The Laurence of Now and Then

Reviewed by J. A. Weingarten

“Every generation of writers has to draw on material from its own world. This world is always very different from the one which went before. Within every generation the themes and concerns and obsessions may overlap, but they are basically individual and personal ones, which is why nobody can ever write for everybody, and also why nobody can generalize about writers” (146). This is one of many timeless gems from Margaret Laurence’s non-fiction oeuvre, collected in Nora Foster Stovel’s Recognition and Revelation. The essays (a mix of published and unpublished works) cover a wide range of issues: becoming a writer, accepting criticism, travelling, feminism, democracy, Canadian culture, censorship, nuclear disarmament, and so on. The book is a lovely reminder of Laurence’s talent, intelligence, perceptiveness, fierce activism, and compassion. Her essays—at once both entertaining and surprisingly topical—are a genuine chance to add greater complexity to our understanding of Laurence’s legacy.


I opened my review with the quotation above because it is an astute statement on the inevitable re-evaluation every enduring author undergoes generation after generation. Stovel’s introduction helpfully frames Laurence’s accomplishments (primarily in the essays themselves), but I hoped it would offer something more by way of re-evaluating her place in literary history. Stovel’s introduction offers a detailed review of the essays and other published or archival sources, which demonstrates her unparalleled grasp of Laurence’s life and work; and, like Aritha van Herk’s heartfelt afterward, the introduction also celebrates Laurence as a writer, activist, and human being. At times, though, I yearned for a more complicated portrayal of Laurence. Stovel superbly demonstrates Laurence’s successes in her era; but what about her shortcomings in ours?


I found myself asking many similar questions that the introduction didn’t sufficiently answer: do Laurence’s portrayals of other cultural groups hold up to contemporary scrutiny? Is it fair, for instance, for Laurence to portray (as she does in “Ivory Tower or Grassroots?”) her struggle as a Canadian writer as comparable to the struggle of exiled anti-colonial writers like Chinua Achebe? And, do her frequent rejections of colonialism mean her beliefs and writing are free from colonialism’s influence? (I don’t believe so.) And what about reading Laurence in a post-TRC-report era? Is it not, for instance, worth unpacking the implications of Laurence’s implied desire to be Indigenous (Stovel’s introduction notes Laurence’s envy of those who have Indigenous ancestry) and, relatedly, her narrow conclusion (in “Canadian Novels”) that no significant cultural expressions of prairie life predate Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House? The best way to pass an author down to a younger generation of readers is to anticipate those readers’ questions; Laurence’s essays provide potential (or, at least, partial) answers to some of the questions contemporary readers might ask, which is one reason this book will be so valuable to scholars.


However, even if some answers may be found in the essays, only critics can draw them out. Stovel makes only the slightest nod to such answers, marked by a brief note in the final sentence of her introduction that Laurence’s concerns “are more pressing now than ever before” (43). The nod is too modest, too slight, to make readers see its rich potential and the ways in which we can read Laurence today.


When it comes to Laurence, contemporary scholars no longer need to remind us of Laurence’s titanic and inspiring voice; considering how frequently Laurence appears in book-length studies, articles, conference papers, and classrooms across the country, perhaps we can worry less about whether or not Laurence is studied and think more about what new opportunities there are to add new perspectives on her historical image and contemporary relevance. Even Laurence herself, writing in 1969, said she had enough distance from her celebrated The Stone Angel (1964) to criticize it: “I know its flaws” (57), she says in “Ten Years’ Sentences.” Imagine, then, what Laurence might have thought about her younger self from the vantage points available in the twenty-first century!


Indeed, Stovel’s wonderfully edited book points readers to examples of (as I’ve already noted) some tensions between Laurence’s era and ours (and, without question, Stovel’s book also offers beautifully detailed depictions of our national and literary history); but there are also some exceptionally perceptive, even prescient, observations in the essays that today’s readers will find intriguing: Laurence’s critique of what she calls “tribalism” as a dehumanizing act foretells (among many things) the dehumanizing cruelty of ex-President Trump’s government toward refugees, Laurence’s advice to young writers (in “Half War—Half Peace”) is timeless, and her travel writing captures both the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape and widespread cultural prejudices (e.g., a racist train passenger relentlessly badgers Laurence in “Journey from Lakefield”) with which the country is still coming to grips. For researchers, the essays will improve an understanding of Laurence’s contexts and philosophies on various subjects; for a general
audience, the essays share entertaining slices of life that capture specific eras in Canadian history and that simultaneously present what are, for the foreseeable future, enduring comments on Canadian landscape, politics, and culture.

This review “The Laurence of Now and Then” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 158-159.

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