restricted access Dear Miss Cowie: The Construction of Canadian Authorship, 1920s and 1930s
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Dear Miss Cowie:
The Construction of Canadian Authorship, 1920s and 1930s

Long before the Recommendations of the Massey Report (1948–49), the introduction of the New Canadian Library (1958), and the proliferation of university courses on Canadian literature, a long forgotten schoolteacher named Margaret Cowie was at work teaching it in her Vancouver classroom and assembling a library of Canadian literature for her school. Although the library itself has disappeared, the surprising list of titles collected by Miss Cowie, as well as the lively literary correspondence she left behind in fonds at the University of British Columbia, provides a remarkable snapshot of literary activity in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Morley Callaghan, Frederick Phillip Grove, A. M. Klein, Raymond Knister, Dorothy Livesay, Stephen Leacock, Mazo de la Roche, F. R. Scott, and Jessie Georgina Sime comprise a small star system of writers typically called upon by present-day university curricula to represent Canadian writing in this era. In spectacular contrast, the eighty-three Canadian writers with whom Cowie corresponded comprise a significantly larger universe of Canadian print culture in the process of expanding, stimulated by a growing reading public, modernizing media, and emerging middlebrow tastes.

Many of these writers shaped the terrain of writing in Canada before the canon, and more than a few published whole series of books that now [End Page 145] languish in obscurity despite achieving varying levels of national literary celebrity and prestige in their time. Their correspondence and careers offer refreshing insights into the literary history of Canada during this period and connect Canadian cultural activity to a broader cultural history of the interwar period. Scholars of modernity have characterized the period between the wars as an epoch of major cultural transition. Ben Singer, for instance, considers it a “striking explosion” of industrialization, urbanization, transportation, migration, mass communication, amusement, and consumerism (19). Yet literary histories have characterized the 1920s and 1930s in Canada as barren, insular, and lacking in literary talent. The few works that have secured a place in the canon reveal the way retrospectives of the period overemphasize the impact of literary modernism, nationalism, or politicized narratives of the Depression at the expense of other kinds of texts and authors widely read in their own time.

Cowie’s expansive cast of literary correspondents worked actively throughout the Depression and contributed a wide variety of literature. They funded their writing careers in Canada or the U.S. as journalists, academics, publicists, magazine writers, textbook authors, radio broadcasters, screenwriters, or civil servants. They were folklorists, nature poets, animal fabulists, travel and adventure writers, and authors of masculine historical and industrial romances or feminine coming-of-age novels and sentimental verse. Their work was certainly variable in quality, but taken as a whole it nonetheless indicates a much richer range of writing and cultural complexity than literary histories of Canada have generally acknowledged. Margaret Cowie’s library of Canadian literature therefore suggests an urgent need to critically modify our understanding of literary culture of the interwar period in Canada. As Pierre Bourdieu explains in Distinction, literary work plays an instrumental role in, and is also affected by, the larger social process of the assignment and contestation of cultural worth; Cowie’s library and correspondence afford some insight into the processes of contestation and exclusion in Canada. In considering the wide range of Canadian writing included in Cowie’s library, and in placing the work of this dynamic cultural period between the wars back into the context of its time, we can grasp a broader understanding not only of the circulation and reception of literary work in its own era but also of the historical construction of literary value.

Fewer than a dozen of the eighty-three authors in Cowie’s correspondence have been featured in William H. New’s seminal History of Canadian Literature. More than that number are featured in Anne Innis Daag’s The Feminine Gaze: A Canadian Compendium of Non-Fiction Women [End Page 146] Authors and Their Books, suggesting that the longstanding scholarly bias in favour of fiction in literary studies is one reason why a large sample of work in Cowie’s collection has been overlooked. Although...