- When Canadian Literature Moved to New York
Few critics have the chutzpah to rewrite the story of their nation's literary origins, but that is exactly what Nick Mount has done in this engaging and informative study. When Canadian Literature Moved to New York is an analysis of the Canadians who left their homeland for the literary capital of North America, seeking publishing opportunities, a literary community, and a living wage. In the pages of New York's flourishing magazines, Mount finds a remarkable number of Canadians who took advantage of the late-nineteenth-century vogue for humour, romantic adventure, Eastern exoticism, and New Thought. Often working alongside other Canadians, and finding in the United States the appreciative, paying audience unavailable at home, these writers laid the groundwork for Canadian literature not by writing about Canadian places and subjects but by proving that works by Canadians would sell. They were rewarded in the century that followed by having their contributions minimized, distorted, or ignored altogether.
Although most Canadian scholars will be aware that some of Canada's best-known late-nineteenth-century writers – Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, and Ernest Thompson Seton – spent considerable portions [End Page 286] of their writing lives in New York, few will have a clear sense of the magnitude of Canada's literary exodus: Graeme Mercer Adam, William Carman Roberts (Charles's younger brother), Peter McArthur, Palmer Cox, Arthur Stringer, and Norman Duncan all made a good living in the United States, contributing to a flourishing anti-modern culture that favoured animal stories, local colour, and bohemianism. Two ironies are involved in their success. Mount demonstrates, first, that American publishers and editors were not only happy to publish and hire Canadians but in some cases actually preferred them to Americans because of a romantic myth that they were hardier, more reliable, and more in touch with nature than Americans – important attributes at any time but especially so in an age preoccupied with the debilitating effects of modern urban life. Second, while Americans were happy to welcome Canadians into their literary culture, Canadians sought subsequently to purge their tradition of American influence, emphasizing the distinctively Canadian aspects of certain writers (their treatment of landscape, particularly) and suppressing those, like the enormously successful cartoonist Palmer Cox, who made their names without much reference to Canada. As Mount makes clear, that Canadian literature 'derived an essential part of its identity from its continental heritage' is not something that most nationalist literary historians have wanted to acknowledge.
That continental heritage is the story that Mount tells here – a story of a vibrant Canadian presence and influence in New York literary circles, from the bohemian allure of Roberts, Carman, and their confreres, through the rugged masculinity of Seton and hunter-writer Edwin Sandys, to the comic writing of Mary Sanford and Peter McArthur, and many others. Mount's discussion is consistently elegant, precise, and astute, free of cant, and enlivened by pungent anecdotes, well-chosen quotations, and witty turns of phrase. The case he presents is provocative yet rarely over-stated. One might quibble about some details – I wasn't convinced by one of his tantalizing concluding points, that 'the expatriate poets of the 1880s and 1890s provided the early modernists with a domestic model of precisely the cosmopolitanism to which they aspired' (the precisely far overshoots the mark, I suspect) – but the overall thesis about the cultural importance of these writers, his argument that 'it took moving to New York to produce the communities of authors necessary to fulfill the literary promise of Confederation,' is amply supported with hard facts and makes for fascinating reading.
Mount ends by emphasizing that, having done much to create Canadian literature, these authors were 'consciously removed from Canadian literary history – perhaps necessarily,' with the result that current-day pronouncements about Canadian post-nationalism have forgotten this part of our past. The 'perhaps necessarily' is typical of Mount's preference for analysis over self-serving denunciation. [End Page 287] The whole study might have been harsher in many of its judgments...