Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone



In the literary product of the year in Canada what we notice first is the increase of genuine national feeling.  This spirit pervades a large part of the most important work of the year, and is big with promise of an era of true literary activity which shall have its roots in a fuller and more ambitious national life than Canadians have yet attained to and shall reach out fearlessly to every age and clime for material to nourish its growth.  Intellectual and national development are going hand in hand, nor need we ever expect the former to far outstrip the latter.  In this connection we may quote the words of an uncompromising nationalist*:—"While on this subject let us say that as well may we hope for 'roses in December, ice in June' as look for a literature without a nationality.  But in the awakening of that national life for which we yearn, we may count on a creative period in our literature; the time when our young nation will put on the intellectual blossoms of romance and song."  The cry for a literature that shall be distinctively and exclusively Canadian in its characteristics has been so pertinaciously raised, however, that we may as well bear in mind the possible peril of falling into a narrow provincialism, both of subject and treatment.  A similar demand on the part of American critics called forth interminable epics and romances celebrating the sometimes imaginary virtues and not always agreeable particularities of the Red Indian.  These certainly smacked of the soil, to the critics' heart's desire, and were as a rule received quite rapturously.  For the most part they have by this time been relegated to the vast but half-forgotten catalogue of the injuries which the unfortunate Indian has been compelled to endure at the hands of his white oppressor.  In America the cry has died away, self-convicted of its own inutility.  National individuality in our literature can not be procured by merely turning our pens to Canadian subject-matter; it must be the outcome of a potential national existence, and springing from such a source it will make itself visible in the productions of our writers though they range time and space for subjects.  One of our literary workers lately spoke to the following effect:—"Let me say a word concerning that perpetual injunction to our verse-writers to choose Canadian themes only.  Now it must be remembered that the whole heritage of English song is ours, and that it is not ours to found a new literature.  The Americans have not done so, nor will they.  They have simply joined in raising the splendid structure of English Literature, to the building of which may come workmen from every region of the earth where speaks the English tongue.  The domain of English letters knows no boundary lines of Canadian Dominion, of American Commonwealth, nor yet of British Empire.  All the greatest subject-matter is free to the world's writers.  Of course the tone of a work, the quality of the handling, must be influenced by the surroundings and local sympathies of the workman, in so far as he is a truly creative and original workman, not a mere copyist.  To the assimilativeness and flexibility of genius it is as impossible that its works should lack the special flavour of race and clime, as that honey from Hymettus should fail to smell of the thyme-slopes.  By all means let our singers preserve to the sweetness which they gather a fragrance distinctive of its origin.  It is true we have much poetical wealth unappropriated in our broad and magnificent landscapes, in our seasons that alternate so swiftly between gorgeousness and gloom, in the stirring episodes scattered abundantly through parts of our early history; but let us not therefore think we are prohibited from drawing a portion of our material from lands where now the very dust is man."

—In the important field of history and biography the year has produced valuable work.  Mr. J.E. Collins' Life and Times of the Right Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald is in effect what Mr. J.C. Dent's work is in name, a history of Canada during the "Last Forty Years."  The same may we think be said of the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie's Life and Speeches of the Hon. George Brown.  This work is of much value on account of the prominence and authority of its author and the interest of its subject.  It contains a wealth of material for the future historian, and furnishes abundant food for reflection to the student of the present.  The work of Mr. Dent is a comprehensive, orderly, and fairly impartial survey of the events of the last four decades of Canadian history.  The literary workmanship is never slovenly, and whoever consults this work for information will feel grateful to the author for his clearness of statement and fulness of detail.  But the book is not likely to be as widely read as it deserves to be, for the reason that its style, though easy and well-balanced, is on too uniform a level, has too little verve, too little imaginative warmth or stimulating pungency, to maintain a long hold upon the reader.  Neither is there anything of that penetrative insight which brings to light new truths, or discovers new relations between old and known facts.  The volume by Mr. Collins, on the other hand, when once taken up will be read through for its own sake.  In spite of some slight unevenness and occasional marks of haste, this is a work which is likely to take a prominent position in Canadian literature.  It was thus spoken of in the columns of the St. John Telegraph:—"The dullest matter would become readable under the spell of Mr. Collins' vivid and picturesque rendering.  Here the attention is held from the first sentence.  Every page is delightfully readable.  A strong and sympathetic imagination has so grasped and mastered the whole subject, that the narrative proceeds with the unobstructed swiftness of good fiction, while dry but needful details are so skillfully woven in as apparently to heighten the interest.  This is indeed a chief triumph of the biographer's art.  If the author can throughout maintain the unfailing freshness and verve of these one hundred and twenty-eight pages, then his work will have an audience far beyond the borders of Canada, as one of the most brilliant biographies of the day."  Mr. Collins is now, we believe, preparing for press a history of the administration in Canada of the Marquis of Lorne.

Among our French compatriots we note the issue of a new and worthy edition of Garneau's great history of Canada, accompanied by a biographical essay from the pen of the Hon. P.J.O. Chauveau.  It would be superfluous to speak here of Garneau's splendid work; and of his biographer it would be hard to speak with more emphatic commendation than we do in saying that he proves himself fully adequate to his task.

Somewhat in contrast with such a work as this is the biography of Sir Charles Tupper, by Mr. Charles Thibault, a gentleman enjoying a wide reputation as a political speaker and writer.  This work was published in the French language and an English translation subsequently appeared from the pen of Mr. Foran.  Mr. Thibault is an enthusiastic admirer of his subject whose remarkable career he sketches to the best of his ability.

The French Canadian colony at Fall River, Massachusetts, was fortunate in its historian.  Mr. Dubuque's account of the origin and progress of the little colony is a well-considered piece of work, doing justice to a class of Canadians, which has suffered much misrepresentation.  In M. Xavier Marmier's latest work, A la Maison, we would refer particularly to an interesting study of La Littérature Canadienne.

A history of French Canada, wider in scope than that of Garneau, and somewhat different in method, is that by M. Benjamin Sulte, now issuing from the press in parts, of which we believe seven have appeared.  This work covers the ground from the middle of the 17th century to the present day, and is corrected by the latest researches.  It is also a general study of the French Canadian people, and represents an enormous amount of original investigation on the part of the painstaking author.  Some of M. Sulte's statements and deductions, particularly with regard to the early work of the Religious Orders in Canada, have been subjected to sharp attack by certain extremists.  But the historian's mastery of his subject has enabled him to meet his critics with triumphant success in a Réponse aux Critiques lately printed, which is in itself a valuable contribution to historical literature.

From the North-West comes a brochure by the Reverend M. Dugast, of the Diocese of Saint Boniface.  It is entitled: La prémière Canadienne du Nord-Ouest, and narrates the life of Marie Anne Gaboury, who, emigrating in 1807, was the first of her countrywomen to dare the North-West wilderness.

Another small biography is M. Stanislaus Drapeau's sketch of the life of Sir Narcisse F. Belleau, first Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Quebec.  This little work is readable and well-executed.

An autobiography of great importance and wide-reaching interest is Dr. Ryerson's Story of My Life, brought out under the editorship of Dr. J.G. Hodgins, Deputy Minister of Education of Ontario.  Dr. Ryerson's career was one which brought him vitally in contact with the most important events of late years, and what strong influence his earnest and aggressive nature was able to exert upon the course of these events is well known.  Dr. Hodgins, not unnaturally, has performed his part, in bringing this work before the world, with the enthusiasm almost of a disciple.  His continual effort is to avoid self-obtrusion, and to present the most unobstructed possible view of his subject.

A very masterly biography is the Life of Sir William Logan, by Prof. B.J. Harrington, of McGill University.  This work is entirely different from the others that have been passing under our review, in that it is wholly unconscious of the turmoil of politics and the muddle of party issues.  It is concerned only with science and with the life of the greatest of Canadian scientists, the father of Canadian geological research.  Prof. Harrington's work calls for cordial praise, displaying fine literary and constructive ability, and close sympathy with his subject.

The ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica now in course of issue, contains some important work from Canadian pens, notably the article on Montreal, by Dr. Daniel Wilson.

The centennial year of the landing of the Loyalists and the founding of St. John, N.B., has produced in that city a little volume full of the raw materials for history.  The work is entitled, Footprints, or Incidents in the Early History of New Brunswick, and is by Mr. J.W. Lawrence, president of the N.B. Historical Society.  In the same connection must be mentioned the first instalments of an important work by Mr. George E. Fenety, of Fredericton, which is being issued under the auspices of the same society.  The volume is entitled, Parliamentary Reminiscences, and will continue the history of New Brunswick from the point where Mr. Fenety's previous work, (Political Notes, Fredericton, 1867) left it, up to the date of Confederation.

To turn from a province to a county, The History of the County of Brant, Ontario, claims a word of notice.  This work represents an enormous amount of patient investigation, and is creditable alike to writer and publishers.  The chapter devoted to intellectual progress is specially deserving of praise.  The author is understood to be Dr. C.P. Mulvany, of Toronto.  In contrast with this, both for subject and scope, is a Topical History of England, by Mr. James Hughes, Inspector of Schools for the City of Toronto.  This is an unpretentious little compilation, which must prove a valuable aid to teachers as well as pupils.

An important and in some respect unique addition to our biographical literature is Dr. R. Maurice Bucke's, Study and Life of Walt Whitman.  This work is full of interest, being we believe the only source from which can be obtained accurate and full information concerning the Poet of Democracy.  It abounds in apt and well considered criticism, though written from the standpoint of an ardent partizan, an enthusiast; and is still further enriched by a gathering together of the many eulogies which Whitman has called forth from the finest spirits of the age.

We must not omit mentioning that the translation into English of Pierre Boucher's Histoire du Canada (1664), upon which the late Mr. E.L. Montizambert was engaged at the time of his death, made its appearance during the year.

One of the works in this department, announced for 1884, is a History of Liberalism in Canada, by Dr. C.P. Mulvany.

Poetry and the Drama.—In poetry the year has not been fertile, though in this it does not greatly differ from other years.  An adequate quantity of tolerable verse has, as usual, been written, but there is little before us to call for special comment.  The only really remarkable poetical achievements are M.L.H. Fréchette's play of The Thunderbolt, and his poem Notre Histoire, which appeared in an issue of Soirées CanadiennesThe Thunderbolt is a strong and original creation, full of movement, spirit, and surprises.  That it did not meet with the success expected for it upon the New York stage is said by those who saw the representation to have been owing to causes entirely outside of the play itself, which is admirably adapted for the boards.  Next in importance to the writing of a drama by M. Fréchette we must regard the issue of a complete edition of the poems of Octave Crémazie, whose lyric genius, of great power and intensity, may now meet with the recognition it deserves among us.  Crémazie's was, perhaps, in many respects, the finest poetical genius which Canada has yet brought forth.

The new volume by the Marquis of Lorne, Memories of Canada and Scotland, will have a strong interest for Canadian readers apart from such purely literary excellence as it possesses.  Filled as this verse is with the wholesome manliness, the genial warmth, and the earnest love for Canada which characterized Lord Lorne, Canadians are not likely to be censorious in their judgments upon it.  It cannot be claimed that this is in any way remarkable or strongly original poetry; but it displays technical skill and respect for the art of verse, sincerity of feeling, love of nature and sympathy with her varying moods, and a pleasant lack of the tendency to verbal gymnastics so prominent in the weaker members of the modern school of song.

The English Poetical Works of Mr. Evan MacColl, of Kingston, were issued at the very last of the year.  This is a garnering of sheaves.  The limitation of the title by the word "English" refers to Mr. MacColl's work in another field more exclusively his own, that of Gaelic verse.  Mr. MacColl has been named the Highland Moore; but the simplicity of purpose, the absence of artificial sentiment, with some carelessness as to points of technique, make the comparison in some respects go lame.

The New Song, and Other Poems, by Mrs. W.H. Clarke, of Toronto, is a real addition to our young literature.  This little volume is a first effort, and as such must be regarded as pregnant with promise.  These poems have genuine inspiration.  There is command of rhythmical expression, an occasional mastery of very sweet and subtle cadences, imaginative insight, and here and there an evidence of marked interpretive power.

Almost the only other production of any importance is the Song of Welcome, written by "Seranus" (Mrs. J.W.F. Harrison, of Ottawa), in honour of the coming of Lord Landsdowne.  As is usually the case with these vers d'ocassion, the poem hardly does justice to its author's powers.  Nevertheless, it contains passages of that intense, forcible, and fervent lyrics quality which is characteristic of Mrs. Harrison's best work.

Besides these, must be mentioned Zenobia, a poem in rhymed heroics, by the Rev. Æ McD. Dawson; The Mission of Love, and Other Poems, by Caris Sima; Marina, an Operatic Romance, by the late Mr. William McDonnell, of Lindsay, Ont., the music of which calls for a word of hearty commendation; Lorenzo, and Other Poems, by J.E. Pollock, B.A., of Keswick, Ont.; Recreations, by Rev. E.A. Stafford; Caprices Poetiques et Chansons Satiriques, by Rémi Tremblay, of Montreal; Miscellaneous Poems, a volume of translations from the French and Italian, by A.A. Nobile, B.A.; North Mountain, near Grand Pré, by "Mileta"—(Miss Jennings;) and a brochure of four poems, printed for private circulation, by Mr. James Penny.  Mr. F.G. Marchand, M.P.P., well known as a dramatic author, produced a vaudeville during the year, which was published in pamphlet form.

* Mr. J.E. Collins. [back]


From "Review of Literature," in The Dominion Annual Register and Review for the Seventeenth Year of the Canadian Union, 1883, 1884 [back]