A Brief History of Canadian Literature in English

A Brief History of Canadian Literature in English

Canadian Literature in English


Canadian Literature is actually a literature originally written by Canadians. These Canadian writers contributed greatly in shaping of Canada through ample records of explorers and pioneers, the collective record provided in the journals of discoverers, in the memoirs of master-builders and in the pages of political and constitutional history. Still the chronicle of Canada is not complete and if it were complete it could produce industry, commerce, democratic government, Church, education, art, and literature, because this great body Canada, was gradually articulating into a great nation.

Canadian literature is also impressed by Canada’s national, economical, social and political contexts. The British, French and Aboriginal were the chief cultures of Canadian literature. The Canadian literature is split into two major divisions: English and French. After the “Announcement of Implementation of Policy of Multiculturalism within Bilingual Framework,” by Prime Minister Trudeau in 1971, Canada turned into a sweet home for readers and writers.

Most of the critics have raised the themes of nationalism and region in Canadian literature. These authors portrayed Canada ‘as (1) a physical desert, (2) a cultural wasteland and (3) a raw land of investment opportunity and resource extraction.’ In the beginning, they were motivated to write on different societies but with the passage of time, they rejected writing on romantic adventures of the frozen North and concentrated to enhance the culture and society of Canada by writing particularly for it.

The Canadian authors were not uniform in their thoughts on geography, social experience, first nation’s cultures, immigration patterns, and proximity to Europe, Asia and the USA, but, they shared many equal perspectives to their representations of nature, civility, and human interaction at home or abroad also. Not only this, they have identified language and formal strategies, theories of knowledge and meaning, ethics, politics, psychology of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, identity and environment. Now, Canadian literature is not restricted to certain topics in writings but, its perspective has now amalgamated much new concerns in its literature.

Characteristics of Canadian Literature

Canada has basically three kinds of experiences namely:

  1.  Nature

These Canadian writers give value to the effects of climate and geography on the life and work of their people. They are greatly influenced by its each turn and Canada’s rough mountains, roaring rivers, and unkind winters contrasting sharply with its rich valleys, peaceful lakes and kind summers.

  1. Frontier life

The frontier life is also a part of Canada’s basic experience that can be found ever in the literature of this nation. Some of the writers have taken themes from the steady march westward across Canada and some have traced drama in continuing battles to win a living on the sea. The other writers have greatly concerned the ever-present frontier to the north, the constant challenge to expand a foothold in the Arctic. For them, new lands are not the only frontier but they feel people facing exciting challenges in the outposts of the experience.

  1. Canada’s identity in the world

The geographical position of Canada in the world intensely affects many Canadian writers. French Canadians always feel themselves surrounded by their English-speaking neighbours. So, they feel a kind of insecurity and have made an unwavering effort to defend their own culture and institutions. And surprisingly, English Canadians do not have a similar feeling of being surrounded by the people and culture of the United States and terrified of them.

The Chief Qualities of Canadian Literature

Following are the chief qualities of Canadian Literature:

  1. Failure:

These Canadian authors chiefly featured failure and futility as their themes in their works like Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley or Kamouraska by Anne Hebert.

  1. Humour :

Humour is the integral part of Canadian identity and even the serious subject is treated humorously by these authors. La famille Plouffe, with its mix of drama, humour, politics and religion and sitcoms such as King of Kensington and La Petite Vie are the examples of this kind.

  1. Mild anti-Americanism:

There is also a gentle satire in their writings on American society because they have been anti-American. It becomes malicious sometimes and sometimes it is presented as a friendly rivalry between these two nations.

  1. Multiculturalism:

Multiculturalism has been an integral theme in these writings and writers writing on this themes are Mordecai Richler (author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), Margaret Laurence (author of The Stone Angel), Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) and Chinese Canadian writer Wayson Choy.

  1. Nature:

The climate of Canada influenced their writings to a great extent and often their writings include nature as a tension in the life of man and at times it plays the role of a divine force.

  1. Satire and Irony:

Satire is primary characteristic of Canadian humour which deals in political and cultural satire. Canadian sitcoms have been produced, such as King of Kensington, Hangin’in, Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, many other sitcoms, including Material World, Mosquito Lake, Snow Job, Check it out!, The Trouble with Tracy, Rideau Hall, Excuse My French and Not My Department, have generally fared poorly with critics and audiences.

  1. Search for Self-Identity:

Most of their novels speak about the search for their selves. Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business is a good example of self identity in which Dunstan Ramsay searches for a new identity by leaving his old town of Deptford.

  1. Southern Ontario Gothic:

Most of the Canadian writers write in this style which is a sub genre of criticizing the stereotypical Protestant mentality of Southern Ontario.

  1. The Underdog Hero:

The hero in these novels is always an underdog who has to overcome the challenges from a renowned corporation, a bank, a rich tycoon, a government, a natural disaster, and so on.

  1. Urban vs. Rural:

One can always find a cultural conflict between rural and urban cultures in Canadian novels. The rural characters of these novels are always morally superior to urban characters, Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief is the chief example of this kind.

History of Canadian Literature

A common detail of the history of Canadian Literature reveals Colonial, Early National, Interwar and Postwar and Contemporary Literature of Canada describing the different conventions, preoccupations, accomplishments and at times failures of these writings. With the passage of the time, the taste of the natives changed in reference to the value and significance of this literature. We can describe the above mentioned phases of Canadian Literature as follows:

A. Colonial Literature

In the early 17th century, Canadian literature began to come into existence in the form of exploration literature with Jacobean poetry in Newfoundland and with epistolary fiction of the English garrison community in Québec. After the end of 1776, with the loyalist settlements of Upper Canada and the Maritimes, many Canadian writers began to produce political humorous writing in English Newspapers and literary magazines became a good source of publication for political commentary of conservative and reform-minded, and also for literary expression, which was used to be followed in 19th century generally in Romantic Sentimental and Orientalist fashions in Britain.

Nova Scotia emerged as a form of satire in that time. Novels, dramas and poetry all suffered a historical romance and Gothic paradigms. Susanna Moodie’s Settlement Narrative was one of many early autobiographies. In travel writings, many short personal sketches of persons and places were included which formed the basis for much travel writings and also for the short fiction that emerged as a new genre during the 19th century. The genre of folksongs and folktales survived, but Native oral literature received slight literary concentration until the later 19th century.

B. Early National Literature

From 1867 to 1914, Canadian literatures turned much towards confederation and during the five decades following, much attention turned to literary and political organization. Schools and universities were opened like several Carnegie Libraries. These writers in the intoxication of newfound nationalism were drawn towards mechanics’ institutes, the institute Canadian, the royal society of Canada, the Canada first movement and imperial federation. Thoughtful discourses in the form of philosophical and science writings emerged on papers and because of the travel writings several other kinds of writings like impressionistic and reportorial writings also came on the literary platform of Canada.

In the end of 19h century, advocates of women’s suffrage and prohibition wrote stories and essays on issues of social transformation. In the early 20th century, many books like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, C. G. D. Roberts’ and E.T. Seton’s outwardly realistic animal tales provide other examples like comic sketches of Stephen Leacock and parodied literary stereotypes had dealt ironically with social platitudes. Then, the Confederation Group of poetry produced significant writings in 19 century in which nature, winter, and the Canadian landscape were deeply fascinating.

C. Interwar and Postwar

These two inter and post wars changed the cultural and social milieu of Canada to a great extent. A new generation of literati emerged and discarded the past theories in literature and new rewards were also announced for literary accomplishments. The fiction of 1920s kept on the convention of class distinction while in 1930s, anti war and class critique novels began to appear that focused on uprooted or marginalized individuals and pangs of non-English-speaking immigrant. They spoke more firmly and realistically for the cause of the common man.

Then, writers like John Glassco and Morley Callaghan appeared but could do nothing good to story writing. Young writers of this time were more inclined to the modernist tendencies of poets like T. S. Eliot and gave less value to ancient social ideas and began writing dramas that satirized nationalist pageantry, published erotica and were greatly impressed by the group of seven painters. The towering Canadian poets of this time were linked with the McGill Group and especially with F.R. Scott as he was committed to social justice and Abraham Klein, for his embracing the Jewish heritage. Dorothy Livesay emerged as a voice of socialist feminism, Scott and the poet-critic A.J.M. Smith became an influential anthologist who shaped the early teaching of Canadian literature.

The advent of Second World War offered a mixed literary culture of propaganda, pacifist rhetoric, parodies of military ineptitude and a new wave of progressivist writers, by turns humanist, anti-clerical, community-minded, and intellectually anarchist. Irving Layton, Earle Birney, Gabrielle Roy, P.K. Page and George Woodcock became significant names. Literary periodicals and new technologies of communication and entertainment emphasized the need of more locally grounded need of language and from 1943, contributed much in broadcasting talks, dramas, readings of short stories, children’s programs, all reconfirming the sounds of Canadian speech as a literary medium.

Hugh Maclennan and Sinclair Ross became the novelists of local settings. Ethel Wilson received appraisal for innovative stylistic practice, Malcolm Lowry was praised for his symphonies of despair and transient joy, Sheila Watson was appreciated for her rendering of life as an oblique mythology and finally Mordecai Richler was best known for his frank and vibrant cultural politics.

D. Contemporary

After 1960s, Canadian society received a high development in the field of literature. Because of the impression of many countries due to immigration policies, cultural hybridity that completely changed the conventional definitions of ethnic purity and fixed identity. Bilingual texts and triptychs in fiction and drama and unconnected narratives in fiction and poetry intervened greatly in literary techniques and resultantly, many disintegrated collections of short fiction called sequences, cycles, or composite narratives appeared there. Richler, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant. Alistair Macleod, Clark Blaise and numerous others became famous authors of this age.

With the recommendation of Massey Commission, many Canadian universities, Small Presses, academic and literary periodicals like Canadian Literature and Creative Writing schools were formed. But unfortunately, a sudden shift in government policies affected publishing industry, libraries, public media and scholarship to a great extent. New technologies enhanced the opportunities in literature with their experiments in forms and techniques of writing and begot syllabic and concrete poetry, mixed media presentations and performance poetry. Mystery and Science fiction got much fame in this age but increased influence of electronic publishing and multi-national corporations closed many publishing houses.

Leaving the conventional rules of Ethics and expression, these authors began to write for social justice and reformist causes. Not only this, quite unconventional themes like women’s rights, gay and lesbian equality, against colonialism and protest against increasing poverty began to step in. Children’s literature equally received changes and adopted the themes of race, gender, alcohol, drug abuse and social identity. Margaret Atwood formed a new nationalism but after thirty years, she transferred her observations in dystopias.

In 1973, The Writers Union of Canada was formed for dealing with the challenges in the way of authors. After that, poets like Robert Bringhurst, Al Purdy and Guy Vanderhaeghe created poetry out of the mainstream. Jack Hodgins, George Eliot Clarke and Wayde Compton contributed in their own way by introducing black literature and revealing the eccentricity prevalent in Canada. Authors like Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, and Wayson Choy brought their Asian heritage to share their history. Presently, accomplished authors emerged in the last decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21″ to testify the continuing vigor of the literary fraternity of Canada.

Motifs and Patterns in Canadian Literature

The social attitudes and values of Canada can amply be seen in the literature of Canada and there is no more a question of national character of Canada. Irony is their dominant mode and litotes is the common speech pattern and humour pervades all their serious writings. They are always stricken by a feeling of group inferiority and national insecurity. Their narrative patterns can best be seen in their novels and autobiographies like:

(1) A community walls itself off from the wilderness.

(2) A man leaves the homeland, adjusts in the new world and then finds his “homeland” to be “alien”.

(3) A man born in Canada feels like a permanent alien in his or her own home country.

(4) A man reaches the new home and finds himself excluded from power.

(5) A man tries to recover from the suppressed life of past.

(6) A woman struggles to attain her creativity and the inhibitions of her cultural rearing.

(7) A passive observer tells often ironically both his or her own and their story encircled by articulate tricksters and raconteurs.

(8) An adventurer gracefully turns out to be a failure.

(9) A child grows up to inherit sometimes a world of promise, sometimes a world of loss or both at once frequently

(10) A subjective historian meditates on place and reminiscence.

(11) The characters struggle here and learn at their best the principle that wilderness provides spiritual therapy only on its own terms and so they celebrate space and wilderness.

(12) Characters are wrapped here in a fog of ambiguity and anonymity and shape “acceptable fictions” into a workable life.

They have concentrated on Canadian society and many writers of short fiction, the novel, biography, poetry and drama have sketched the historical figure with a purpose to reveal their inherent interest to epitomize certain cultural attributes or qualities of character like Samuel Hearne, Louis Riel, Susanna Moodie, Sir John A. Macdonald, Emily Carr and William Lyon Mackenzie. In the garb of an ordinary human being, these characters transposed from their own time into the present, each possessing a vision but remaining one with frailties of the time.

The Canadian writings resist the binaries associated with perfectionism like: good-evil, right-wrong, hero-villain dualism, embracing notions of multiple alternatives, working pluralities, multi-voicedness and negotiated or evolving resolution also. Violence is usually functioning as an instigator of action and as a last but one event rather than as a solution or act of shutting down in these narratives. These works include a repeated balance of Individual right in opposition of community responsibilities.

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Most of the Canadians live in cities, yet these writers often use rural settings for their writings, they adapt conventional adventure and rural formulas to Canadian settings and they seldom question unspecified assumptions about rank and race. However, early Canadian writers like essayists and travel writers assessed and challenged the political life of the country. Women writers here have the task to write in detail on autobiographies and fiction to reveal social dimensions in the country, which was often ignored and underplayed by male adventure writers.

Their recent writings on ethnicity, gender, poverty, health and education cast full flash on urban and social life of Canada. The regional writings of Canada are a projector of political issues in variation in Canada. This kind of the regionalism there in these writings sometimes projects separatist tendency to explore a particular one while on the other hand it also explores the plural character of the nation.

12 Famous Canadian Writers

  1. Margaret Atwood
  2. Rohinton Mistry
  3. M. Montgomery
  4. Kathleen Margaret
  5. Alice Munro
  6. Stephen Leacock
  7. Sinclair Ross
  8. Margaret Laurence
  9. Eden Robinson
  10. Susan Juby
  11. Emma Donoghue
  12. Thomas King

1 thought on “A Brief History of Canadian Literature in English”

  1. Hi! Please give a detailed analysis of the victim positions and types of survival dealt in Margaret Atwood’s Survival : A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature


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