Catching the Torch
Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I
Publication Year: 2014
Catching the Torch examines contemporary novels and plays written about Canada’s participation in World War I. Exploring such works as Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter and The Stone Carvers, Jack Hodgins’s Broken Ground, Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918), Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding, and Frances Itani’s Deafening, the book considers how writers have dealt with the compelling myth that the Canadian nation was born in the trenches of the Great War.
In contrast to British and European remembrances of WWI, which tend to regard it as a cataclysmic destroyer of innocence, or Australian myths that promote an ideal of outsize masculinity, physical bravery, and white superiority, contemporary Canadian texts conjure up notions of distinctively Canadian values: tolerance of ethnic difference, the ability to do one’s duty without complaint or arrogance, and the inclination to show moral as well as physical courage. Paradoxically, Canadians are shown to decry the horrors of war while making use of its productive cultural effects.
Through a close analysis of the way sacrifice, service, and the commemoration of war are represented in these literary works, Catching the Torch argues that iterations of a secure mythic notion of national identity, one that is articulated via the representation of straightforward civic and military participation, work to counter current anxieties about the stability of the nation-state, in particular anxieties about the failure of the ideal of a national “character.”
Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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Introduction: Contemporary Canadian First World War Narratives: Remembering Canada’s Best Self
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In a review published in the Globe and Mail, Robert Wiersema initiates his discussion of four Canadian novels by defining a “condition” he calls “premise fatigue,” which refers to a reader’s want of enthusiasm for works whose basic setting is simply all too familiar. “The main symptom of the condition,” Wiersema explains, “is this sinking sensation that comes upon the ardent bibliophile: ‘Oh God, I just can’t bear another . . .’ Fill in your own blank: another earnest account of the atrocities on the other side of the world; another book about the Great War from a Canadian serviceman’s perspective, etc.”1...
1. The Dead Speak: Considering the Use of Prosopopoeia in Dancock’s Dance, Mary’s Wedding, and The Deep
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John McCrae’s iconic Canadian First World War poem, “In Flanders Fields,” uses the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia—the impersonation of an absent speaker—in order to more forcefully stipulate a pact between “the Dead” and the living “you”: ...
2. The War and Concepts of Nation in Jack Hodgins’s Broken Ground and Frances Itani’s Deafening
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In the Part One of Imagined Nations, David Williams provides a dense genealogy of theories of nationhood, focusing on how “the mode of communication and the form of community have been linked in relations of mutual dependence.”1 He argues that even distrust in the concept of nation cannot overwhelm “language’s power to mediate the nation. . . to gather people into a profound sense of communion.”2
3. Abandoning the Archivist: Commemorating the War Insider and Outsider in the First World War Novels of Alan Cumyn and Jane Urquhart
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In Dubious Glory: The Two World Wars and the Canadian Novel, Dagmar Novak enumerates three classes of Canadian fiction about the First World War. The first class includes the idealistic and heartening works written during the war years, such as Ralph Connor’s The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land (1919) and Basil King’s The City of Comrades (1919). These are greatly indebted to the romance tradition and have a tendency for uncritical patriotism toward Canada and—to an often greater degree—England...
4. Other Canadians: The Representation of Alternative Versions of the Canadian War in Vimy, Unity (1918), Three Day Road, and A Secret Between Us
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The idea of a cohesive “us” that constitutes Canadian participation in the First World War is common to many critical responses that, at least provisionally, take a shorthand approach to the issue of “our” experience in the war. This focus on the collectivity of the Canadian experience in the First World War allows contemporary writers, critics, and historians a conduit for working through the paradox that what Canadians gained conceptually through their participation was somehow worth the catastrophic human cost associated with, as Sandra Gwyn puts it, “the most monumentally stupid of all wars, [which achieved] nothing more than to make certain another ‘great war’ would succeed it.”1...
Conclusion: Representations of the First World War and Wishing
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True story: in the summer of 2008, during which time I was in the thick of reading the novels and plays that make up the corpus for this study, I went to see a movie with some colleagues. In one of the trailers, images of muddy men shooting rifles and a wind-blown woman reading letters competed with voice-overs of a man saying things like, “I don’t fight for glory or medals—I only fight for you,” and a woman declaring, “I used to believe in things like sacrifice”; as the operatic music swelled, certain phrases appeared on the screen: “They fought for their country”; “Every war has its stories”; “This is our story.” ...
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Page Count: 222
Publication Year: 2014