Modern Realism Rethought

Reviewed by Marc André Fortin

In Modern Realism in English Canadian Fiction, Colin Hill reimagines and reinterprets the critical history of realist fiction produced in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century by exploring the paradoxes and overlapping developments within Canadian modernist fiction, and its connection/distance from international modernist aesthetics. Modern Realism foregrounds the historical development of modern realism in Canada through an engaged study of the cultural, critical, and political contexts around which authors from different regions, periods, and ideological backgrounds produced a body of work connected to international modernist aesthetics and concerns, yet which proved distinctly Canadian as a loosely related but nevertheless defined movement that eschewed formal high-modernist experimentation. Hill’s work questions the central parameters of critical engagement with the literary aesthetics of both modernism and realism by exploring the works of a highly diverse yet mutually connected group of Canadian writers and critics that either helped produce, or emerged from, the very ideas that formed the conceptual background to Canadian modern realist fiction.

Hill sets forth to answer one very particular and considerable problem with regard to modern realism: Exact boundaries between realisms and modernisms, whether temporal, regional, national, generic, aesthetic, or ideological, are notoriously difficult to draw in any literary tradition, and the Canadian situation provides no exception. ‘What makes Canadian realism modern?’ is a question that most critics of the early-twentieth century rarely asked and almost never answered directly. Hill’s work offers a starting point in the search for the answer to that question; a beginning because a definitive or direct answer, as Hill acknowledges, will require further work necessary to the recuperation of the texts and authors that have been relegated to the margins of modernist aesthetics in Canada. Modern Realism offers an excellent resource for further research, as well as an original and controversial theoretical framework for future considerations of Canadian modernist experimentation.

Modern Realism includes three detailed author studies focused on the works of Raymond Knister, Frederick Philip Grove, and Morley Callaghan, a chapter on modern realist manifestos published in Canadian Bookman and The Canadian Forum, and interventions on issues related to prairie realism, and urban and social realism. Hill critically examines a broad range of both canonical and obscure works of Canadian realist fiction, some still unpublished, as well as early-twentieth-century criticism of realist literature, together offering the interwoven perspective of both contemporary critics and authors at the beginning point of a literary movement in Canada that shaped future generations of writers. In reinterpreting the dialogue of early-twentieth-century criticism on Canadian literature, Hill’s work opens up a new space for understanding the way in which realism was both informed by, and integrated into modernist aesthetics, despite being considered by some as a weak or conservative form of modernist experimentation.

In examining the importance of modern realist fiction in Canada, Modern Realism re-evaluates the way in which the assessment of modernism and realism has shaped scholarly perspectives on the genre of realist fiction itself. Hill’s re-reading of prairie realism underscores the larger focus of Modern Realism in recovering the history and importance of Canadian modern realist fiction: I contend that prairie realism is not a conservative, mimetic, and regional genre at the periphery of Canadian literary development. It is a major, even central, component of the modern-realist movement that was unfolding across Canada in the early twentieth century. Prairie realism was among the most modern forms of writing to appear in Canada before 1950, and its writers carried out some of the boldest literary experiments of their period. Modern Realism ultimately counters previous critical readings of realist writers and their works; critical interpretations that have most often homogenized a diverse array of modern realist authors into groups of writers associated with particular geographical areas, political leanings, or aesthetic sensibilities. Hill’s work makes the case for an affinity between writers working within the mode of realist fiction, such as urban and regional writers, while interrogating the borders that separate the concept of modern realist experimentation from simplistic overviews of thematic groupings.

According to Hill, the paradox of modern realist fiction in Canada is that it has been neglected because of its absolute acceptance by critics and authors, and not because it was ever a lesser form of modernist experimentation. Hill states that the absence of formal experimentation in realist fiction, in what he considers the dominant form of Canadian modernist fiction, was itself a form of experimentation in contradistinction to high modernist works. Modern realism may be seen as a conservative form of modernism, according to Hill, but it was nevertheless an experiment in literary aesthetics that was international in scope, and an experiment that has left an indelible mark on Canadian literature. Hill envisions modern realist fiction in Canada as a sustained and influential aesthetic that had no definite end point, and which thus has been overlooked as a movement that shaped both late-modernist and postmodernist authors. His call for a renewed interest in modern realist fiction seems appropriate and timely, and Modern Realism offers a clear and in-depth analysis for anyone seeking access to a new understanding of the genre, and an excellent resource for critics and scholars seeking to discover newly re-found examples of modern realist Canadian fiction.

This review “Modern Realism Rethought” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 166.

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