott), whose work also links criticism in English Canada with that of critics and writers in Québec, such as Nicole Brossard, Louky Bersianik and Louise Cotnoir.



The work of critics is generally to define, classify, interpret and judge literature, but which of these activities achieves prominence varies from period to period and from place to place. In countries such as France and England, where the classics are widely agreed upon, little need exists to define the national literature (it is simply understood to be these classics) or to promote it (since all agree that the classics should be widely read and taught). When such a consensus exists, critics can devote their time to editing famous texts or to interpreting famous authors.

Many English Canadian critics, including Barker FAIRLEY, Douglas Bush, Leon EDEL, Hugh Kenner, Kathleen Coburn, Marshall McLuhan, George WOODCOCK and Northrop Frye, have achieved international recognition for this kind of work on world writers or for their literary theory. If such critics turn their attention to Canadian literature, a new literature with few classics, they often change their approach. In Canada much critical energy has been consumed in attempts to define Canadian literature. Furthermore, critics who feel that Canadian literature deserves an audience must promote its publication, study and popular reception.

The history of English-Canadian literary criticism has also involved a struggle to promote Canadian literature by providing it with a literary institution: publishers, readers, reviewers, booksellers, literary associations, journals, reference works, textbooks and university courses (seeAUTHORS AND THEIR MILIEU; BOOK PUBLISHING). Even before Confederation, Edward Hartley Dewart concerned himself with the economic difficulties of Canadian authors and publishers.

Three important later institution builders were Pelham Edgar, head of English at Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1903-18; Lorne PIERCE, literary editor of the RYERSON PRESS, 1922-60; and William Arthur Deacon, book reviewer for the GLOBE AND MAIL and other important Toronto publications, 1922-60. Although these men wrote much about Canadian literature, they also strove to set in place permanent institutional structures to support the growth of that literature. Their projects were precursors to such later ones as the establishment of the NATIONAL LIBRARY (1953) and the CANADA COUNCIL (1957), and the publication of Literary History of Canada (1965; rev 1976).

In their attempts to define Canadian literature, critics have been dominated by romantic nationalism. This still-common view sees the nation-state as an ideal association because it is based primarily on linguistic, cultural, social and geophysical unity, rather than on political expediency or the accidents of imperialism. Non-European countries rarely possess the unity required by this theory, and Canada is no exception. For example, Canada has officially recognized BILINGUALISM and MULTICULTURALISM. Critics, therefore, have had the difficult task of identifying national characteristics not shared by Canada and the US or Britain yet common to English and French Canada. Thus Canada's cold climate, northern wilderness and colonial mentality have been seen as crucial in the formation of the nation's literature; more recently, native peoples and myths, French-English relations, and early history have become popular "Canadian" topics.

Several general books based on the ideas of romantic nationalism were published; the most representative is perhaps Archibald MacMechan's Headwaters of Canadian Literature (1924). E.K. Brown's writings, especially On Canadian Poetry (1943), best exemplify the continuing tradition. Lionel Stevenson's Appraisals of Canadian Literature (1926) made some interesting revisions to the main tenets of romantic nationalism in order to approach the older generation of Canadian poets more flexibly.

With the 1920s and the introduction of modernist poetics to Canada (documented in Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, 1967) came resistance to romantic taste and to romantic nationalist literary theories. CANADIAN FORUM (1920- ) provided the most public medium for the new poetry and its supportive criticism, which was influenced by T.S. Eliot, the Imagists and the French Symbolists. W.E. Collin's The White Savannahs (1936) exemplifies this critical approach.

A.J.M. Smith, a central figure in the attack on Canadian romantic poetry and criticism, argued that the focus on writing "distinctively Canadian" poetry led to low standards and a parochial ignorance of foreign innovations. In his introduction to The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943), he made an influential distinction between "native" writers, who concentrated on "what is unique and individual in Canadian life," and "cosmopolitan" writers, who make a "heroic effort to transcend colonialism by entering into the universal, civilizing culture of ideas." Although Smith himself recanted in later editions of his book, the "native-cosmopolitan" split has been revived in the debate between Frank Davey, a postmodernist who supports McLuhan's concept of the "global village," and Robin Mathews, a left-wing nationalist.

The greatest contemporary influence on Canadian criticism has been the work of Northrop Frye. Although he approved of Smith's modernist taste, Frye has rehabilitated many of the important themes of romantic nationalist criticism. For example, his view that nature is a major determinant of the "Canadian" quality in our literature is similar to that of Dewart, who wrote in 1864 that Canadian "nature unveils her most majestic forms to exalt and inspire the truly poetic soul." For Frye, Canadian nature inspires the "deep terror" that leads to a "garrison mentality." Because of the threat of a "huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting," this mentality promotes the human and moral values of the group.

Frye's ideas influenced D.G. JONES'sButterfly on Rock (1970), which argues a change from garrison mentality to communication between man and his formerly frightening surroundings, and Margaret ATWOOD'sSURVIVAL (1972). Atwood sees the Canadian literary fixation on survival as arising less from the threat of the real wilderness than from the threat of American cultural domination.

Detractors from these and other "thematic" discussions of Canadian literature argue that the emphasis on man's relation to the wilderness is not unique to Canadian literature, and that this approach risks equating Canadian content with quality, oversimplifies Canadian-American relations and overemphasizes the Canadian landscape at the expense of the more time-bound and problematic intellectual, social, economic and political influences.

Frye's ideas have been turned inside out by several writers and critics who, instead of claiming that the land determines the literature, argue that writers invent the land. Eli MANDEL suggests that an environment is "a mental construct, a region of the mind, a myth." Because no one can grasp the variety of the real Canada, we evolve, in art, popular culture, journalism, literary criticism and especially literature, an imaginative version of Canada to stand for the real Canada.

The surge of Canadian self-awareness that accompanied the Centennial of Confederation in 1967 encouraged the expansion of Canadian literature courses (seeLITERATURE IN ENGLISH: TEACHING) and of Canadian criticism. New journals sprang up to join CANADIAN LITERATURE, which had stood alone since its establishment in 1959: Journal of Canadian Fiction (est 1972), Essays on Canadian Writing (est 1974), Studies in Canadian Literature (est 1976) and many others.

By the early 1980s the gains of the previous decade were being consolidated in a number of large-scale projects, including The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983, ed W. Toye), Carleton University's Center for Editing Early Canadian Texts (gen ed Mary Jane Edwards), and ECW Press's proposed 20-volume series, Canadian Writers and Their Works (gen eds Robert Lecker, Jack David and Ellen Quigley). That the bare survival of Canadian literature perhaps need no longer be the central concern of Canadian criticism is indicated also by the recent publication of several major works about individual writers: biographies, volumes of letters and critical monographs.

Recently the traditional borders between literature, literary criticism and literary theory have become blurred in Canadian criticism based upon European theory. Thus avant-garde writers such as Douglas BARBOUR, George BOWERING, Frank Davey, Robert Kroetsch, Stephen SCOBIE and Phylis Webb, comparative literature specialists such as E.D. BLODGETT, Linda Hutcheon and Lorraine Weir, and feminist critics such as Barbara Godard, Daphne MARLATT, Kathy Mezei and Gail Scott (the Tessera collective), write criticism of Canadian literature based on a variety of internationally current theoretical perspectives. Although definition and promotion will not vanish completely from the Canadian critical repertoire, Canadian literature appears to have achieved the institutional security necessary to support the theoretical and analytical critical writing typical of an established literary culture.


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