Canadian Literature in English by W. J. Keith
W. J. Keith has chosen to ignore utterly both the ‘popular’ at the one extreme (Robert Service, Lucy Maud Montgomery) as well as the ‘avant-garde’ at the other (bpnichol, Anne Carson) in favour of those authors whose style lends itself to the simple pleasure of reading, and to that end Keith dedicates his history to ‘all those -- including those of the general reading public whose endangered status is much lamented -- who recognize and celebrate the dance of words.’
W. J. Keith has enhanced and complemented his Canadian Literature in English, originally published in 1985, with a substantial update, and with what he calls a ‘Polemical Conclusion’ -- a stimulating and provocative argument about the quality and direction of Canadian literature. His final sentence is a call to arms: ‘The realm of literature needs to be won back from the sociological, the ideological, and the politically approved, and restored to the human spirit of delight, originality, imagination and, above all, the love of what can be achieved through verbal sensitivity and dexterity.’
Those who love literature, and especially fans of our national brand, will appreciate the insights provided by Keith about our earliest writers -- the ones we did not tend to encounter in academia or in the bookstores. The travel writings of Hearne and Mackenzie and Thompson ... ‘helped indirectly but palpably to initiate a Canadian literary tradition’. His comparison of the writing of the pioneer sisters, Catharine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie is memorable. Of Trail’s work, he writes, ‘Her book is packed full of information and shrewd commentary, but the controlling factor is always the calm, attractive, interesting because always interested, personality of the writer’. Of Moodie he says ‘Stylistically she is often rough or crude, her reasoning often conventional and trite’, and again, ‘Indeed, while reading Moodie we frequently receive painful glimpses of a mind at the end of its tether’. Yet Keith finally concludes that Moodie’s ‘lack of polish seems right and she was able to maintain a precarious balance between the cogent and the absurd that reflected something in her environment that her sister’s more disciplined literary gifts were unable to catch.’
Keith is forthright in owning to subjectivity in his analyses and evaluations. He can be provocative, as when, in his preface to the second edition, he argues that ‘although a considerable number of younger writers have appeared on the scene, few have displayed unequivocal claims to major status. The flowering that began to manifest itself in the middle of the twentieth century had run its course by the beginning of the new millennium.’
When Canadian Literature in English was first published by Longman in 1985 it was described (in the Modern Language Review) as ‘a standard reference work on the subject’ and ‘the best critical account of its subject that we possess so far’. The book was released in London and New York, as such things were done at the time, but never distributed particularly well in Canada, where it sank, rapidly, from view.
W. J. Keith, writing in the Preface to the Revised Edition, admits that his first inclination was to embark on a total rewrite of the Longman edition. On further consideration, however, Keith came to realize that the 1985 publication was completed at the ‘close of a major phase in the Canadian literary tradition’ and that ‘the remarkable flowering that began to manifest itself in the middle of the twentieth century had run its course by the beginning of the new millennium.’
That being the case, Keith argues that a ‘number of writers who had already achieved [considerable] stature further developed their reputations [in the period 1985--2005] ... but only a few extended them’. Keith is also quick to admit that he has chosen to ignore utterly the ‘popular’ at the one extreme (Robert Service, Lucy Maud Montgomery) as well as the ‘avant-garde’ at the other (bpnichol, Anne Carson), in favour of those authors whose style lends itself to the simple pleasure of reading, and to that end he dedicates his history ‘to all those (including the general reading public whose endangered status is much lamented in the ‘‘Polemical Conclusion’’) who recognize and celebrate the dance of words.’
Volume One of the Revised Edition included ‘Beginnings’, first in the prose travel journals of Alexander Mackenzie and Samuel Hearne, then in Poetry, and finally in Fiction up to the publication in 1904 of Sara Jeanette Duncan’s The Imperialist. Part Two, Poetry, presented the Challenge of Modernism embraced by E. J. Pratt, F. R. Scott, A. M. Klein and A. J. M. Smith, examined the Mythic Versus the Human, and concluded with Plain Talk About Past and Present that delivered us to the early work of Don Coles, Stephen Scobie and David Solway.
Volume Two includes a parallel examination of Fiction and an Update on the past Twenty Years before launching into a Polemical Conclusion self-described as a ‘dark and for the most part depressing journey’ in which a trahison des clercs (treason of the intellectuals) is identified by which universities have abandoned ‘their position as centres of excellence and independent inquiry to become employment-oriented training institutions emphasizing marketable skills.’
Table of contents
References and Abbreviations 9
Introductory Note to Volume Two 11
Part Four: Fiction
9. Laying the Foundations 15
10. Establishing a Tradition of Fiction 37
11. Creating Fictional Worlds of Wonder 62
Twenty Years After 91
Polemical Conclusion 121
A Note on ‘Postmodernism’, Jargon, etc. 139
Further Reading 143
‘This is a diverse set of essays, most of them previously published, which may be read individually as commentaries on Louis Dudek, Margaret Atwood, John Metcalf, Philip Grove, Ethel Wilson, Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Hugh Hood, and Jack Hodgins; or together as a manifesto on modern Canadian criticism and literature. Either way, the reading is a salutary experience whose conclusion is summed up in Keith’s essay on Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg: ‘‘We need to approach literature not with made-to-measure theory but with a flexible, verbally sensitive critical practice that attempts, tentatively, humbly, sometimes painfully, to develop a tradition of close and accurate reading.’’ This is not, as I’m sure Keith would agree, a plea to ignore history, biography or cultural milieu, but rather one that urges the paramount importance of the primary text.’
—R. G. Moyles, Canadian Book Review Annual
‘To make use of a pair of words W. J. Keith is suspicious of, Canadian Literature in English, which has just been released in a revised and expanded two-volume edition, is both canon and myth. Canon because it is a principled selection and discussion of key works Keith sees as establishing a national tradition, and myth because it provides a survey of the history and development of Canadian literature that has a particular shape.’
—Alex Good, Toronto Star
W. J. Keith was born and raised in England. He came to Canada in 1958 where he taught at McMaster (1961-66), then at the University of Toronto (1966-95). Since 1995 he has held the position of Professor Emeritus of English at University College, University of Toronto.
W. J. Keith edited the University of Toronto Quarterly (1976-85), and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1979.
An updated version of Canadian Literature in English was published in 2006.