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Reviewed by:
  • Canadian Literature in English
  • Cynthia Sugars
W.J. Keith . Canadian Literature in English. Revised edition. 2 volumes. Porcupine's Quill. 220, 200. $24.95 each

This two-volume revised edition of W.J. Keith's literary history, Canadian Literature in English, is an expanded version of his 1985 book by the same title, which provides a valuable historical survey and analysis of Canadian writing from the eighteenth century to the present, with chapters organized by period and genre. Its focus is the formation of [End Page 181] a Canadian literary tradition, so the emphasis throughout is on linking authors within this trajectory. The major differences between the two editions are to be found in the organization of the chapters, an updating of the contemporary period to include works published in the intervening twenty years since the first edition, an updated list of suggested further readings, and the inclusion of a lengthy 'Polemical Conclusion' at the end of volume 2, which assesses the state of the humanities in the contemporary Canadian academy and the impending dearth of an educated reading public sufficiently qualified to appreciate serious literature.

Keith is well known among Canadian literary scholars as an incisive critic, unafraid to apply exacting evaluative criteria to Canadian writing. However, his opinions have also carried an edge of intolerance, which has lost him many supporters in the Canadian literary establishment. Many readers of this book will undoubtedly take issue with Keith's obdurate and sometimes defensive pronouncements about 'postmo-dernism' (which he always places in quotation marks). Unfortunately, this residue of the notorious 1980s culture wars pervades the book and ultimately dates it. A rift opened up within the field of literary studies in the early 1980s, a divide that has been formulated in different and often contradictory ways: between thematic critics and formalists, nationalists and cosmopolitans, cultural studies and literature, the ideologues (the 'politically correct' practitioners variously labelled 'postmodern,' 'post-colonial,' or 'feminist') and those committed to purely aesthetic criteria. These leftovers are a shame, because Keith's literary analyses merit attention from all camps. His discussion of the Canadian modernist movement is astute and wide-ranging, and his readings of Stephen Leacock, Frederick Philip Grove, Hugh MacLennan, and Irving Layton are second to none. He has much to add to discussions of Canadian literary history but unfortunately alienates potential supporters by not giving contemporary literary theorists and writers the same consideration that he grants to earlier writers and periods.

The contents of volume 1 remain essentially unchanged from the original edition. Keith's project is to trace a continuous Canadian tradition, or, as he puts it, to find signs of literary influence and 'cultural continuity.' This is unquestionably the greatest strength of the book. The clear plotting of a tradition is a welcome and satisfying way of ordering the mélange that has come down to us as the body of Canadian literature, and it is instructive to read a synthesis of literary influence within a local national context. The seriousness with which Keith approaches his task is admirable as he takes the time to make links across periods, enhancing the reputation of individual authors in the process. Comparisons between Malcolm Lowry and Frederick Philip Grove or between Thomas Raddall and William Kirby are [End Page 182] instructive. He is also to be congratulated for reaffirming many literary texts that have been neglected over the years, particularly the writings of Frederick Niven of the 1930s and 1940s.

The valuable contributions of Keith's original 1985 study make the limitations of the revised edition all the more disappointing. I would have welcomed Keith's considered commentaries on many contemporary Canadian writers, and even more, would have enjoyed an account of the ways the tradition has been quite powerfully continued and reformulated into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, particularly given the revival of the historical novel and documentary poem in Canada. Postmodernism, after all, does not necessarily signify a break with tradition, but an incorporation of it. The opportunity to publish an expanded edition of his work, especially given the additional space provided by the two-volume format, would have afforded Keith the opportunity to build on...


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