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university of toronto quarterly, volume 70, number 2, spring 2001 RUSSELL MORTON BROWN The Practice and Theory of Canadian Thematic Criticism: A Reconsideration i the ground A teacher should carry a theme B a refrain to sing ideas from. William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways (1982) In 1989 the authors of The Empire Writes Back suggested that the distinguishing feature of English-Canadian literary studies had been the way >these have often stressed thematic concerns considered central to the literature= (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, 134), then added: >More recently, there has been a reaction in Canada against the dominance of thematic criticism, as in Frank Davey=s ASurviving the Paraphrase@ (1983),1 B.W. Powe=s A Climate Charged (1984), or the more positive Russell M. Brown=s ACritic, Culture, Text: Beyond Thematics@ (1978).= To anyone who=d been following the critical discourse in Canada at that point, this mild characterization of the hostility that had developed towards thematic criticism in Canada B as simply >a reaction= B must have seemed a distinct understatement . A more typical response was that of Louis MacKendrick, who, in a 1992 reference entry on Canadian fiction and poetry, characterized Canadian thematic criticism as >reductive= and >defensive,= as relying >on paraphrase and plot,= and as de-emphasizing interpretation. Recapitulating the thematic debate, he hung the blame for what he saw as this wrong turn squarely on Northrop Frye: 1 The date they give for this essay is for its republication in Surviving the Paraphrase, a gathering of Davey=s criticism and the source from which I cite. But it=s worth remembering that the essay originally appeared in Canadian Literature in 1976 and that its impact was immediate. In the 1970s some Canadian literary criticism B perhaps fuelled by the 1967 centenary of Confederation B suggested comprehensive thematic formulae by which the country=s writing might be summarized. ... These assessments gave assurance that Canadian writing had distinctive national characteristics B that, in effect, it had a coherent identity, a word that appears often throughout studies of Canada. Such an identity, however, may be more illusory than real. The actual language used by any writer, the literary devices, the manner of enactment, and 654 russell morton brown the very nature of the fictional or poetic activity hardly concerned these brave proposals of likeness. Until the 1980s, critical studies of literary individuality, technique, structure, and rhetoric were rare. An early example of the thematic approach is the concept of a >garrison mentality ,= an urge to preserve an inherited (that is, British) culture as defined in Northrop Frye=s conclusion to The Literary History of Canada. ... Frye=s phrase and elaboration of culture shock were immediately absorbed by Canadian literary criticism, which at the time did not resist such inclusive concepts. (277) MacKendrick assured his readers that Canadian literary criticism had now, however, become >autonomous= and could therefore permit of a better >point of reference= than had the era of thematic criticism. The new reference point was that of the >international literary community=: >The national literature is now being appreciated, studied, and analysed by an international audience= (294). Some version of this statement has become the received wisdom in the Canadian critical establishment. However, because I remain >more positive= than this about the function of, and the potential of, thematic criticism, I would like to offer another perspective. Let me begin by responding to an invitation offered by Heather Murray, who wrote, in 1985: >Thematic criticism is of course now universally despised. ... I would suggest that it deserves a retrospective= (75). ii repudiating thematics Winter is only one symbol, though a very obvious one, of the central theme of Canadian poetry. Northrop Frye, >Canada and Its Poetry= (1943) Although one can find many early uses of theme as way of responding to Canadian writing (as in William Douw Lighthall=s thematic organization of his 1889 anthology Songs of the Great Dominion),2 it was the early 1970s that saw the flourishing of what came to be identified, in English Canada, as >thematic criticism.= As MacKendrick observed, the inspiration for this thematic moment has generally been understood as Frye=s >Conclusion= to the Literary History of Canada, which first...


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