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Canadian literature

How to describe the literature of a nation is often debatable, and is also in natural flux throughout the nation's history, so this beginner's guide to Canadian literature will offer links to as many actual Canadian authors as possible so the reader can weigh what is being said with first-hand research of his or her own.

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The Problem of Canadian Literature

Canadian literature may be more difficult to discuss than most because of Canada's unique geographical and historical situation. It is a country larger and younger than most, is peopled with a widely diverse array of races, religions, and backgrounds, and is generally committed to multiculturalism. Therefore, just as one piece of the Canadian social puzzle has often been, "is there a Canadian identity?," one recurringly important piece of the Canadian literature puzzle has been the question, "Is there a Canadian literature at all?"

This has been an ongoing point of debate since the mid-1800s, and is still being discussed in literary circles today. For example, a quick Internet search for university syllabi on Canadian literature courses will offer an overwhelming majority of professors who still discuss whether or not "Canadian" literature exists. For instance, one postmodern Can. lit. course offered as recently as 2002 at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, includes this in the course syllabus:

"The course starts off with a brief consideration of the 'problem' of Canadian identity: Is there such a thing? If so, what is it? And does that identity manifest itself in a national literature that is distinctly different from, say, British or U.S. literature? These are the sort of questions that get raised in Kroetsch's essays and Atwood's Surfacing."

In fact, it has frequently been suggested that the question, "what is a Canadian?" is entangled very intricately with the question "what is Canadian literature?" in a way that does not happen to so great an extent with other literatures. Leon Surette[?] writes, "a disproportionate amount of commentary on Canadian writing has been cultural history (or prophecy) rather than truly literary commentary."

At the end of the debates, the verdict almost always returned is that there IS a literature and an "identity" distinctly Canadian. However, because of its size and breadth, Canadian literature is often broken into sub-categories.

There are at least three ways that, traditionally, critics and scholars have chosen to deal with the geographic size and cultural breadth of Canadian literature. The most common, by far, is to divide it by region or province. There are anthologies of "Eastern Canadian literature" or "Prairie literature," for example. Another way has been to divide it by categorising the authors. For instance, the literature of Canadian women, Acadians, aboriginal Canadians, and Irish-Canadians have been anthologised as bodies of work. A third way has been to divide it by literary period, such as "Canadian postmoderns" or "Canadian Poets Between the Wars."

Of course, as usual, Canadian literature is often studied in genre divisions as well, such as "poetry," "prose," "drama," and "criticism."

Traits of Canadian Literature

The findings of those who believe that there is a distinctly Canadian body of literature include a prevalence of the following traits, in no particular order.

  • Humour: Canadians do not shy away from serious subject matter, but they have often approached it using humour.

  • Satire and irony: If Canadian literature had to be distilled into a single word, for the sake of comparison with all other literatures, that word would be "satire". Satire has jokingly been called Canada's national sport. From its two famous contemporary television political satire shows, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce back through time to the very early Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock, Canadians have used satire not only to entertain, but also to promote societal reform.

  • The underdog hero: if a Canadian novel has a hero at all, it is likely to be of the "underdog" type. An ordinary, everyday person overcomes a large corporation, a bank, a rich tycoon, a government, a natural disaster, etc.

  • Urban vs. rural: The underdog hero ties in with an urban vs. rural theme which has often popped up in Canadian fiction and poetry, and usually portrays the rural as morally superior to the city, which is portrayed as shallow and seedy.

  • Nature (and a "human vs. nature" tension): Reference to nature is prolific in Canada's literature. Nature, while often interpreted as the enemy in some Canadian works, can also be interpreted as divine and ideal in others.

  • Mild anti-Americanism: While not evident in every piece of work by a Canadian, there has unmistakably been an ongoing anti-American theme from time to time in Canada's literary history, often taking the form of gentle satire. It cannot be described as malicious (although at Canadian literature's beginning, re-invasion by the U.S. was a legitimate fear), but is better seen as mild sibling rivalry, and may tie in with Canada's loyalty to the underdog as opposed to the haughty hero, two roles played by Canada and the U.S. in Canadian mythology.

  • Self-deprecation: Canadian literature, while often implying an underlying love and concern for the nation, is not rah-rah patriotic propaganda. There is, on the contrary, often self-deprecation within its pages. Canadians have been known to be good at laughing at themselves, which ties in nicely with their ability for satire and humour.

  • Self-evaluation by the reader: "We might ... wonder how 'Canadian Literature' differs from 'English Literature' or 'American Literature.'... What has remained constant throughout this short history of Canadian Literature is that it offers readers a way of both imagining and questioning ourselves and the cultures around us." (-Dr. Glen Lowry, Coquitlam College)

Notable Figures

Canada only officially became a country on July 1, 1867, so some have argued that what was written there before that time was really the literature of British citizens living away from Britain, French citizens away from France, etc.

However, one of the earliest "Canadian" writers virtually always included in Canadian literary anthologies is Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865), who died just two years before Canada's official birth. He is remembered for his comic character, Sam Slick, who appeared in The Clockmaker and other humourous works throughout the Haliburton's life.

Arguably, the best-internationally-known living Canadian writer (especially after the recent passing of Canadian greats, Robertson Davies and Timothy Findlay[?]) is Margaret Atwood, a prolific novelist, poet, and literary critic.

See also

Canadian children's literature[?]
Canadian literary criticism[?]
Canadian novels[?]
Canadian poetry
List of Canadian writers



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