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Reviews A Tradition of the Best GEORGE WOODCOCK W.J. Keith. Canadian Literature in English Longman Literature in English Series. Toronto: Longman (distributed by Academic Press Canada) 1985. xii, 287. $17.40 paper We have long been in need of a good, perceptive, up-ta-date account of writing in Canada. Up-to-dateness, indeed, is the essential quality, not because one is preoccupied with novelty, but because the burgeoning of Canadian poetry and fiction has been so recent that, as W.J. Keith remarks in the preface to his Canadian Literature in English, the book Iam reviewing, 'it seems reasonable to suppose that the majority of Canadian writers up to the present whose work will prove of continuing interest in the future are alive now,' The last edition of Desmond Pacey's CreativeWriting in Canada, which in its time was the best and only book of this kind available, appeared in 1961, and so it left out the multitude of new writers and new books that have made the 19605 and 1970S such a rich period in the literary history of this country. Since then there has ofcourse been the monumental Literary History o{Canada, edited by Carl Klinck, in its original 1965 edition and its enlarged 1973 edition, which needed a whole third volume to deal merely with literary events in the shortperiod from 1960 to 1973, so rapidly has the field expanded. But the LiteraryHistory has the faults as well as the virtues of a work by many hands, so that while it is detailed in its coverage of books published and active writers, the critical level is uneven and generally low because of the effort to include everyone of even minor significance; and, despite the historic intent of the work, the only unified, continuing viewpoint is that provided by Northrop Frye in his Conclusions. As for the other books of some interest that claim to give a view of trends in Canadian writing, past and present, they are inclined either to be thematically oriented, like Douglas Jones's Butterfly on Rock and Margaret Atwood's Survival, or tendentious, again like Survival and like Robin Mathews's Canadian Literature: Surrenderor Revolution, which is really a nationalist tract disguised as the history of a literature. There have been some handbooks, presumably useful to students, which consist of series of miniature essays on individual writers, like Clara Thomas's OUT Nature - Our Voices and Frank Davey's From There to Here, but while I UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 55, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1986 W.j. KEITH 303 such books sometimes offer perceptive insights into the work of specific authors, they do not develop a sufficiently unifying theme to give us the sense of a tradition. And the tradition is precisely what W.J. Keith has set out to reveal. As he defines it, that tradition can be followed in 'the way in which literature written in Canada began as a continuation ofwhat was being produced in Great Britain, had to define itselfagainst the American tradition as it developed in the United States, and eventually evolved as a distinctive literature related to but independent of both parents and neighbour,' Obviously it is conceived as a tradition within a greater tradition, that of the literatures of the English-writing world, for Canadian Literature in English is one of the forty-six volumes in that ambitious project, the Longman Literature in English series. But while he is sensitive to British and American influences, models, and analogies, Keith never loses from sight the fact that Canadian literature, whatever it shares with other English-speaking literatures, is a tradition developing in its own time and space and related to a specific society that is unusual in the sense of its being spread so thinly over such vast distances, and thus lends itself to deep cultural variations. To develop an adequate and relatively concise account of such a tradition requires a critic who knows the culture well from having inhabited as well as studied it for a fairly long period, but whose origins elsewhere allow him to stand sufficiently aside to see it whole and not to be overawed by the knowledge that, unlike...


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