Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Wanted—A Literature

[from The Literary Review , January 5, 1924]


THE GASPARDS OF PINE CROFT.  By RALPH CONNOR.  New York: George      H. Doran Co. 1923.  $2.

THE UNHEROIC NORTH.  By MERRILL DENISON.  Toronto: McClelland &      Stewart.  1923.  $2.

THE WITCHING OF ELSPIE.  By DUNCAN CAMPBELL SCOTT.  New York:      George H. Doran Co.  1923.  $2.


ABOUT one hundred and twenty years ago one of the first Canadian authors to write about the Back Blocks—and the best of all of them—was making his daily jottings on trail.  He had come as a boy to Hudson Bay; he had grown up in the service of the old chartered company.  Now he had left that service and thrown in his lot with the rival company, the stormy Nor’westers, because his new associates would turn him foot-loose.  He could wander wherever he chose, provided he brought, or sent, in furs enough yearly.  David Thompson was a fur trader only because furs were a man’s passport over the great Northwest in his day.  He was an astronomer and a cosmographer, with the vision of a great explorer and the temperament of a poet.  The dream which had been bound with him so long, like a fettered eagle, on the shores of Hudson Bay, was loosed, and, fearless as an eagle, he followed it.  That dream was to explore and to map the whole of what we now call the Canadian Northwest; to penetrate its mysteries with the stellar light of science, to bring the truth of it out of fearful legends, by a right of apprehension of it to make it the property and the servitor of man.  Thompson’s “narrative” is still by far the best literature on the Northwest, and Hearne’s and Mackenzie’s “journals” come next.  Why not say that Thompson’s “narrative” is still the best novel of the Northwest since nowadays so many novels are autobiographical?  True, this novel contains no “love interest”; Thompson’s wife and trail-mate touches the page only once or twice, like a flitting dusky shadow cast by the red man’s sky.  But it has supremely what is lacking in the three volumes listed at the head of this review—and in a hundred others which might be listed.  It has the soul of the land, and the character and the mind of one man formed of its clay.
     Of the hordes of writers about the Northwest, those few who have really visited it have had to travel by routes first surveyed by Thompson.  So much for their actual, physical, going.  The Northwest, geographically, is no longer a mystery.  Thompson accomplished that part of his task.  But, as regards literature, his vision is still defeated, save in his own book.  Travesties of the country and its people have made the great open spaces where men are men the jest of jaded critics; and, worse, they have created a new legend not to be dispelled by the instruments in a surveyor’s pack.  Best sellers, which libel everything northwest of the great lakes—from the details of harnessing dogs to the morale of the Royal Mounted—have piled up and dovetailed into a barrier like the Great Wall of China across the path of the author who attempts to reach the public with a different type of novel about the Northwest.  The editors don’t believe him; or else they, too, dearly love the golden legend.

*     *

     Ralph Connor’s latest novel quarrels not with the legend.  All the old familiar outdoor fiction types are in it.  The story is set in the Northwest and in British Columbia.  It might as well be set anywhere else.  The spirit of the locale is not captured.  The failure is not one of observation.  The scenery is described as well as in any guide book.  That is the trouble.  It remains “scenery.”  The imagination, which perceives man and his environment as a spiritual unit, is wanting.  Mr. Connor’s many readers will not be disappointed.  They will find the hero, the story, and the tears which they expect.
     The same comment comes not wholly amiss upon Mr. Scott’s better written book.  But this volume of sketches rather than stories is also superficial, too reminiscent of other fiction.  One catches echoes of Gilbert Parker and of Ian Maclaren.  Here is the Maclaren and Crockett Scotchman of Inverness or Glasgow not amalgamated with but distorted against his background.  Here is the traditional voyageur of fiction, under the spell of his priest.  The voyageur of fact is devout at mass and in the confessional; but, from the beginning so long ago, under the banners of France, his wild pagan ways have been the despair of his spiritual mentors.  The journals of the old traders show him to us; but Canadian fiction has sentimentalized out of all appearance of reality one of the most vivid and original figures in Canadian life.  There is a hint, a fleeting promise, of artistic vision in one of Mr. Scott’s paragraphs which pictures a young man’s first glimpse of the trading post on Hudson Bay:

     When he first sighted the post it was transfigured by a mirage and gleamed in the morning light.  Held high above a long silver strip of water, the white buildings looked like things fashioned of crystal, around them the sheen that is upon the breasts of doves.  A large content took hold upon him; no intoxication of pleasure could equal this lull of all earthly passion into peace, absolute and virginal.

     At least this suggests that the beauty which the eye sees is not wholly objective, not merely scenery.  It shows the author’s poetic reaction to a bit of earth.  One asks for more.  What does he tell of man under the silver glow; of the man who has sought this wild earth as brother no less than as warrior, for love as well as for strife and for gain?  Nothing much, nothing vital.  His man is chiefly the figure of the legend, who is rendered either helpless or inhuman, or made a demigod, by wilderness contact.  All frontier history repudiates that figure.
     “The Unheroic North,” the first play in Mr. Denison’s volume, is an attempt to treat the backwoodsman ironically.  It does not achieve irony; it only makes the effort obvious.  There are moments in the long play, “Marsh Hay,” when real drama seems about to emerge and grip.  It doesn’t, because the mood in which the play is conceived is imitative.  Ibsen’s shadow falls, not his mantle.  Perhaps the Russians have a hand in it, too; Strindberg and Hauptmann almost certainly.  But their poetry, their power, and their penetration are absent.  Here the drab, the dull, and the sordid remain just that, because the transmuting fire, imagination, is not at work—at least not with materials honestly come by.  The dramatist is seeking to function through a borrowed mood.  The result of that effort is never art.
     The romantic past of old Canada meets on the plains a human world still in the making; and from the Northwest the horizon line dips to the last geographical frontier of man, still unconquered save by the Arctic explorer.  The imagination, the vision, the passion of the artist could ask no richer gift of native soil than the Canadian’s heritage.  But the interpreter, in whom intimacy has not stifled wonder, has not reappeared since David Thompson’s day.