Not fully replicated in Canada

June 20, 2013 by · 4 Comments 

The values of international modernism were also not fully replicated in Canada: the Great War tended to stimulate Canadian nationalism in the arts in a way alien to most English and American modernist writers. For example, the corrosive alienation about patriotism and national feeling found in works like Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) or Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or in American expatriate Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) was not present to the same degree in the work of many of the young Canadian writers and artists who had come of age in the trenches during the Great War, men like poet John McCrae or man of culture Talbot Papineau (who both died during the Great War), artist A.Y. Jackson, or historian Harold Innis. Canadians had tended to emerge from the war with less of the wholesale cynicism of young British, French, and German and American veterans.

– Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press

Here’s a question, and it is meant in all sincerity (because I don’t have the answer): Has Canada ever experienced a period of literary modernism? We have our postmodern writers, clearly: Ondaatje, Coupland, Kroetsch, Heti, Lent. But has Canadian writing ever truly engaged with modernism?

Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers has modernest elements, as does the poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen, bill bissett, and bp Nichol. And in the visual arts we have mid-20th-century abstract expressionist painters such as Riopelle and Borduas.

But it’s probably safe to say that high modernism never caught on in Canada to the extent that it did in Europe or America. I wonder if Campbell is correct in her assessment that part of the reason for this is a less cynical, more patriotic demeanour among our cultural creators. And if this relative lack of cynicism was present in the past (compare, for example, Morley Callaghan’s novels and stories to those of his contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce), is the same true now?


4 Responses to “Not fully replicated in Canada”
  1. Finn Harvor says:

    ” Has Canada ever experienced a period of literary modernism?”

    It’s a good question, and it’s a complicated one; not only does it have to do with the creative attitudes/ambitions of writers, but also the tolerance levels of what might be termed the Canadian literary Selector Class (all those journal editors, agents and acquisition editors who decide what will see the light of day). And then there is the vexing question of what the term “modernism” actually means — is it a style, or is it, as the Campbell quote suggests, a psychological point of view? (An amalgam probably — but with what being the essential element?)

    Re: war: Canadian fiction is a bit weird when it comes to war — for better or worse, there’s not much battle in CanLit. Canadian fiction also has great trouble dealing with the geopolitics of war: maybe fully confronting the degree to which Canada has not been an actor in charge of its own foreign policy destiny(ies) is upsetting, or “too complicated”, or not “feeling oriented” enough ………………….

    When it comes to making sense specifically of Canada and the nature of its participation in World War One, a good book to read is Robert Bothwell’s PENGUIN HISTORY OF CANADA. It makes the point that many of the men who initially signed up for service were in fact British nationals who had recently immigrated to Canada. As well, as the war moved from being the grand adventure it was intially promoted as being into a years’ long meatgrinder, I imagine there was cynicism to spare, even in good ole Canada. We had a conscription crisis, after all.

  2. Alex says:

    Academics have written books about Canadian literary modernism. I don’t know how convincing they are.

    If I had to boil things down for a blog comment: Modernism was a revolutionary movement. Canada is an anti-revolutionary country.

  3. Finn Harvor says:

    “Canada is an anti-revolutionary country”.

    The United States is doing a good job of catching up with us.

  4. If you are looking for a Canadian equivalent to Eliot, Hemingway, Stein, Joyce, etc, you won’t find them. Who wants imitators? They are valuable for their original responses to new conditions. It’s a colonial mindset that lets the norm be determined elsewhere and evaluates writers here by that model.

    On the other hand, if you think of modernism as a literary response to modernity (ie industrialization and the massive changes that transformed society at the turn of the century — just think of electricity, skyscrapers, subways, airplanes, cars, radio, film, etc!) then absolutely there were an enormous number of writers deeply engaged with examining that transformation in Canada. If you think about high modernism as the hallmark of stylist accomplishments that emerged in that first wave of reactions to modernity, then we also have an incredible range of writers breaking new ground.

    You want names? Start with Lawren Harris’ 1922 book Contrasts (same years as the Waste Land). It’s a gritty book of free verse sketches of the poorest neighbourhood in Canada as a symptom of the spiritual malaise of the modern world. Take Morley Callaghan’s novels, especially his moralist crisis trilogy: More Joy in Heaven, Such is My Beloved, and They Shall Inherit the Earth. The meaning of religion was changing; Callaghan nails the transformation and was an international best seller because of it. Mazo de la Roche captures the feeling of faltering in Canadian British gentry with the new century. And on and on and on. Read W.W.E. Ross, excellent imagist poet, who experimented with Surrealism before the Surrealists. Read Herman Voaden’s plays — exquisite expressionist dramas that infused multimedia experiments, and were directly inspired by the Group of Seven (see Harris above, who also painted sets for Voaden). Check out Brion Gysin, Claude Gauvreau, Frank Prewett, Charles Yale Harrison, Louise Moray Bowman, Florence Ayscouth (who, in 1922!, wrote a book of poems with Amy Lowell), and so on. And then go back and read Raymond Knister, after all of that experimental writing, and you will reconnect with the feeling of literary modernism because he did it par excellence. Finish by reading the works of Bertram Brooker, my favourite of the bunch, and the most aggressive and original experimentalist amongst them. He was consulted by a New York press to evaluate a manuscript they received from a new writer called E.E. Cummings. He recommended they publish the work.

    Did the world pay attention to Canadian literature? Novelist John Reid returned from living with Ezra Pound for seven months wearing Pound’s pants. We were there. The story has been told awkwardly, with hesitation and embarrassment — in part, because Canadian society wasn’t interested in weirdo literature and didn’t try to foster it. Other nations have industries creating and supporting the image of literary modernism. Canadian modernists have had none of that advantage, and have consequently dwindled from view. Does that mean they didn’t exist? Absolutely not. Does that mean they don’t exist? Well, that depends on what we do with conversations like this.