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212 letters in canada 2002 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 on the unique case of Ireland at a key moment in its history, Ina Ferris=s study will well repay attention. (DAVID H. RICHTER) Heather Murray. Come, Bright Improvement! The Literary Societies of Nineteenth-Century Ontario University of Toronto Press. xx, 338. $60.00 In his 1982 foundational essay, >What Is the History of Books?= Robert Darnton identified lack of scholarly attention to reading as the weakest point in the circuit of authorship, publication, distribution, and reception whose study sustains the developing field of book history. Many scholars are now filling that gap in such undertakings as the Reading Experience Database (restricted to British readers) directed by Simon Eliot, and Jonathan Rose=s recent tome, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (2001). It was once assumed that historical study of the literary activities of >common= readers was impeded by a lack of resources, but as scholars expand their frames of reference, they discover new repositories of primary material. Heather Murray=s current study demonstrates that even in Canada , where the archival collection of cultural history has been sporadic, fascinating primary resources await the determined researcher. Murray focuses less on reading per se than on the social, political, and educational culture of free-standing self-study groups and clubs that defined their activities as >literary.= In late nineteenth-century Canada, during the era before CBC radio and university extension programs offered opportunities for intellectual enhancement to the general public, these societies thrived, often under the encouragement of the Chatauqua movement. The heart of Murray=s study is to be found in her eighty-page appendix, which describes more than three hundred literary societies known to have existed in Upper Canada/Canada West/Ontario before 1901, in tiny hamlets as well as larger cities. Their activities were reported in local newspapers and documented in their own scrapbooks and minute books, some of which survive in the collections of local historical societies, public libraries, and civic archives. While most societies dissolved under the pressures of new media and broader opportunities, several endured well into the later twentieth century. Contrary to the prevailing notion that pre-modern Canada was a cultural wasteland, Murray documents groups of men and women striving towards intellectual betterment by engaging with the books and authors they valued. Those who organized clubs and lecture series tended to belong to (or aspire to) the middle class and, like the British working-class autodidacts described by Rose, shared a taste for canonical European and American works. While Murray theorizes that these societies provided cultural infrastructure for nascent Canadian writers, there is little evidence that humanities 213 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 Canadian authors received much attention (the Society for Canadian Literature, founded in Montreal in 1889 by W.D. Lighthall, seems to have had no Ontario equivalent). In some groups, entertainment and socializing prevailed as members gathered to listen to prepared speeches; the last decades of the century saw the development of a new participant model in which members prepared a common text in advance. Although not all groups named for a particular writer maintained their implied focus, the Browning Club of Toronto (1897B1905), whose programs appear as appendix C, sought to unravel the obscurities of their favourite author through a strenuous plan of group study. Within the larger field that she maps (with the assistance of three helpful cartographic illustrations), Murray selects several demographic sectors for specific attention. Women are noted throughout, from the role of female immigrants like Mary Gapper O=Brien in organizing early backwoods libraries, to a full chapter on the rise of women=s societies. In addition to the Toronto Women=s Literary Club, now more famous for its promotion of female suffrage than for its titular activities, we learn about the Angelica Shakespeare Club of Owen Sound, whose dedication to the Bard reflected growing popular adulation of Shakespeare in the second half of the nineteenth century in England and the United States (see Lawrence Levine=s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America). The literary societies formed by Black communities...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 212-213
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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