Recovering Early Canada

  • Michael Peterman (Editor) and Len Early (Editor)
    Collected Short Stories of Isabella Valancy Crawford. Canadian Poetry Press
  • William E. Moreau (Editor) and David Thompson (Author)
    The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 1. McGill-Queen's University Press
Reviewed by Thomas Hodd

In an age of online resources, the publication of two authoritative texts based on recovery scholarship is a refreshing reminder of the intrinsic value of the book. Canadian Poetry Press in particular has played a vital role in leading this country’s recovery work for several decades, especially with regard to early Canadian writers. The Collected Short Stories of Isabella Valancy Crawford brings together all of the known thirty-two short stories that Crawford published during her lifetime. Prepared with thoughtful, scholarly rigour, this book is more than just an anthology of Crawford’s work: it is a detailed critical resource for Crawford scholars as well as those interested in early Canadian fiction. In addition to the stories, Len Early and Michael Peterman have included in the edition comprehensive textual and explanatory notes sections, a bibliography related to Crawford’s short fiction, and a substantial introduction.

The only aspect of this book readers may find questionable is the extent to which the editors argue for Crawford’s critical importance as a writer of fiction. In justifying the need for such an anthology of her stories, Early and Peterman suggest, in part, that Crawford’s work represents a fascinating stage in the development of short story writing in Canada and furnishes a credible link between the pioneering work of Haliburton and Moodie in the early nineteenth century and the sophistication and modernity of Scott’s Viger stories at the century’s end. To that end, they offer a sustained critical overview of the stories in the Introduction, identifying various patterns of theme and style, although offering little insight by way of Crawford’s achievement in relation to her contemporaries, such as Rosanna Leprohon, Susan Frances Harrison, or May Agnes Fleming. Also missing from this conversation is a sense of the reception of Crawford’s stories, or even the relative significance of a New York publication like Frank Leslie’s Chimney Corner to help readers understand how Crawford’s fictional work was valued in its own time. These minor criticisms aside, the availability of such a useful anthology will no doubt help future scholars succeed in either validating or rejecting the claims made by Early and Peterman for Crawford’s place within the critical history of the short-story genre in Canada.

Equally rewarding is William Moreau’s edition of David Thompson’s The Travels, 1850 Version. A co-publishing initiative between McGill-Queen’s University Press and The Champlain Society, Moreau’s text represents the first of a three volume complete edition of Thompson’s work. In some ways, this book is long overdue; it has been fifty years since the publication of Richard Glover’s 1962 edition. What’s more, as Moreau points out, the current edition is based on a fresh transcription of Thompson’s manuscript and a careful study of the evolution of the work through its various drafts. To that end, his edition includes several detail maps, a comprehensive index and bibliography, as well as brief biographies of many of the people Thompson refers to in the text. Moreau’s Textual Introduction will no doubt be of particular interest to Book History scholars.

Perhaps most compelling is Moreau’s argument that The Travels should be considered a literary object as well as a historical document, noting that in his life, Thompson took on the roles of storyteller, interpreter, scholar, and philosopher; at the deepest level, he was a mediator, who placed disparate voices into dialogue with one another and who attempted to form syntheses. Moreau devotes considerable space in his introduction to discussing the construction of The Travels and its aesthetic properties. He also rightly points out that exploration texts such as Thompson’s have come to be appreciated as literary works, although his most recent referenced piece in relation to Canadian literary criticism is nearly thirty years old. Also missing from Moreau’s introduction is a more nuanced explanation of how his edition of The Travels differs from the 1916 edition prepared by Joseph Tyrrell and that of Glover; both Tyrrell and Glover’s editions are available on the Champlain Society website, yet Moreau merely glosses the differences between these three editions in his Textual Introduction. In short, the general reader is left to largely assume that Moreau’s edition is better than those of his predecessors, a somewhat surprising omission given that scholars are arguably the only intended audience for this type of publication. Having said that, this book, along with the project’s subsequent volumes, will no doubt help introduce Thompson to a new generation of historians and Canadian literature scholars.

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