Knowing Ourselves

Reviewed by Lisa Banks

For years now, I have anticipated new scholarship by Tony Tremblay with the excitement usually reserved for the first few days of spring. Tremblay always offers a comprehensive overview not only of a literary movement, but also of the environment from which it sprang. His latest, The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick (2019), is no exception. In addition to archive-supported literary, political, and social histories, there is also a vast postcolonial theoretical engagement woven throughout. Those familiar with Tremblay’s work will recognize this move from previous articles and chapters; as in earlier work, here Tremblay demonstrates deep, unyielding commitment to telling a story that has not yet been accepted—the story of a powerful, productive, and culturally rich New Brunswick.

In The Fiddlehead Moment, that story—one informed by economic, social, and political realities—reshapes understandings of New Brunswick’s cultural production. Contextualizing his argument in nineteenth- and twentieth-century New Brunswick, Tremblay writes against the prevailing narrative that Canadian modernism grew solely from urban centres in Ontario and Quebec; he instead aims to “provid[e] a missing piece to our understanding of Canadian literary modernism in the twentieth century.” As he makes clear in his first chapter—the compellingly named “New Brunswick as Colony, Province, and Supplicant”—“this book examines a group of writers and cultural workers who,” despite their shared goals and aims, “have never enjoyed the status of a school or movement.” In a nod to Desmond Pacey, Tremblay names these workers the Fiddlehead modernists.

The bulk of The Fiddlehead Moment is devoted to three major figures. In his second chapter, on A. G. Bailey, Tremblay draws a parallel between New Brunswick’s cultural history and Bailey’s own, sowing the seeds for Bailey’s recognition of the need to understand one’s regional history. Though Bailey was a tireless cultural worker, Tremblay’s primary focus is the founding of The Fiddlehead, which began as a small, internally circulated pamphlet with writing from members of the University of New Brunswick’s Bliss Carman Society. By his third chapter, Tremblay extends his focus outward as he charts Pacey’s contributions to shaping an environment in which the regional and the universal are not at odds. This environment is then fostered by Fred Cogswell, who, as Tremblay argues in his fourth chapter, brought the literary magazine to the wider world, opening it to submissions outside the Fiddlehead school and creating something like The Fiddlehead we currently know. Tremblay links these three stories, each shaping and reshaping what has come before in order to imagine and create a New Brunswick aware of its history and potential—a sentiment that reverberates throughout his conclusion.

The Fiddlehead Moment will appeal to scholars of twentieth-century Canadian literature—even, or perhaps especially, those invested in narratives of a Laurentian modernism that privileges the Montreal-Toronto corridor. Those drawn to Tremblay’s cultural work would be well served by checking out his other writing, as well as Kirk Niergarth’s “The Dignity of Every Human Being”: New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War (2015).

This review “Knowing Ourselves” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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