Arrival: The Story of CanLit. House of Anansi Press
Nick Mount’s previous book, When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005), is a lively account of the Canadian “literary expatriates of the 1880s and 1890s.” The book is full of rich anecdotes, but the main argument is occasionally “too good to be true,” to echo Mount’s later description of Farley Mowat’s non-fiction. As this reviewer noted, if Canadian literature “began” in late-nineteenth-century New York, it cannot also be true that Charles G. D. Roberts’ arrival in that city in 1897 was “the most important symbolic loss for Canadian literature of his day.” If the former statement were true, there would have been nothing to lose. In Arrival: The Story of CanLit, the anecdotes are even better, but the dubious claims persist. The subject is the “arrival” of Canadian literature in the fifteen years after 1959, when more good Canadian literature was produced than in any previous period of that duration; by 1974, “Canadian literature hadn’t just survived; it had arrived.” Mount admits that “[t]hey mythologized themselves and each other, these people who created a Canadian literature,” but he is comfortable with creation myths. He knows very well that Canadian literature existed long before 1959, but his previous
book has to be relegated to the notes for him to argue that
[i]n quality as well as quantity, the CanLit boom deserves its title. But it wasn’t a renaissance. It was what novelist Katherine Govier calls a naissance, “the cultural naissance of Canadian literary identity.” A birth, not a rebirth.
So much for earlier Canadian writers. They never had a chance, for their audience was either sleeping or otherwise engaged: “Canada awoke in the 1960s,” Mount writes, when “a society that after several centuries of cutting trees and swatting bugs suddenly found itself with time and money on its hands,” and was “finally comfortable enough to think about something besides trees and wheat.” Mordecai Richler said that “[i]n most parts of Canada, only Mazo de la Roche and snow have been there before you.” Wise literary historians cite such remarks, but they do not usually endorse them.
I will focus on three problems: the provocative title, the relation of Mount’s book to Margaret Atwood’s Survival, and the implications of these issues for Canadian literary history. First, and least important, is the term “CanLit.” Recognizing that it was first used by Earle Birney in “a poem about its absence (what America did in poetry, says Birney, Canada did in railways),” Mount points instead to the conclusion of the second edition of the Literary History of Canada (1976), in which Northrop Frye refers to the “colossal verbal explosion that has taken place in Canada since 1960.” That may be “the main source” for the term “CanLit boom,” but Frye did not say “CanLit,” perhaps because of the reason given by the narrator of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: noting that “[w]e do not call American Literature ‘Am Lit,’” he finds “no reason to shrivel this country’s most interesting literature to a derogatory abbreviation.”
Mount’s title is a sign of his pervasive irony, which distinguishes Arrival from Survival (1972), “the most influential book about Canadian literature ever published.” With Surfacing and Power Politics, it “defined Canadian literature,” says Mount in an unusually bold passage. “Atwood wasn’t wrong about CanLit’s obsessions,” he argues; “she just made the human mistake of projecting the worries of her time into her past, and the equally human mistake of assuming that these worries were unique to her place.” Unlike Atwood, who includes in Survival an appendix on how to get Canadian books and journals, see Canadian films and plays, hear Canadian writers and musicians, and contact Canadian publishers, Mount is systematically ironic toward his subject, arguing that both Atwood and Dave Godfrey seem “to have been made [Canadian nationalists] by an American education,” and that “in both English and French Canada, nationalism was a panacea for continentalism, a smokescreen and a comfort, while below the surface, as [George] Grant said, integration continued.” No doubt some were transformed by Atwood’s early works, but Mount knows that the very need for national definition was questioned by Frye himself, who argued in The Modern Century (1967) that “the country had skipped nationhood for a post-national society—and good thing too” (Mount’s words). Mount also notes that The Tamarack Review, a key journal for this period, mocked an interest in “the Canadianness of Canadian literature,” convinced that such nationalism “is always and everywhere absurd.” Morley Callaghan would have agreed. Since he feels beyond such things, Mount is not bothered by conflicting senses of nationalism, but a quotation from David Helwig explains that “[n]ationalism has its limits . . . as a source of artistic values, but writing is easier if you no longer believe that all the action is somewhere else.”
My third problem is that Mount’s distance from Atwood becomes a distance from
Just as international free trade agreements like NAFTA have made the main economic and cultural debate of the 1960s in Canada—foreign ownership of domestic industry—not just irrelevant but actionable, the very idea of a national literature is now an artifact of history. Atwood is still writing elegies, but now they’re for the species.
That’s progress, I guess. Unlike Atwood, Mount is happy with the post-national world: “Quite simply, there has never been a better time to be a Canadian reader.” It is an astonishing account of a culture that often accuses itself of “cultural genocide.” The ratings that appear in sidebars are also astonishing. Mount gives one out of five stars to The Temptations of Big Bear (“plodding style”) and Kamouraska (attempts at pathos “land too often in bathos”), and two stars to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (“too much life and too little art”) and The Diviners (much of which “reads like lazy commercial fiction”). You don’t need to be a nationalist to disagree.