- Sarah M. Corse (Author)
Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States. Cambridge University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Guy Beauregard
Sarah Corse’s Nationalism and Literature promises a great deal: it addresses the intimate relationship between nation-building and literary canon formation; it compares the emergence of national literatures in the United States and Canada; and it pays specific attention to popular fiction in the United States and Canada to complicate any simple conclusions we may be tempted to draw from the "distinctiveness" of national canonical literatures. Corse finds that "while
elite valued, high culture literatures demonstrate a strong pattern of cross-national difference, widely read, popular-culture literatures do not." Such observations are likely to generate considerable interest and debate among scholars influenced by Pierre Bourdieu (on whom Corse draws throughout her study) and Canadianists engaged with the question of "Canadian canons."
To its credit, Nationalism and Literature provides concise and readable histories of national literature formation in the United States and Canada. While Corse’s discussion of a national literature in the US (in Chapter 2) strikes me as truncated (moving from the 1890s to the 1980s in two short paragraphs) and overly reliant on secondary sources in citing primary materials, her discussion of the Canadian example (in Chapter 3) shows considerable energy in addressing the francophone/anglophone split, British Commonwealth connections, the "American threat," and the role of the Canadian state in supporting national "culture."
Corse’s scholarship is compromised, however, by errors ranging from the trivial to the foundational. In the former category, Corse misspells Simon Fraser University, and refers to "a range of private and public universities" in Canada, where in fact such a distinction does not apply to Canadian universities at the time of writing (and hopefully in the foreseeable future). A more substantive set of questions arise from Corse’s claim that "the subject of ’Can Lit’ was barely raised until the mid-twentieth century," and that "Canadian nationalism, and thus the identification and development of a Canadian national literature, was a creature of the twentieth century." It strikes me that the fingerprints of Robert Lecker (whom Corse does not cite here, but whom she thanks in the Acknowledgments) are everywhere at the scene of this crime. While Lecker in his 1990 Critical Inquiry article sets up a late- blooming (i.e. post W orld War II) emergenceÂ·of "Canadian literature" in order to lament what he perceives as its withering away, Corse follows Lecker’s claims in order to argue for Canadian literature’s historical distinctiveness from American literature. Corse unfortunately does not draw upon the scholarship by Frank Davey, Margery Fee, Heather Murray, and others on the long and complex history of "Canadian literature" in Canadian universities, and, as a result, readers (such as myself) looking for a fresh discussion of Canadian literary nationalism before the 1950s will have to look elsewhere.
Nationalism and Literature is a work of sociology of literature, and I’d like to conclude by commenting on its "empirical" methodology. In comparing canonical, literary-prize winning, and popular-culture novels in the United States and Canada, Corse marshals tables and percentages to produce literary analysis that often verges on triteness. To give but one example: under the rubric "Connection versus individualism," Corse writes:
As a group, the Canadian canonical novels are marked by their attention to and emphasis on interpersonal connection and social identity. . . . American canonical novels, on the other hand, stress the dangers of social identity and social location, the constraints of interpersonal connection, and the potentially destructive power of the social.
Corse may be setting us up here—the later chapter on popular fiction shows that such levels of generalization are unsustainable— but the mere fact that she needs such banal readings to make this point makes me question the larger trajectory of her argument; it also makes me wonder how many literary scholars will follow her through such terrain. In the name of denouncing "reflection theory" and an assumed connection between a "national character" and a "national literature," Corse brings in through the back door a form of thematic analysis (however "empirical") that would raise eyebrows in an undergraduate English term paper. Corse’s study could have been a critical intervention in Canadian literary studies, but such forms of literary analysis make Nationalism and Literature a flawed look at issues of ongoing importance.
- Placing the Text by David Creelman
Books reviewed: Novels and the Nation: Essays in Canadian Literature by Frank Birbalsingh and The Margin Speaks: A Study of Margaret Laurence and Robert Kroetsch from a Post-Colonial Point of View by Gunilla Florby
- Mythologizing History by Coral Ann Howells
Books reviewed: New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction by Marie Vautier
- Anthologizing Asia by Scott McFarlane
Books reviewed: Canadian Culture and Literature and a Taiwan Perspective by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Yiu-nam Leung and Pacific Encounters: The Production of Self and Other by Robert Kramer, Eva-Marie Kröller, Joshua S. Mostow, and Allan Smith
- German Critics on Canadian Women Writers by Rosmarin Heidenreich
Books reviewed: Selbst und Andere/s by Doris Eibl and Christina Strobel and Erscheinungsformen der Macht in den Romanen Margaret Atwoods by Hannelore Zimmermann
- Diasporic Imaginaries by Donna McCormack
Books reviewed: Transnational Poetics: Asian Canadian Women's Fiction of the 1990s by Pilar Cuder-Domínguez, Belén Martín-Lucas, and Sonia Villegas-López
MLA: Beauregard, Guy. Coarse Comparisons. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #160 (Spring 1999), (Sweatman, Michaels, Munro, Duncan). (pg. 148 - 150)
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