A Cambridge History of Distinction

  • Eva-Marie Kröller (Editor) and Coral Ann Howells (Editor)
    The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature. Cambridge University Press
Reviewed by Claire Omhovère

This new addition to the Cambridge History series is the result of a transatlantic collaboration between two leading scholars—Coral Ann Howells, best known for her extensive publications on contemporary Canadian women writers, and Eva-Marie Kröller, editor of the journal Canadian Literature between 1995 and 2003 and The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature in 2004. With the contributions of thirty-two specialists in Canadian studies from Canada and abroad, Howells and Kröller have produced a dense and compact study that will allow readers to take good measure of the cultural factors at work in the development of Canadian writing in English as well as in French, and its evolution from the early days of contact to the present. A detailed chronology of historical and cultural events, a bibliography of selected critical works, and a capacious index complete the volume’s scholarly apparatus.

The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature identifies five chronological phases in the development of a national literature in conjunction with decisive historical and aesthetic mutations. Part 1 is devoted to the colonial period. The second part observes the characteristics of Canadian writing after Confederation. The models of modernity which emerged in the aftermath of World War I are discussed in a third part. The penultimate part focuses on the aesthetic experiments that began with the Centennial decade, testifying to a formal inventiveness which remains a hallmark of contemporary multicultural writing. Part 5 presents a detailed overview of poetry, drama, and fiction written in French. Each part comprises chapters addressing the intersection of formal and cultural concerns in their study of the generic or thematic questions specific to the context under consideration. Individual chapters do not, however, maintain a mutually-exclusive focus. Major authors, canonical works and evolving genres have their imports assessed and re-addressed from the contributors’ various perspectives. The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature consequently achieves a highly satisfying polyvocal quality. Writing in French, for instance, receives exclusive attention in the concluding section but references to its seminal authors and works intersperse the rest of the volume, pointing out the divergences and convergences through which the francophone tradition has constituted itself as distinct from, yet in relation to the rest of the national production.

Documents dating back to the colonial period are the object of fresh appraisal, particularly the correspondence of women with an insider’s knowledge of the fur trade society, or newly edited and published journals evincing “the importance of books, letters and literate exchange” in the Northwest interior. Read in retrospect, Victorian naturalists display subtle national sentiments in records that extol the magnificence of the local. Their guides and handbooks played a prominent role in the nineteenth-century formation of a Canadian sensibility, belying the “colonialist myopia” which allegedly affected the period. Genres often neglected as minor are also given prominence in chapters pondering the importance of lifewriting and of the essay in the formation of a Canadian canon. The comics and bande dessinée have their own history retraced in a chapter bristling with data about the inception of the genre and its growing popularity at home as well as abroad. The contributors are mindful of the screen adaptations, opera versions, radio broadcasts, and prizes that also commend literary works to posterity. The pivotal chapter devoted to cultural change after World War II considers the recipients of the Governor General’s Award in the 1940s and 1950s along with the many “outriders” who did not receive any public accolade at the time. Rising from the margins of region, gender and race, their plural voices heralded the advent of a vibrant multicultural literature in the following decades.

The Cambridge History is also concerned with the strong currents of permanence underlying change. Aboriginal expression receives sustained attention from the inaugural chapter that analyses in minute detail the “range of semiotic modes practiced by Indigenous cultures” before their contact with literacy to the substantial chapters dealing with the emergence of a literature “that is not synonymous with Canadian literature, although it has developed side by side with other contemporary Canadian writing.” Satire and irony have their importance showcased in early classics by Frances Brooke and Thomas Haliburton bearing witness to the slow process of cultural differentiation. A century later, Leacock’s humorous stories are felt to resonate with a “distinctively Canadian ironic voice expressive of the diversity that collectively was settling into a middle way philosophically, politically, and culturally.” Textual experimentation constitutes a third constant in the history of Canadian literature, as evinced in the many genres women writers actively invested in and transformed in the years following Confederation. Among many others, postmodern writers Leonard Cohen, Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, and Robertson Davies have also experimented with the elasticity of genre in creative crossovers between poetry and fiction or fiction and drama.

The Cambridge History introduces a judicious distinction between the formal innovations of Canadian postmodernism and the historiographic metafiction with which it has long been amalgamated. Postmodern writing is redefined as “embrac[ing] the pairing of formal and cultural hybridity,” whereas the various modes adopted in revisions of Canadian official history—i.e., realism, myth and postmodernism—are analyzed in a separate chapter. The “well-kept secret” of Canadian modernism is also the object of a welcome reassessment, emphasizing its essential differences from the metropolitan versions that developed abroad. This leads to a reappraisal of writers who have traditionally been categorized as realists, or naturalists, including the romantic but decidedly modern Lucy Maud Montgomery. To conclude, the editors of The Cambridge History have been successful in the goals they set themselves, namely complicating reductive readings of Canada’s two linguistic traditions and allowing space for formerly marginalized voices or suppressed histories. The volume maps out fascinating literary ground, both in the near present and the remote past, but it also charts continuities in the ongoing transformations of the national literature. Finally, it proceeds to a number of reassessments which testify to the vitality of critical debate in Canadian letters.

This review “A Cambridge History of Distinction” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 206 (Autumn 2010): 144-146.

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