Monumental in Their Own Right

Reviewed by Cynthia Sugars

After finishing my Master’s degree in English in the late 1980s, I worked as a sessional instructor for one year at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. The year before, David Adams Richards’ Nights Below Station Street had won the Governor General’s Award, and I decided to put it on the course list for my English literature class. Having grown up on the Miramichi, the same stomping grounds as Richards himself, I was eager to hear students’ thoughts on a writer I had long admired. To my surprise, many students took exception to the book. When I asked them why, I got a variety of responses, the main one being that the world of the novel was too “regional.” It had never occurred to me that the world depicted in Richards’ text was particularly out of the ordinary. This was the world in which I had grown up. When I lived there, it had never struck me that there was anything radically foreign or strange about the place (other than a teenager’s sense that all the world is such). The experiences of Richards’ characters, it seemed to me, were comparable to people’s concerns elsewhere: they struggle to do what is right; they live with regrets; they make mistakes; they show flickerings of courage; they curse; they love; they hurt. If we could comprehend the oddballs in Robertson Davies’ itinerant carnivals, surely 1970s New Brunswick couldn’t be that foreign. When I suggested the potential for some element of universality in the book’s characters, the line of protest took a somewhat different tack. The characters, I was told, were “unliterary.” They were mediocre, crude, working class, unrefined. I quickly realized that the problem lay not with the book itself, but with what we had been taught was suitable subject matter for works of literature. At the base of this sentiment was a sociological judgement as well as a literary one: the students looked down on Richards’ characters; they considered them unworthy.

Tony Tremblay’s groundbreaking biography of David Adams Richards relays the struggles Richards had, and continues to have, in being taken seriously as more than a “Maritime” or “regional” writer, and he does so by giving Richards the kind of serious biographical and literary critical treatment that is long overdue. The book provides an integrated combination of biography, New Brunswick socio-cultural history, and illuminating close reading to produce a study that truly does justice to its subject. On one hand, Richards’ lifelong goal has been to achieve a “decolonizing” of regionalism. As Tremblay puts it, for Richards “‘regional’ was not a pejorative but a circumstance of birth to be celebrated.” As part of this, Richards wanted to combine the highly local substance of place and history with a sense that “a life of the mind was possible even in remote places.” Richards’ concern with human frailties and “small heroics” easily gets lost in a critical regimen that is incapable of seeing the forest for the region’s trees (and vice versa). Or, as Tremblay writes, the error is “to misread an inquiry into psychology as a problem of sociology.” The irony is that Richards has been made to carry the reputation of Maritime cultural regionalism on his shoulders. The curse of the “regionalist” author, however, is compounded in Richards’ case by the controversies that stalk him, largely due to his unpopular sentiments about political correctness, religious faith, and the university academy. As Tremblay argues, few people have been indifferent to Richards’ work.

It is for this reason that this book is so important. It helps to clarify many of these controversies, while explicating, in wonderfully perceptive close readings (I would want this book to hand whenever I teach these novels from now on), the vision in the work. At the outset, Tremblay sets Richards’ ethos in the context of the socio-cultural history of the Miramichi. While this does not relegate Richards to the “boonies” of regionalism, it helps to situate his ethics and aesthetics in terms of a kind of historical memory. Tremblay aptly outlines the “social and psychic ennui caused by the deflation of expectations” that is so much a part of the history of this place (and undoubtedly many others like it across the country). From there, the book charts Richards’ early years as a young boy with a physical disability in one leg, carrying us forward to the teenager whose “principled rebellion” informed his dreams of writing his way to public notice. It was during high school that Richards developed his talent for deciphering social and moral pretension, an ability that is evident throughout his writings. Richards acquired a special antipathy for teachers and psychologists, whose high-minded pose of moral superiority and “institutionalized benevolence” he felt masked a profound disdain for the people in their care. This obsession extended to academics, sometimes to Richards’ detriment, whom he felt used their credentials to enforce a form of aesthetic and ethical conformity. The split reception of The Coming of Winter—and of so many Richards novels that followed—confirmed this. Reviewers consistently emphasized the novel’s outmoded realism and existential defeatism. Tremblay sees this as a “misreading of the book’s realism,” an approach based in “schooled ignorance” that insisted on the book’s portrayal of regional disparity rather than its basic “sympathetic faith in human life.” “I’m not writing about [characters] to make a statement about bad times in the Maritimes,” Richards told Chris Morris in 1988; instead, he wanted to show that his characters are worthy of attention, “monumental in their own right.” William Connor’s account of Richards’ reception echoes this perception:
This initial tendency to place Richards in the important Canadian tradition of regional realism was natural in view of his talent for capturing the details of life in his region, yet is unfortunate that Richards’ success in depicting the surfaces of his characters’ restricted lives should have caused so many critics to miss the psychological and symbolic depth beneath these surfaces.

Tremblay takes us through various stages in Richards’ life and writing career, from his early chapbook of poetry Small Heroics; to his enrolment in St. Thomas University and his membership in UNB’s “Ice House” club; to his friendship with Alden Nowlan; to his subsequent notoriety following the publication of The Coming of Winter with Oberon Press (whose editor had surreptitiously cleaned up the speech of the novel’s characters); to his battles with alcoholism; to Road to the Stilt House, perhaps Richards’ darkest novel, yet one which Tremblay argues exacts the most perspicacity from its reader; to the Governor-General’s award for Nights Below Station Street. Richards has published numerous novels since then, including his Giller-winning Mercy Among the Children, but Tremblay concludes on a kind of cliff-hanger. One cannot assess the legacy of Richards’ post-1990 fiction yet. Instead, Tremblay leaves us to measure our own readings of Richards against this newly opened up assessment and elucidation of the author’s vision. Janice Kulyk Keefer places Richards among those writers whose “sentiments we prefer not to hear [for] they do not belong to the Canada of our patriotic imaginings.” There is some truth to this. Richards’ novels are not easy. It is tempting to fall back on the much touted assertions of his reactionary politics, but it may be that Richards, in refusing to pander to fashion, asks for a kind of listening which critics pay lip service to but don’t always practice. With an ear finely attuned to psychological nuance and literary precision, Tremblay challenges us to attend to the textual and moral complexities of Richards’ work.

This review “Monumental in Their Own Right” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 185-187.

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