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David Stouck of Simon Fraser University has written a series of essays on seventeen Canadian authors, both novelists and poets, "Designed," as he says, "to introduce to a wide audience Canada's most important authors writing in English and to give information and critical assessments concerning their work." He rejected any one theme or thesis as a basis for his work, maintaining in his Preface that "the full story of a national literature is best told in terms of the country's most accomplished artists and their finest works." His work achieves a unity for all that; its tone, of knowledgeable authority combined with warm respect for his writers, speedily persuades the reader of Stouck's reliability as critic-narrator and of his opinions.
His list is arranged chronologically by birth date, from Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1776) to Alice Munro (1931). All of his authors, however, with the exception of Haliburton, Moodie, and Lampman, have done their major work in the twentieth century. Far more than the customary biographical dictionary/ encyclopedia entry, each of these essays is an informed, self-contained article of from fifteen to twenty pages. Furthermore, Stouck gives us enough historical background to enable us to place his subjects, sometimes introducing his essays by mentioning other, contemporary writers, and sometimes briefly setting his authors in their historical times. His essay on Haliburton, for instance, opens with a brief summary of the early historical and literary situation in the Maritimes and with an informative paragraph on Haliburton's important forerunner, Thomas McCulloch.
Stouck's choice of the authors he calls "major" is idiosyncratic, and will be disputed, as he knows and admits in his Preface. His rationale for inclusions is this: "I have used two principal criteria for choosing important writers: either they have produced a body of work of consistently high quality, or they have written at least one major piece regarded as an indisputable classic in the canon of Canadian literature." With all good will toward the acceptance of Stouck's stance, I still find incomprehensible the exclusion of Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Margaret Atwood. Since 1945 MacLennan's work, Two Solitudes in particular, has been staple fare in Canada, "classic"—and just as surely the same may be said of Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Atwood's Surfacing. Stouck does not cast these three into total darkness, but he does relegate each of them to a sentence or two in his appendix, "Guide to Other Writers." Similarly, the inclusion of Ethel Wilson and Margaret Avison as "major" seems personally and/or regionally directed to the extreme.
However, these quibbles have no bearing on the excellence of the essays that are included. Stouck's chapters on Pratt, Ross, Buckler, Roy, and Laurence are the best introductions to these writers that I have seen. Informative, perceptive, and indicative of close textual reading, they introduce their subjects' achievement with a judicious but not oppressive outlining of plots and sensitive critical understanding. Margaret Laurence he calls "the first writer to create a feeling of tradition among Canadian novelists." That is a novel and a thought-provoking tribute but, as he writes up her work, a persuasive one. He has a particularly [End Page 431] clear-eyed appreciation of the thrust of The Diviners, the final work in the Manawaka cycle, and of Morag, its "sentimental and cynical" heroine: "In the earlier works, Laurence's characters are so vigorously drawn that they are etched in one's memory as fixed types . . . their psychological immediacy is so great that they seem like casebook studies. In The Diviners, however, the author seems to approach human personality as a mystery, with no easy psychological explanation."
Such apercus, challenging fruitful research and discussion, are multiplied throughout Stouck's essays. Any student coming fresh and interested to Canadian literature will be both informed and intrigued by them. In the selected bibliographies appended to each essay and in the general bibliography at the end...