Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
History of Literature in Canada

History of Literature in Canada: English-Canadian and French-Canadian

Edited by Reingard M. Nischik
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 618
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81gcs
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    History of Literature in Canada
    Book Description:

    From modest colonial beginnings, literature in Canada has arrived at the center stage of world literature. Works by English-Canadian writers -- both established writers such as Margaret Atwood and new talents such as Yann Martel -- make regular appearance

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-797-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    R. N.
  4. Introduction: Writing a History of Literature in Canada
    (pp. 1-24)
    Reingard M. Nischik

    Literature in Canada, particularly the booming cultural production from the 1960s onwards, has arrived at the center stage of world literature. Books by English-Canadian authors today make regular appearances on international bestseller lists, both through established writers such as Margaret Atwood (1939–) and Michael Ondaatje (1943–) and through new talents such as Yann Martel (1963–) and Madeleine Thien (1974–). Atwood, Ondaatje, and Martel, for instance, won the prestigious annual Man Booker Prize in the space of just one decade.¹ “CanLit,” the institutionalized canon of Canadian literature, has likewise developed into a staple of academic interest, pursued...

  5. I. Beginnings

    • 1: Aboriginal Oral Traditions
      (pp. 27-37)
      Eva Gruber

      As rendered in the Hau-de-no-sau-nee (Iroquois) creation story, the earth came into being when First Woman fell down from the sky world into the water world. In an attempt to break her fall, loons placed themselves beneath her, while the sea animals — duck, otter, beaver, serpent, toad, and muskrat — dived to the bottom of the sea for a piece of mud to create a place for her to land on. After several attempts they succeeded, and the little clump of earth on Great Turtle’s back where First Woman safely landed began to grow and expand. Today, the earth still rests...

    • 2: The Whites Arrive: White Writing before Canada, 1000–1600
      (pp. 38-44)
      Iain M. Higgins

      Like most modern nation states, Canada was invented slowly, and like many nation states beyond Europe, it was invented by white colonizers who came from overseas. Indeed, the standard history of the name “Canada” itself retraces the nation’s slow historical emergence as a product of European expansion and colonization. Originally a Huron-Iroquois word meaning “village” or “settlement,” kanata entered the Euro-American record through Jacques Cartier’s accounts of his explorations in the 1530s and 1540s, and referred to a region in the Laurentians (see ch. 4, Laflèche). Contemporary European mapmakers quickly borrowed the name from Cartier, using it still more vaguely...

  6. II. The Literature of New France, 1604–1760

    • 3: Historical Background
      (pp. 47-47)
      Guy Laflèche

      New France is a territory that once spread from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico. As a French colony it included at least three main regions: Acadia, Canada, and Louisiana (not counting Brazil and Florida). In the context of Canadian history, the term refers to a period corresponding to that of the Ancien Régime in France, dating conventionally from 1534 (the first voyage of Jacques Cartier) to 1763 (the Treaty of Paris, which sanctioned the military conquest by Britain in 1760). New France was in fact the result of six major historical developments: first, the voyages of discovery, beginning officially...

    • 4: Literature on New France
      (pp. 48-57)
      Guy Laflèche

      The writings on New France constitute a great marginal literature spanning three centuries. The term “literature” has to be understood in a broader sense here, since literary texts, or works possessing an aesthetic value, were rare exceptions in this period. Such texts as did exist seldom concerned themselves with the French colony. Their subject was rather North America and the Native Americans — in other words, the anthropology, human geography, or, as it was called at the time, the natural history of the New World. After the discoveries, explorations, and voyages came the long and difficult missionary endeavors, conducted mostly by...

    • 5: Colonial Literature in New France
      (pp. 58-66)
      Guy Laflèche

      Despite the vast body of literature about New France produced by French writers, it must be noted that before 1760 there was no literary scene in New France that could have rivaled that of France — neither in quality nor by extent. The French colony, conquered by military force in 1760 and ceded to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, was a colony in the strict sense — that is, a society still far from capable of taking charge of its own destiny. On the other hand, if Quebec today is a nation with a culture of its own,...

  7. III. The Literature of British Canada, 1763–1867

    • 6: Historical Overview
      (pp. 69-71)
      Dorothee Scholl

      Politically, British colonialism in Canada began with the acquisition of Quebec (Treaty of Paris, 1763), yet the colonial coordinates had been set long before, in the Northwestern and Western territories as well as on the Atlantic coast. From the late eighteenth century onwards, the Hudson’s Bay Company (founded in 1670) had developed a powerful influence in Canada’s West. It had won a partially bloody and competitive battle with the North West Company in Montreal by the year 1821, when the latter was forced to merge with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company exerted its near-monopoly over an area...

    • 7: English-Canadian Colonial Literature
      (pp. 72-87)
      Gwendolyn Davies

      In his “Conclusion” to the Literary History of Canada (1965), Northrop Frye graphically imagines early travelers from Europe edging into Canada like tiny Jonahs “entering an inconceivably large whale,” only to be swallowed by “an alien continent.” The surrounding frontier, adds Frye, was vast and “unthinking,” inevitably shaping the imaginations of those who encountered it. As such, the wilderness awaited mapping, a process that began along an east-west axis in the early days of Canada’s social and economic development, but also included longitudinal pulls to the south. The body of Canadian literature that has emerged from this intersection of exploration,...

    • 8: French-Canadian Colonial Literature under the Union Jack
      (pp. 88-110)
      Dorothee Scholl

      Over the course of the eighteenth century the alienation between Canada and France continued to grow. In Candide (1759), Voltaire (1614–1778) ironically dubbed the French colony “quelques arpents de neige.” On both sides of the Atlantic the French developed a sense of difference — geographically, culturally, linguistically, and psychosocially. The francophone Canadians began to consider themselves a “société distincte,” particularly with regard to the anglophone population on the North American continent. After the French Revolution, this sense of difference matured into self-confidence. 1758 (French victory at Carillon), 1760 (surrender of Montreal), and 1763 (Traité de Paris) constituted important caesuras in...

  8. IV. From the Dominion to the Territorial Completion of the Nation, 1867–1918

    • 9: English-Canadian Literature, 1867–1918: The Making of a Nation
      (pp. 113-126)
      Tracy Ware

      The period from Confederation to the First World War saw the slow emergence of a strong national economy and a vibrant national literature. The nation started with four provinces under the British North America Act of 1 July 1867: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. They were followed by Manitoba in 1870 (after the previous year’s Red River Insurrection), British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. The next year, the Latin phrase that became the national motto, “A mari usque ad mare” (“from sea to sea”) was inscribed on the head...

    • 10: French-Canadian Literature from National Solidarity to the École littéraire de Montréal
      (pp. 127-146)
      Fritz Peter Kirsch

      After the Rebellion of 1837–1838 was crushed, the signs of a tendency towards defense and retreat in French-Canadian society increased. After 1791, following the division into a western Upper Canada and an (initially) almost exclusively francophone Lower Canada (“Bas Canada”) in the East, the “Canadiens” — the term was not changed to “Canadiens français” until after the middle of the nineteenth century — had attempted a strategy of cooperation and rivalry with their anglophone partner, trying first to exhaust all possibilities within the parliamentary system. The failure of the liberal-patriotic rebellion and the political signals and measures coming from London in...

  9. V. The Modern Period, 1918–1967

    • 11: Politics and Literature between Nationalism and Internationalism
      (pp. 149-158)
      Julia Breitbach

      In 1926 the poet A. J. M. Smith (1902–1980) found Canada immersed in “an age of change, and . . . a change that is taking place with a rapidity unknown in any other epoch. . . . Ideas are changing and therefore manners and morals are changing. It is not surprising, then, to find that the arts, which are an intensification of life and thought, are likewise in a state of flux” (“Contemporary Poetry”). At this point in its history, Smith argued, the forces of modernization had already transformed the country so thoroughly as to infuse it with...

    • 12: English-Canadian Poetry, 1920–1960
      (pp. 159-173)
      Lorraine York

      Speaking of the period from 1920 to 1960, Margaret Atwood stated in her introduction to the New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1982) that “this, for me, is the age that only the usual Canadian cautiousness and dislike of hyperbole prevents me from calling golden.” The years between 1920 and 1960 were indeed a period of prodigious activity and contention in English-Canadian poetry, and the contentiousness was as productive a force as was the energetic publishing of poems, collections, manifestos, and little magazines. These were also, of course, years that were overshadowed by two world wars; and those global events...

    • 13: The English-Canadian Novel and the Displacement of the Romance
      (pp. 174-193)
      Marta Dvorak

      According to Northrop Frye, English-Canadian literature is marked by a five-century-long oscillation between the romantic tendency, on the one hand, moving in the direction of myth and metaphor and their formulaic units, and the realistic tradition, on the other hand, moving in the opposite direction, displacing or adjusting such improbable formulas so as to produce verisimilitude (Frye 1976, 36–37). English-Canadian cultural production can thus be situated at opposite extremes. In the period between 1918 and 1967, a large part is grounded in the themes and motifs of the folktale, in the structures of the mythopoeic or marvelous, and in...

    • 14: The Modernist English-Canadian Short Story
      (pp. 194-206)
      Reingard M. Nischik

      In its main line of development, the English-Canadian short story is a relatively recent literary phenomenon, spanning a little more than a hundred years to the present. It began to coalesce as a national genre in the 1890s, with writers such as Isabella Valancy Crawford, Susan Frances Harrison, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Charles G. D. Roberts. Yet it was only with the advent of the modernist short story in the 1920s that the English-Canadian short story fully emerged as a distinct literary genre, and with the works of Morley Callaghan and others joined the realm of world literature.

      The modernist...

    • 15: Early English-Canadian Theater and Drama, 1918–1967
      (pp. 207-221)
      Jerry Wasserman

      After four years of carnage Canada emerged from the Great War in 1918 bloodied but victorious, with a strengthened sense of national confidence and pride. The nation shared a feeling that it had come of age, its soldiers having proved themselves equal to any other combatants in their courage, ability, and self-sacrifice across the western front, at Vimy Ridge, and in the fields of Flanders. Canadian attitudes towards Great Britain changed significantly. Though English Canadians still considered theirs a British nation, they could no longer be content to be treated like colonial children by the mother country whose men they...

    • 16: French Canada from the First World War to 1967: Historical Overview
      (pp. 222-227)
      Ursula Mathis-Moser

      On the political level, the end of the First World War brought no significant changes for Quebec: The province was governed by the Liberals (1897–1936), and it had not been forgotten that this party had spoken up for Louis Riel in 1885 and had supported pan-Canadian francophone nationalism under Honoré Mercier (prime minister 1887–1891). On the national level, the Liberals had found in Wilfred Laurier a prime minister (1896–1911) who was capable of compromise and was a skillful advocate for a federalist Canada. In addition, he knew how to mobilize the European immigrants and how to affect...

    • 17: French-Canadian Poetry up to the 1960s
      (pp. 228-241)
      Ursula Mathis-Moser

      In the dogged struggle between progressive and conservative forces that, in varying intensity, took place in every genre in French-Canadian literature during the time between the end of the First World War and the 1960s, poetry proved to be the driving force of innovation. It managed to overcome the ideology and aesthetic perceptions of the past and, until the beginning of the 1960s, became French Canada’s dominant genre. In the interplay of regionalism and exoticism, of nationalistic “homeland” discourse and an emerging national consciousness, of classical mimetic and surrealistically inspired poetry, of verse, vers libre, and the complete liberation from...

    • 18: The French-Canadian Novel between Tradition and Modernism
      (pp. 242-263)
      Doris G. Eibl

      As in the preceding decades, the development of the French-Canadian novel after 1918 was closely connected to the nationalism of Quebec’s Catholic intelligentsia: In 1866 Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain demanded that the novel should advocate the French language and Catholicism, as well as concentrate on regional themes, country life, and the memory of Nouvelle-France. Camille Roy’s speech “La nationalisation de la littérature canadienne,” held in 1904 in the Société du parler français, built upon Casgrain’s theses and led the way for virtually all novels produced until 1930. In order to adequately perform its function as a Canadian “épopée chevaleresque” and as...

    • 19: The French-Canadian Short Story
      (pp. 264-269)
      Doris G. Eibl

      Throughout the nineteenth century and at least until the 1940s, the development of the French-Canadian short story, both thematically and formally, paralleled that of the novel. The generic boundaries of the novel and the different forms of short prose cannot always be clearly determined, and scholars and the authors themselves are often vague in their distinction between nouvelle, conte, histoire, récit, légende, chronique, and mémoire. Thus, Patrice Lacombe’s La terre paternelle (1846) has been categorized both as a novel and as a nouvelle, Albert Laberge’s La Scouine (1918) has occasionally been regarded as a short-story collection, and Jacques Ferron’s novels...

    • 20: French-Canadian Drama from the 1930s to the Révolution tranquille
      (pp. 270-282)
      Dorothee Scholl

      The late development of French-Canadian theater is above all a result of its institutional framework: For a long time, secular drama was decried as amoral and was therefore prohibited. The clergy, in particular, who made a decisive contribution to the history of drama by encouraging the performance of plays in the collèges for the purpose of classical education, rhetorical training, and the moral edification of pupils, rejected the performance of “profane” texts. Beginning with the 1930s, however, the influence of European theater led to a modernization in the repertoire and the performance practice of clerical theater. Many clergymen also composed...

  10. VI. Literature from 1967 to the Present

    • 21: Sociopolitical and Cultural Developments from 1967 to the Present
      (pp. 285-290)
      Sherrill Grace

      In 1967, Canada celebrated its centenary, the hundredth anniversary of Confederation, but there are many other defining years and events which have come to be seen as foundational or transformative for the country’s history. The First World War marked Canada’s entry onto the world stage as a nation separate from Great Britain (while still part of the British Commonwealth); the Second World War consolidated Canada’s national stature and independence and paved the way for a number of significant cultural and social developments during the cold war years that would have their major impact after 1967. Vincent Massey, the country’s first...

    • 22: English-Canadian Literary Theory and Literary Criticism
      (pp. 291-309)
      Caroline Rosenthal

      While at the beginning of the twentieth century literary theory and criticism had been busy tackling the question of whether there was a genuinely Canadian literature at all, a new cultural self-awareness arose in the late 1950s. As internationally Canada was poised between the traditional model of Great Britain and the overwhelming cultural, economic, and political influence of the United States, cultural unity and self-confidence in its own literary and cultural achievements developed slowly. Unlike the United States, Canada lacked founding myths and master narratives that could be applied to the nation as a whole because of the intranational dualism...

    • 23: The English-Canadian Novel from Modernism to Postmodernism
      (pp. 310-329)
      Martin Kuester

      In the last quarter of the twentieth century English-Canadian literature has firmly established itself on the international stage — above all in the novel and short-story genre. The production and reception of a national Canadian literature gained significant impetus during the 1960s and 1970s. The process of maturity for Canadian literature was greatly influenced by the cultural atmosphere surrounding the centenary of the Canadian Confederation in 1967, but the process itself had begun much earlier, as is indicated by the active support for Canadian literature by the Canada Council for the Arts from the late 1950s onwards. However, it was only...

    • 24: The English-Canadian Short Story since 1967: Between (Post)Modernism and (Neo)Realism
      (pp. 330-351)
      Reingard M. Nischik

      The English-Canadian short story got off to a hesitant start in the twentieth century. To a considerable extent this was due to the lack of appreciation that Canadian literature had to face in its own country at the time and the limited publication facilities in Canada that resulted. Early short-story writers such as Knister, Grove, and Callaghan were thus forced to find their way into print mainly outside the country. The collected stories of all the major modernist writers, except for Callaghan and Garner, appeared decades after their conception, that is, in the 1960s, the period known as the Elizabethan...

    • 25: English-Canadian Poetry from 1967 to the Present
      (pp. 352-372)
      Nicholas Bradley

      The centennial anniversary of Confederation in 1967 serves as a convenient historical event from which to date the beginnings of contemporary English-Canadian poetry. However, the decades-long careers of many notable poets, as well as the sheer quantity and variety of Canadian poetry of the last forty years, suggest that marking a clear division between contemporary poetry and the poetry of the mid-twentieth century is still in many ways an impossible task. Two decades before the centenary, in 1947, the establishment of modern poetry in Canada was signaled by the publication of John Sutherland’s Other Canadians: An Anthology of the New...

    • 26: Contemporary English-Canadian Drama and Theater
      (pp. 373-386)
      Anne Nothof

      Contemporary English-Canadian playwrights articulate a diversity of voices and give expression to the country’s many particular social and psychological spaces. They map its physical and mental terrain by dramatizing specific communities in terms of their histories, internal conflicts, and psychic landscapes. Since the 1960s regional history has continued to stimulate playwriting, providing local stories that inform the life of the community and the nation. These plays often revisit an apparently benign Canadian history from a critical perspective, and expose moral and political travesties. More recently, English-Canadian playwrights have been engaged in mapping specific communities in terms of ethnicity and ideology....

    • 27: Canons of Diversity in Contemporary English-Canadian Literature
      (pp. 387-412)
      Georgiana Banita

      Both in theory and ideally also in practice, Canada has adopted a constitutional policy of multiculturalism that comprises the layered, interrelated histories and cultures of all its constituent groups: English Canadians, French Canadians, First Nations, and other ethnic minorities alike. Before the passing of the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act, all Canadians were counted as British subjects, but over the following two decades, mounting local and international tensions — such as Quebec nationalism, growing demands for compensation from members of the First Nations, and post-Second World War immigration policies — required a revision of the Canadian concept of nation. Canadian identity was thus...

    • 28: Literature of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis
      (pp. 413-428)
      Eva Gruber

      Before the 1960s, published writing by Aboriginal authors in Canada was sparse and virtually unknown. The English and French missionaries had introduced writing into the numerous originally oral Aboriginal cultures, and Aboriginal-authored written histories, travel accounts, and autobiographies by authors such as George Copway (1818–1869) and Peter Jones (1802–1856; both Ojibway) exist from the nineteenth century onwards. Yet with the notable exception of Mohawk-English poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson (1861–1913; Tekahionwake), whose work received widespread attention at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and continues to inspire contemporary Aboriginal writers such...

    • 29: The Quebec Novel
      (pp. 429-449)
      Doris G. Eibl

      In Quebec, the massive sociopolitical and cultural changes of the 1960s and the consolidation of the liberal État-providence in the 1970s saw a great overlap of culture and politics. The linkage was, in fact, so significant that in the 1980s, after the failure of the referendum for independence, many intellectuals and writers would reflect nostalgically on the previous two decades. They detected a general disengagement in the literature of the 1980s. The literary critic Gilles Marcotte even spoke of a “génération en deuil de ce qui la précède et de ce qui ne pourra pas advenir,” a “génération qui refuse...

    • 30: The French-Canadian Short Prose Narrative
      (pp. 450-455)
      Doris G. Eibl

      For a long time Quebec short fiction did not rank highly in the hierarchy of genres. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, it experienced a boom in popularity, with the number of publications steadily rising: In the early 1970s only about ten short-story volumes had been published per annum, whereas the 1990s saw an average of thirty to thirty-five volumes published per year, not to mention publications in numerous journals and weekly as well as daily newspapers. From the mid-1970s onwards a great thematic and formal diversity could be found in French-Canadian short stories. This diversity, characterized by a seemingly...

    • 31: French-Canadian Poetry from 1967 to the Present
      (pp. 456-469)
      Ursula Mathis-Moser

      The year 1967 — when the Expo was held in Montreal and Charles de Gaulle proclaimed his notorious “Vive le Québec libre” — is seldom looked upon as a turning point in French-Canadian literature. The end of the 1960s did, however, demarcate a significant threshold of the coming-of-age of this literature: 1968 was not only the year in which the magazine Les Herbes rouges was founded and Michel Tremblay’s (1942–) Les bellessoeurs premiered, it was also the year of important publications by avantgarde poets like Nicole Brossard (L’écho bouge beau) and Denis Vanier (Pornographic Delicatessen). Gaston Miron (1928–1996) even described...

    • 32: Orality and the French-Canadian Chanson
      (pp. 470-477)
      Ursula Mathis-Moser

      Oralités-Polyphonix 16, a festival and symposium that took place in Quebec in June 1991, explored fundamental aspects of orality, its forms and functions as well as its specific Québécois character. Orality can operate both in a printed text and in the act of performing, whose most popular manifestation — next to theater and dance — is the chanson. One of the many facets of orality is the euphonic experiment with linguistic material, which has already been touched upon in connection with surrealist and postsurrealist sound effects and language practices (see ch. 17, Mathis-Moser), and which is especially prominent in the works of,...

    • 33: Drama and Theater from the Révolution tranquille to the Present
      (pp. 478-496)
      Dorothee Scholl

      The 1960s and 1970s were a time of radical cultural, ideological, and political change for French Canada. In 1960 the liberal politician Jean Lesage became prime minister of Quebec. With the slogan “Maîtres chez nous” French Canadians claimed their cultural and economic independence from English-Canadian and American dominance. Authorities that had gone unchallenged for centuries were now questioned: Women began to emancipate themselves from patriarchal power structures, and society freed itself from the clerical system of education. The year 1968 saw the founding of the Parti Québécois, which stood for a policy of sovereignty or rather separatism of Quebec from...

    • 34: Transculturalism and écritures migrantes
      (pp. 497-508)
      Gilles Dupuis

      The concept of écritures migrantes, or migrant literature, first appeared in Quebec during the 1980s. The expression was and continues to be used today to refer to the literary production of writers who, after immigrating to Canada, decided to settle in Quebec — the only Canadian province with a francophone majority — and to write or at least publish within the framework of the province’s literary institutions. The criteria for classifying a work as migrant literature vary from one source to another. For Daniel Chartier, author of the Dictionnaire des écrivains émigrés au Québec 1800–1999 (2003), language is not a determining...

    • 35: The Institutionalization of Literature in Quebec
      (pp. 509-518)
      Andrea Oberhuber

      It seems impossible today to discuss Quebec literature without considering its institutions and, in particular, its institutionalization over the past century. This predicament explains Gilles Marcotte’s (1925–) remarks on “Institution et courants d’air” (1989), in which he observes that “the literary institution is not a new topic in Quebec literature. On the contrary, it is our oldest idea. Just as God exists before creation, the institution predates the works” (26). The narrator of Catherine Mavrikakis’s (1961–) novel Deuils cannibales et mélancoliques (2000) makes a similar statement: “In Quebec, there are more literary prizes than books published. . ....

  11. Further Reading
    (pp. 519-544)
  12. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 545-550)
  13. Index
    (pp. 551-606)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 607-607)