Re/appraisals

  • Frank M. Tierney (Editor)
    Hugh MacLennan. University of Ottawa Press
  • Camille La Bossiere (Editor)
    Context North America: Canadian/U.S. Literary Relations. University of Ottawa Press
Reviewed by Herb Wyile

The purpose of Context North America: Canadian/U.S.Literary Relations is a timely one: to address “the question of how the literatures of Canada might aptly be studied, discussed, and disseminated . . . in these days of heightened discontinuity and increasingly ambiguous borderlines both between and within the many narratives that make up ‘North America.'”
The critical approaches within the broad context of Canadian-U.S. literary relations are fairly varied, and the collection does not strive for a “packaging” of its subject. Context North America is framed by two essays which address in a theoretically sophisticated fashion the complexity of continental literary and literary critical dynamics: J.J. Healy raises significant questions about the multiplicity and complexity of both Canadian and American literature and culture, disrupting the neat schematicism on which comparative approaches to the two literatures have often relied, and E.D. Blodgett provides an appreciation of the fine but slippery art of self-definition in Canada.

In between these two explorations of the play of continental mythologies and discourses, we find quite a mix. There are, of course, numerous comparative essays, with some elaborating the connections between American and Canadian writing—for instance, Michael Peterman’s essay on the parallels between the backwoods narratives of Caroline Kirkland in Michigan and of Susannah Moodie in Upper Canada, or Robert Thacker’s essay on Alice Munro’s American influences (predominantly Willa Cather and Eudora Welty)—and others, such as Dick Harrison’s “Dialectic Structures in Fictions of the Wests,” asserting more of a disjunction between American and Canadian writing.

But there are also, for instance, some interesting literary historical approaches: Carole Gerson explores the importance of the American literary market for Canadian women writers from 1880 to 1940; and James Doyle revisits the cosmopolitanism-nationalism debate by focusing on the cross-fertilization between Canadian and American literary magazines. And Russell Brown revives thematic criticism within a post-colonial, “contestatory” context, contrasting the privileging of the “road” as a motif in American literature and of “home” as a motif in Canadian literature (though he doesn’t altogether avoid the question-begging on which the approach of his predecessors too often relied).

While Context North America is something of an assortment, it does engage interesting and pressing issues between Canada and the U.S.—ethnicity, cross-border regions, corporate capitalism are only a few—and sheds light on what will continue to be an extremely complex and conflicted relationship.

In his introduction to Hugh MacLennan, Frank Tierney anticipates the reservations with which a reappraisal of MacLennan’s work is likely to be greeted: “Close examination of [MacLennan’s] writing in recent years also raises questions about the depth of the quality of his work, his scope and inclusiveness, his modernism, and other questions that confirm the need of a reappraisal.” While this collection of essays certainly elicits a greater appreciation for MacLennan and his work, it also leaves a good many of those reservations intact.

“I should like to make it clear at the outset,” writes MacLennan’s editor, publisher, and long-time friend, Douglas Gibson, in the opening essay, “that I write to praise Hugh MacLennan, not to bury him.” The intentions of the rest of the contributors, however, are less unequivocal. On the one hand, there is a definite sense that the collection is rounding out the scholarly record on an unquestionably canonical figure. The collection includes Elspeth Cameron’s literary- biographical reassessment of MacLennan, and an annotated bibliographic update (1967-1992); Christi Verduyn’s examination of MacLennan’s letters to Marian Engel; James Steele’s essay on the influence of MacLennan’s dissertation on his writing; and Tracy Ware’s look at MacLennan’s contribution to the essay form. Francess Halpenny cements this impression with her concluding essay suggesting future directions for MacLennan studies.

On the other hand, when attention turns to MacLennan’s novels—with perhaps the exception of The Watch That Ends the Night—the programmatic ideological and moral economy of MacLennan’s writing becomes all too clear (whether recognized as such, as in—among others—Rosmarin Heidenreich’s essay on Two Solitudes, or not, as in the essay by Steele). The contributors to the collection, as Halpenny notes, make use of “current modes of literary analysis,” and MacLennan’s fiction doesn’t bear the scrutiny well. Donna Smyth and David Leahy’s feminist readings, for instance, succinctly demonstrate the patrist stance and phallocentric discourse of MacLennan’s work, compounding a sense of his limitations which grows as one progresses through the collection.

Such criticism of MacLennan’s work is partly answered in Hugh MacLennan by the caution that MacLennan’s aesthetic and achievement need to be viewed in historical perspective, and indeed the collection does much to underline his importance as a figure in Canada’s literary past. However, as a response to Douglas Gibson’s epitaph for MacLennan—”An artist”—this reappraisal is much less conclusive.



This review “Re/appraisals” originally appeared in Urquhart and Munro. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 150 (Autumn 1996): 199-200.

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