- Arrival: The Story of CanLit by Nick Mount
Literary history is widely perceived as a utopian, if not impossible, task. This is particularly true in a country like Canada, which comprises two official nations and numerous First Nations. Another challenge is that we live in a post-literary age and cannot escape the impact of pop culture. The latter aspect is very much evident in Nick Mount's methodological approach in his study of the Canadian literary boom from the late 1950s to the mid-1970, which Mount considers the most significant development in Canadian literature. Yet he then proceeds to rank books using a five-star system, with * denoting that a book "got published" and ***** that it is a "world classic," a scheme that owes more to television or newspaper film reviewing than to any strictly literary tradition.
Mount presents Arrival as a non-academic book, which explains why his capsule reviews appear in the margins of the text. At the same time, he [End Page 220] states that he wrote his study because "the time had come to separate great books from honest work." Thus, it is worth listing the books to which he awards ***** since they presumably constitute what he deems the boom canon: Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), b.p. Nichol's The Martyrology: Books 1 and 2 (1972), Sheila Watson's The Double Hook (1959), Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies and Other Poems (1972), Mavis Gallant's My Heart Is Broken (1964), Al Purdy's Selected Poems (1972), Alistair MacLeod's The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976), and Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women (1971).
Some of Mount's mini book reviews are quite perceptive, even provocative. He argues that "Gallant wrote stories, not books, so it's hard to say which is her best book." In contrast, the main trouble with Rudy Wiebe's once highly regarded The Temptations of Big Bear, to which he awards a single * is "how hard Wiebe made it to care about a man and a story clearly worth caring about. It is too bad we do not remake novels with the same freedom that we do movies." Mount also maintains that "[i]n the 1970s academics and poets drove poetry back into the cloister, aided by the advent of specialized literary theory and the rising number of poets with academic positions." Most boldly perhaps, he posits that the boom "contradicts [George] Grant's claim that branch-plant economies have branch-plant cultures. Canadian literature didn't disappear in the 1960s. It arrived."
Mount's model is clearly Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which he describes as "still the most ambitious book ever written on Canadian literature," although he only bestows *** on it. While Mount praises the 1972 manifesto for attempting to define the whole of Canadian literature, Survival underscores the limitations of his book. In many ways, it is more contemporary. In his closing chapter, Mount contends that we have gone beyond the national. Yet his focus throughout is on the national, which begs the question of whose nation is being considered here. Judging by the whiteness of his canon, his appears to be the Canada of Mackenzie King or, at best, Lester B. Pearson. Since the end of World War II, English-speaking Canada has undergone what has been called the Other Quiet Revolution, transitioning from ethnic to civic nationalism. But one sees remarkably little evidence of this transformation in Arrival. Mount is particularly indifferent to the Indigenous dimension in Canadian society. The only Indigenous book that he reviews is Maria Campbell's 1973 memoir Half-breed, to which he awards ***. His dated usage of terms like "Native activism" and "Native Renaissance" becomes even more problematic when he refers to Michel Tremblay's early plays as examples of "a native art." Indeed, the relations between Indigenous peoples and newcomers receive so little attention that, after reading Mount's book, one would have no inkling whatsoever why Mavor Moore, Jacques Languirand, and Harry Somers's opera Louis Riel has gone from...