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D O N A L D G R E E N E University of Wisconsin Western Canadian Literature My qualifications for speaking to a scholarly gathering about western Canadian literature are rather like those of the journalist who was commissioned to write a piece on Chinese philosophy and did so by reading the encyclopedia articles on “China” and “philoso­ phy,” and then putting them together. I spent the first thirty-five years or so of my life in western Canada; I have always been an incurable addict of literature: the combination of these two facts will have to serve as my credentials. Though just what do con­ stitute acceptable academic qualifications for setting up as an expert in “western Canadian literature,” or even “Canadian literature,” is hard to say. I suppose the primary one would be a conviction that there is a Canadian literature worth consideration by a serious literary critic. This is still not a universally accepted proposition. True, one important critic, Edmund Wilson, recently addressed himself to the subject of Canadian writing, though most of Wilson’s devotees, among whom I include myself, would not maintain that this is one of his more successful critical forays.1 As I read Wilson’s book, I kept wondering when he was going to answer the despair­ ing cry that young Ernest Hemingway, then a reporter on the Toronto Star, long ago uttered in a letter to Wilson, begging for some literary news—“You don’t know anything in Canada!”2 But no answer was forthcoming. It is true also that courses in “Canadian literature” are regu­ larly offered in Canadian universities, and even one or two American *A paper delivered at the Second Annual Meeting of the Western Literature Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 1966. *0 Canada! New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. 2Edmund Wilson, The Shores of Light (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1952), p. 116. 258 Western American Literature ones, and that a scholarly periodical entitled Canadian Literature was established some years ago, and seems to be flourishing. The theory is, perhaps, that if you keep saying loudly and frequently enough that there is a Canadian literature, one will magically materialize. I don’t think, however, that this method ever pro­ duced much success when tried on American literature: surely much more was accomplished in prodding American writers toward an international rather than a parochial standard of competence by the indefatigable barbs of Mencken, who could never be cajoled into calling tripe, however hundred-percent American, anything but tripe. Canada, alas, has never had a Mencken; it is hard even to conceive of a Mencken subsisting in the English-speaking culture of Canada, dominated by Toronto, “that sanctimonius ice-box,” as Wyndham Lewis, who spent some traumatic years there, called it.3 But the London Times Literary Supplement’s reviewer of Wilson’s book4 is not yet convinced. “With all the will in the world,” he says, “it is hard to believe one would want to read these [French-Canadian] novels if one were not deeply interested in the Canadian problem,” and again, “WT ith the exception of Morley Callaghan, they [English-Canadian novelists] are more interesting as sociological reporters than as writers. Had we but world enough and time, no doubt we should read Mr. MacLennan and the others” — but the reviewer makes it clear that he, for one, hasn’t. He is not alone. I should begin by outlining some basic facts about Canadian geography and history that most Americans are only vaguely aware of.5 Apart from the French-Canadian enclave in Quebec, there are no important geographical or cultural differences between the 8In his significantly titled roman a clef, Self-Condemned (London: Methuen, 1954). The nearest thing to a Mencken that Canada ever produced was a magnificently scurrilous and witty prairie journalist by the name of Bob Edwards, whose paper, The Calgary Eye-Opener, flourished in the early years of this century and is still remembered with gratitude by a few surviving old-timers of the prairie. Around the beginning of the decorous Mackenzie King era in the 1920’s, it was decently interred, and its name is not spoken by the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 257-280
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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