(Anti-)Modernity and Moving House(s)
That’s not public enterprise; that’s my enterprise."1 C.D. Howe’s egotistical response to the suggestion that Trans-Canada Airlines (later Air Canada) was a socialist creation crisply captures the spirit of the "heroic state capitalism" (Larry Pratt and Matina Karvellas 70) that unified and shaped Canada during and around the Second World War. Between 1935 and 1957, the Liberal governments of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent in which Howe held so many portfolios that he became known as the "Minister of Everything" either initiated or fostered the creation of a host of other "public enterprise[s]" besides Trans-Canada Airlines, from the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to the Trans-Canada Highway and the Trans-Canada Pipeline. One such enterprise, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the hydro-electric power dam above Cornwall, Ontario, was the final fulfilment in the post-War years of the dream of subduing central Canada’s great water system to the purposes of trade and commerce that began in the eighteenth century and, in the nineteenth, led to the construction of the Welland Canal (1829) around Niagara Falls and the Sault Sainte Marie Canals between Lake Superior and Lake Huron (1855, 1895). While the Seaway and Power project was instigated in 1941 and completed in 1959 under Conservative governments, it was largely undertaken in the ’fifties when Howe was St. Laurent’s Minister of Trade and Commerce. Not only does the very title of Howe’s portfolio raise historical resonances, but so, too, do his background and career: an engineer and a businessman before he entered politics, he was American by birth and vision—a descendant in all but name of William Hamilton Merritt, the self-proclaimed "Projector" who built and envisaged the Welland Canal as part of a huge "system of canals linking the Great Lakes with the St. Lawrence and the ocean" that "foreshadowed…the St. Lawrence Seaway" (Talman 548)."2
If the best-known literary responses to the nation-building policies of Howe and his Liberal masters are the satires of F.R. Scott (particularly the much-anthologized "W.L.M.K" ) they are by no means the only ones. E.J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike. A Verse Panorama of the Struggle to Build the First Canadian Transcontinental… (1952) is a displaced celebration of "public enterprise" and its individual proponents ("my enterprise"), and Bruce Hutchinson’s Canada, Tomorrow’s Giant (1957), like his earlier biography of King as The Incredible Canadian (1952), treats of post-War Canada as a country of mysterious but enormous power and potential. As the ’fifties became the ’sixties, however, and the Centennial of Confederation approached under the Liberal government of Lester Pearson, the hostility to the Americanization of Canada that Howe had aroused in 1957 with his decision to award the contract for the Trans-Canada Pipeline to a consortium of American and Canadian companies engendered a plethora of literary responses, many of them, like Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies (1968) and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), heavily influenced by George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965). Although it was not published until 1975, Don McKay’s Long Sault is a product of both Howe’s ’fifties and Grant’s ’sixties—a meditation on the consequences of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power project for the people and landscape of the St. Lawrence valley and a response to the fear that something quintessentially Canadian has been lost in the Liberal quest for "Power & Prosperity, Development & Growth" (Long Sault 15). McKay grew up in one of the towns (Cornwall) that was greatly affected by the Seaway and Power project, and as he explains in a note to the poem in The Long Poem Anthology (1979): "Long Sault began with the subject, which I’d carried around a long time and needed to write—a big energy and loss, both for myself and the community. When the hydroelectric dam was constructed at Cornwall…during the late fifties, the St. Lawrence River flooded upstream as far as Iroquois, submerging a length of the shoreline rich in history and tradition. Villages like Wales, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Dickinson’s Landing were ‘relocated,’ and—focal point of th[e] poem—the Long Sault Rapids was drowned. It was only after I got going that…I found other planes of the subject…[and] looked into historical accounts which touched on the Long Sault, like those by Alexander Henry and George Heriot" (321).
Almost certainly, McKay’s research into "historical accounts" of the Long Sault included Jean L. Gogo’s Lights on the St. Lawrence (1958), an anthology inspired by the realization that, with the St. Lawrence valley, "famous rapids would disappear…and so would picturesque old settlements, historic sites, and part of the river road winding close to the shore. Many people, thousands of them, would listen with a sigh to the talk of the inundation and the new industrialization along the waterfront. Probably the most disturbed would be the descendants of pioneer settlers…who would soon have to move from their homes" (Foreword 7). Indeed, Gogo’s account of "The Canadian Aspect" of the "Effects of Flooding in the International Rapids Section" of the Seaway is worth quoting at length as an inventory of McKay’s primary subject:
• • •
The equivalent of these paragraphs in McKay’s poem is "Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?", a meditation on the Anglican church that was moved from Moulinette to Upper Canada Village in 1958 and subsequently restored on both the exterior (1961) and the interior (The Buildings of Upper Canada Village 1). Visiting the Village as both a tourist and as a native of the area, McKay recognizes Christ Church without the help of either a "sign or the brochure" bearing the hymn from which the title of his poem is taken, and proceeds to offer elegiac comments on what has been lost and preserved by its relocation:
In the indented portion of the poem, the diction of an epitaph and the tone of the The Waste Land3reinforce the sense that the relocated Christ Church (1837) has become a monument to the life that it once contained. Where there were once hymns and music, there are now only the whisperings and rustlings of tourists. Finally, however, McKay’s sympathy does not lie with the death-in-life state of the church itself (which, as he observes in a headnote to the poem "owes its existence to the munificence of Adam Dixson, U.E., reputed to be the first man to have harnessed the water power of the St. Lawrence"); rather, it lies with the displaced inhabitants of Moulinette, with the ordinary people of the St. Lawrence valley whose livings were lost even as their place was changed by the submersion of their villages and farms. Because of its architectural interest, its Loyalist origins, and, McKay emphasizes, its association with wealth and power, Christ Church has survived as "history," while people and things that lack aesthetic glamour and powerful associations—"the one who heaves with a grunt a dirt brown burlap sack / to the back of his rusting chevy pickup once / in Moulinette"—must be conjured up "in a poem" (13): their anchor will not hold in the storms of life.
As might be suggested by McKay’s use of a line from a hymn for the title of his poem and by his perception of Christ Church as a "shell haunted by wordless music," the landscapes and communities that were submerged or "relocated" by what Gogo calls "the serene loveliness of the new power-made lake" of the St. Lawrence are frequently represented in Long Sault by songs that have been silenced and disembodied, but not ultimately lost because they persist spectrally in memory and spiritually in other places. "I…realized that the moves and power of the Long Sault weren’t really locked up in the dam," recalls McKay of the process of composing the sequence, "[and] began thinking of all the rapids I’d experienced and found them moving in surprising places and pushing the writing into different forms" ("Statement" 321). The outcome of this vitalistic vision of the Long Sault rapids as a repository of spiritual energy that has been diffused rather than destroyed is "The ghost with a hammer," a series of poems rich in musical forms and terminology that comprises the final section and elegiac consolation of Long Sault. The most successful of these poems are the pieces that open and close the series, "Long Sault Blues" and "Long Sault Breakdown," both of which use the words and rhythms of African-American music to celebrate the triumphant survival of the Long Sault Rapids in other forms and places.
At the beginning of "Long Sault Blues," a despondent singer laments the absence of the Rapids as of a lover ("Well I don’t know where that Long Sault’s got to / It’s just dry bone all the time"), but finds solace in the discovery that "he [is] up north in Kapuskasing / With his big gold saxophone":
In "Long Sault Breakdown," an exuberant celebration of the ability of the Long Sault to "seize and dance through" different "Bod[ies]" takes the form of "[a] riotous dance [in the peculiar style of the negroes], with which balls are often terminated in the country" (Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, qtd. in OED):
The bones that were "dry" in "Long Sault Blues" are now "glistening" (the allusion, of course, is to the resurrection of the "dry bones" in the "valley" in Ezekiel 37) and the "dandelion wine" has served its Blakean purpose of producing "wisdom" through "excess" (Blake, 150). Far from being lost or harnessed, the power of the Long Sault Rapids can be found whenever and wherever creative energy escapes the prison houses of propriety and convention. As McKay puts it in the final portion of "Long Sault Breakdown":
Apart from its spry use of the word "motherfucker," a "black idiom…popularized among whites [in the late ’sixties] by political radicals and spokesmen for the counter-culture" (Rawson 258), the most remarkable thing about this passage and, indeed, Long Sault as a whole, is its philosophical optimism, its comforting conviction that vital energy is never lost or entrapped but lives on in different bodies and places. With Long Sault and numerous other works of the ’seventies and ’eighties by George Bowering, Christopher Dewdney, Robert Bringhhurst and other vitalists, Canada entered the New Age.
In a piece entitled "A feeling of if, a feeling of but, a field of fire hydrants" near the beginning of Long Sault, McKay remembers his family’s "amazement" at the size of the giant straddle rigs that were used to move buildings from the area to be drowned by the St. Lawrence Seaway project to sites above the flood line:
As if they were themselves being transported by the "house-moving machine," the children are temporarily "unfettered, soaring in suspension of feeling" and in the "rhetoric" of re-placement, unable "really [to] know which history / was being made, and never asking / whose" (14). Almost certainly these passages refer to the moving of the hundred and seventy houses of the small town of Iroquois to its present site, an act of communal relocation that can only have left those affected with a very particular sense of the relationship between continuity and change, anticipation and regret—a complex "feeling of if [and]…but" that for McKay and his siblings remains inchoate even after the completion of the new townsite (the "field of fire hydrants"), after the renaming of their own "humdrum town" of Cornwall the "‘City of Power and Progress’," and after their encounter through the sense of smell with "its industries…smoking at both ends like cigars" (15). To the reader it may be obvious that in McKay’s view the development of the St. Lawrence valley stinks but to the children this perception is simply not possible: for them, the very newness of the sights and smells of industry means that they are void of the associations that invite comparisons, prompt judgements, and raise questions about "which" and "whose" history was being made better or worse by the relocation of Iroquois and the reinvention of Cornwall.
An entirely different approach to the preservation of the history of the St. Lawrence valley is embodied in Upper Canada Village. A combination of buildings from the flooded area and other locations on the north shore of the St. Lawrence that were moved to a sixty-six acre site east of Morrisburg (mostly) between 1956 and 1961, Upper Canada Village, like the adjacent Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Park, is a fulfilment of the mandate of the Ontario-St. Lawrence Parks Commission (later the St. Lawrence Parks Commission) to create parks "dedicated to the preservation of the…historic past and to the education and recreational enjoyment of present and future generations" (qtd. in Patterson 5). Consisting of some forty transplanted and restored "commercial, agricultural, and domestic buildings"—houses, churches, barns, mills, a tavern, a bakery, a hotel, a school, a general store, a printing office, a cheese factory…—that are "grouped in the form of a rural village of about 500 people, typical of eastern Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century" (Information Sheet 1), the Village is "intended to provide a living monument to the way of life of Upper Canada’s earliest settlers" (Patterson 3). To this end, it is staffed by "costumed interpreters who perform their daily routine to bring history to life for visitors." As the official Information Sheet on Upper Canada Village (circa 1992) explains, "visitors can wander around the site at their leisure, watching spinning, weaving and quilting, trades[men] such as the blacksmith, shoemaker and cabinetmaker, talk to the interpreters about the background and activities of historic buildings, take a ride on the carry-all, bateau or miniature railroad (located outside the Village), listen to musical entertainment, or have a picnic in… [the] eating areas. Living history offers the visitor a unique museum experience to learn the sights, sounds and smells of the nineteenth century" (1). As William J. Patterson puts it in his Introduction to John de Visser’s Upper Canada Village (1981), "the village is very real, conveying vividly and intimately the sights and sounds and smells—the very feeling—of village life more than a century ago…. It acts as a time-machine, transporting visitors away from asphalt roads, automobiles, electricity, television, and the bustle of urban life" (3, 6).
To the extent that it works as Patterson suggests, Upper Canada Village simultaneously embodies the past and negates the present. A unique product of (anti-)modernity, it preserves the "historical past" in order to provide the visitor with an experience that is both educational and recreational—that is, to maximize the benefits of time away from "the bustle of urban life." What differentiates the buildings and interpreters of Upper Canada Village from the stylized store-fronts of the West Edmonton Mall or the life-sized cartoon characters of Disneyland is not just their educational purpose but also their claim to accuracy and authenticity. Unlike Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, Upper Canada Village and the Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Park do not have the benefit of being located, in E.J. Pratt’s words, on the "exact spot" of the historical past to which they attempt to transport the visitor. As a consequence, special (even anxious) emphasis is placed on their accuracy and authenticity in the various official and unofficial documents that describe them. "The history of the buildings on site…are closely tied to the local area," observes the Information Sheet on Upper Canada Village, and "[t]o ensure absolute authenticity of the period, staff researched (and continue to research) primary documents, such as census records, account books, commercial catalogues, [and] photographs"(1). "Many of [the costumed interpreters] are descendants of the original U.E.L. settlers and they remember their ancestors with feelings of sympathy and pride," claims Patterson; "[t]heir welcome to visitors is genuine, for they do not find it difficult to think of the Village as their ancestral ‘home’"(6-7). Patterson may insist too much, but the accuracy of the restoration and the genuineness of the interpreters in Upper Canada Village can go a long way towards convincing visitors that, although the Village may not be absolutely authentic, it contains enough that is "real" to differentiate it from a mall or a theme park.
Perhaps the most strikingly ante- and anti-modern aspect of Upper Canada Village is its layout. As if with an eye on The Rising Village (1825, 1834), buildings that have been restored and furnished in styles of the period from 1820 to 1870, radiate outwards from the oldest structures—notably, the French-Robertson House, Cook’s Tavern, and Willard’s Hotel ("[f]rom at least 1816 a tavern" (The Buildings 2-3)—to include all the amenities that constitute Goldsmith’s "neighbourhood," and in almost exactly the same order: a church (Christ Church), a store (Crysler’s Store), a doctor’s house (Physician’s Home), a schoolhouse (Schoolmaster’s House), and various specialized mills and shops. "The tavern first its useful front displays," runs Goldsmith’s narrative, "The village church in unadorned array, / Now lifts its turret to the opening day… And soon a store [with] spacious shelves…. The half-bred Doctor…then settles down…. The country school-house next erects its head…. The winding stream…turns the busy mill,/ Whose clacking echoes o’er the distant hill" (; 132, 167-68, 206-207, 217, 230, 461-62). Since they take the form of concentric and heterogeneous bands around the central nucleus of a house and tavern,6 the Rising Village and Upper Canada Village lack the vertical hierarchy and differentiated zones of modern Canadian cities: the Physician’s Home is sandwiched between Crysler Hall and the Dressmaker’s House, and it is just around the corner from the School House, the Union Cheese Factory, and the "Gazette" Printing Office. Such heterogeneity is characteristically pre-modern, for, as Graeme Wynne explains in "Forging a Canadian Nation" (1987), "both large and small places" in Canada were impressed with "the specialized, differentiated stamp of the modern urban center" between 1850 and 1930:
Not until the advent of the "new," modern "order of urban society" did such terms as "the other side of the tracks" have "meaningful currency" (Wynne 398). As already observed, the "miniature railroad" is located outside Upper Canada Village, as, in fact, is the inevitable store that "features an extensive selection of Canadian made gifts and reproductions" for purchase by visitors (St. Lawrence Parks Commission, Upper Canada Village…Visitor’s Guide Map).
The exclusion of such manifestations of modernity as
railroads and emporia from the charmed circle of an imagined rural and
semi-rural community is an aspect of Upper Canada Village that links it
with Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, Duncan Campbell Scott’s Viger and other literary
products of the anti-modern strain in Canadian writing around the turn
of the nineteenth into the twentieth century.7
Whether built or literary, the villages of Canadian anti-modernity
display a similar dynamic in their treatment of communication
technology: in Mariposa only dastards like Josh Smith send and receive
telegrams; in Viger, the triumph of modernity will come when the
annexation of the village is "mentioned in the city
papers"(3); and in Upper Canada Village telephones are available
only at the Ticket Office and at the Harvest Barn Restaurant on the
northeastern periphery of the site. Fortunately, these stringent rules
of exclusion do not extend to modern plumbing in Upper Canada Village:
restrooms "equipped with baby change tables" are available
near Ross’s Farm (c.1820) and at Loucks’ Farm (c. 1850), though the
latter is not "wheelchair accessible" (St. Lawrence Parks
Commision, Upper Canada Village…Visitor’s Guide Map).
Consistent with the romance mode in which they are located, none of the
sketches or stories in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912)
or In the Village of Viger (1896) so much as mentions a toilet or
Not just because it is a "real" place that must meet the needs of real people, but also because some of its buildings date from the eighteen-sixties, Upper Canada Village contains evidences of the modern technologies and industries that increasingly threatened and yet sustained the villages and small towns that are frozen in time in the work of Leacock and Scott. D.A. Norris’s map of Mariposa shows a tannery, a planing mill, a carriage works, and a packing company between Dr. Gallagher’s house and the railroad south of Main Street ([i]) and in the concluding story in Scott’s collection Marie St. Denis recalls how her father, an "employ[ee] [in] the great match factory near Viger, …had conceived the idea of making a machine in which a strip of paper would go in at one end, and the completed match-boxes would fall out at the other" (82), but Leacock shields the reader from the industrial side of the small town’s economy and In the Village of Viger concludes by juxtaposing the mechanical ineptitude with the profound spirituality of the inhabitants of Viger. In Upper Canada Village, the manifestations of modern industrial technology are equally apparent and similarly judged in the form of Asselstine’s Woolen Factory, a mill from near Odessa, Ontario that "[b]y the 1860s…[was] using the latest machinery from Massachusetts" to produce "flannels, tweeds, blankets, and carpeting" (Patterson 9). "While some women were still spinning and weaving their own cloth, more and more were using factory cloth," observes Patterson of the period when American machinery was installed in the woolen mill; "[t]he productivity of the 240 spindles on Michael Asselstine’s spinning jack could not be compared to that of the single spindle on the spinning wheel. The Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Upper Canada" (10). It is entirely consistent with the Village’s aim of taking visitors back in time to a pre-modern age that Asselstine’s Woolen Factory is adjacent to the Entrance and Ticket office while Loucks’ Farm, a complex intended "to illustrate the pattern of early settlement and the evolution of [a] farm" from c. 1784 to 1850 (The Buildings 4)8, is located at the distant, northern end of the site. In Upper Canada Village, as in much Canadian writing that couples modernity with Americanism, the north is the locus of a national moral and spiritual ethos that is always being threatened and corrupted by sinister changes and developments emanating from the south.
In the summer of 1996, the tension between modernity and anti-modernity that touches every facet of Upper Canada Village created a controversy similar to ones that have recently swirled around other historic sites such as Louisburg and Old Fort Henry near Kingston. Faced with budget cuts by the Ontario Government and overall declines in site visitations, the St. Lawrence Parks Commission unveiled a business plan that called for the installation at Upper Canada Village and Crysler Farm Battlefield Park of the kinds of revenue-generating facilities associated with "a major U.S.-style theme park"—namely, "batting cages, a video arcade and a mini-golf" course (Val Ross, "Batting Cages" 1). (For Old Fort Henry, the same plan recommended "a condominium development, a Navy Bay resort and a Fort Henry village with shops featuring ‘pre-Confederation design themes’" ). As the battle lines were drawn between fiscal realists and heritage enthusiasts, justifications and condemnations of the proposals came thick and fast. Such things are necessary because "‘[p]eople want more entertainment’" and, as a result of television, want their history "‘served in sound bites’" argued Diane Rennie, the Commission’s marketing manager, and Lee Parsons, a spokesman for one of the Toronto consulting firms that produced the business plan (qtd. in Val Ross, "Batting Cages" 9). On the contrary, inveighed Patterson, the general manager of Upper Canada Village and Old Fort Henry from 1965 to 1987, and Bernice Flett, the president of the United Empire Loyalists: "‘[t]hey’re destroying what they have’" and "‘they have betrayed the trust of the people’" who "‘were promised that Upper Canada Village would be a lasting monument’" (qtd. in Val Ross, "Batting Cages" 1, 9). Is Upper Canada Village to be a historic site or a tourist attraction? Must it be one or the other? Can it be both?
These are not easy questions to answer and, as Val Ross astutely observes in her analysis of the controversy in the August 17, 1996 issue of The Globe and Mail, they are complicated by issues of curatorship and authenticity. Upper Canada Village is home to a major collection of historical artefacts, "including about $500,000 of archival materials," but it is also an artificial construct with a dubious claim to historical significance. As Ross puts it, "Upper Canada Village’s problem is that it is bogus in a sense…. The village has never answered to Ontario’s minister of culture, but has always been considered a tourist attraction. Still, it has strong historical roots. In 1955, when the village was planned as a repository for historical buildings and artifacts from communities affected by the St. Lawrence project, the Seaway administration appealed to the public for donations, promising that the items would be stored in a ‘safe place’ for future generations"("Batting Cages" 9). Neither "sacred ground" nor a neutral space, Upper Canada Village is a condensed version of the history of the St. Lawrence valley and a reverse image of the modernity of the C.D. Howe era. It is in fact, the product of two eras of Canadian history whose value for future generations will lie both in the artefacts that it contains and in the anti-modernity that it embodies. Despite Patterson’s desire to authenticate and naturalize his charge, something of this doubleness is apparent in the sentences with which he concludes his Introduction to Upper Canada Village:
After twenty years the Village has a
settled look; it has put down roots. The scars of relocated buildings
and trees, the signs of new construction, and the changes in the terrain
wrought by great earth-moving machines are no longer visible. Mother
Nature has healed the surgical wounds of creation and Upper Canada
Village exists serenely in its setting, bringing to life a quiet farming
area of a century and a half ago—with only modern ocean-going vessels
sailing by to remind us of the twentieth century.
"[R]elocated" but now settled and "root[ed]," born by Caesarean section and then nurtured by "Mother Nature," the reincarnation of a bygone age that exists side-by-side with the St. Lawrence Seaway, Upper Canada Village is both a predecessor and a product of modernity—a fantasy of return to origins generated by the threatened destruction of the remnants of those origins. Such a hybrid requires a label. Perhaps "(anti-)modern" will serve.
One of the best-known and most accomplished fictional products of anti-modernity in English-Canadian literature is Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley. First published in New York in 1952, Buckler’s novel consists of a "Prologue" and an "Epilogue" that frame an immense flashback that covers the maturation of its central character, David Canaan, on a farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. Not fortuitously, this thirty year "parenthesis in time" (54) covers precisely the period in which, as Ian McKay has demonstrated in The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia (1994), the Province was systematically reinvented as a pre-modern Scottish community characterized by rootedness, tradition, and "natural" (as opposed to modern, urban and artificial) relations among men, women, and the external world. A rural idyll and a Bildungsroman somewhat in the manner of D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, The Mountain and the Valley draws heavily on a Romantic (Wordsworthian) vision of childhood, on Marcel Proust’s belief in the recoverability of past time, and on Henri Bergson’s contrast between linear time and deep time (la durée) to chronicle its hero’s obsessive and ultimately doomed attempt to capture in words all the minute particulars of his place and time. At its conclusion, David Canaan ascends the mountain from the valley of the novel’s title to die beside a "fallen log" that was to have been the keel-piece of a boat, while a partridge, emblematic perhaps of his soul, flies "down over the far side of mountain" (295-96). Moments before, snow had begun to fall "like tiny white feathers from a broken wing"—the broken wing, very likely, of Icarus, that spectacularly unfortunate type of the aspiring artist—and "a train [had] whistled beyond the valley," leaving a residue of smoke that "slowly…disappeared too"—the final reference in the novel to the railroad, that bi-valent symbol since the middle of the nineteenth century of all that modernity’s advocates consider beneficial and all that its detractors consider destructive.
While the final reference to the train in The Mountain and the Valley suggests that, when viewed sub specie aeternitatis, even the effects of modernity are evanescent, earlier descriptions of the physical and psychological changes to the landscape and inhabitants of the Annapolis valley between 1920 and 1950 are less philosophical. In the section of the novel entitled "The Train," the narrator summarizes the developments of several decades:
[David‘s] neighbours had changed,
and the village had changed. The road was paved now. There were cars and
radios. A bus line passed the door. There was a railway line along the
river. With this grafting from the outside world, the place itself
seemed older; as the old who are not remembered are old.
In David’s eyes, as in those of the narrator, the townspeople of the valley are especially inauthentic because, by striving to be what they are not, they have lost their rural ethos without finding an urban one: "[t]hey d[o]n’t seem like people it would be possible to know. They lack…the rich soil of his neighbours’ original simplicity. They lack…too the rich soil of those people in the city who ha[ve] gone beyond this artificial complexity of theirs to simplicity again" (194). A large part of David’s tragedy is that, like the townspeople, "he [is] neither one thing nor the other" (165). Unable by dint of his artistic sensibility to feel entirely at one with his neighbours or at home on the farm, he is equally unable to share the urban attitude to the natural and agricultural realms that is represented by his sister’s fiancé Toby, a sailor from Halifax who also serves as his double: to David, farming is a way of life that prevents him from achieving the "automatic ease" and "immunity from surprise" that he admires in "city people" (161), but to Toby a farm is merely a source of "fun…things for a leave only" (270)—or, possibly, a site for a weekend retreat or a vacation home. In David’s dilemma and Toby’s doubleness are incarnated the antithesis and the interdependence of modernity and anti-modernity.
One of several stages in David’s painful maturation and in modernity’s parallel impingement on his life is the migration of the Canaan family from his childhood home to a "new house" (114). Symptomatically "nearer the road" (which will soon be paved), endowed with "banisters in the shape of hourglasses" (which indicate the passage of time), and boasting "square walls" in every room except the attic (which David, the would-be Romantic artist, chooses as his own), the new house holds "the excitement of novelty" to everyone in the family except the grandmother Ellen who finds magic, not in newness, but in continuity—"in the unalterables that she had brought with her from the old house" such as a "tintype of her husband, her pictures of the Virgin…[and] remnants of cloth each still permeated with the wearer’s presence" that she makes into various rugs (114-15). A figure reminiscent of Mnemosyne and of the three Fates of ancient Greek religion, Ellen both remembers and re-members the family’s past as she carefully selects and stitches her rags into narratives of birth, growth, and death that clearly reflect the metonymic realism and temporal movement of the novel as a whole. When the "Prologue" begins, she is already nearing the centre of a circular rug whose "wide dark border" consists of pieces of her dead husband’s coat and, as the "Epilogue" concludes, she completes it with a "scrap of fine white lace" whose colour and baptismal associations echo the snow and the suggestions of rebirth that accompany David’s simultaneous death on the mountain (9, 295). Marked out by David and hooked from the border towards the centre (rather than the reverse, as would be correct), Ellen’s circular rug combines the traditional and the contemporary in a way that intriguingly reflects the thoroughly modern anti-modernity that swept Nova Scotia between 1920 and 1950. Indeed, there is an eerie similarity between the rug "marked" by David and stitched by Ellen and the policy of "co-ordinating design and production so as to improve the quality and increase the quantity of craft commodities" that was successfully pursued by Mary Black, the Supervisor of Handcrafts in the Nova Scotia Department of Industry and Publicity, after her appointment in 1943 (qtd. in Ian McKay Quest of the Folk 166). The Mountain and the Valley is silent about the fate of the circular rug that Ellen crafts in the kitchen of the Canaans’ "new house." Perhaps it stayed in the family and became a valued heirloom, or perhaps it was bought by someone in the city as a colourful and folksy complement to the white walls and angular furniture of their modern apartment. Either way, its full mnemonic value as an aid to family memory was lost with the woman who knew the personal associations of all its concentric circles, from its "wide dark border" to the "fine white lace" at its centre: without the folk who created it, folk art is as void of specific memories as any work of modernist abstraction.
On the various occasions in which Canada’s postmodern writers and critics have attempted to establish a lineage for their work in earlier Canadian writing, they have usually turned to a clutch of High Modern novels, particularly Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (1959). The selection of Watson as a precursor is not at all difficult to understand, for, as Donna Palmateer Pennee points out in "Canadian Letters, Dead Referents: Reconsidering the Critical Construction of The Double Hook" (1993-1994), her novel is a Canadian enactment of the High Modern rejection of Romantic-Victorian realism and, as such, an apparent anticipant of postmodern attempts to effect a decisive break with "the dominant literary and sociocultural directions of the last two centuries" (Graff 31). In Stephen Scobie’s view, The Double Hook ‘"placed the Canadian novel firmly within the modernist tradition"’ and, for Michael Ondaatje, it is pre-eminent among a handful of modern novels that mark ‘"the beginnings of the contemporary novel in Canada…. [With The Double Hook and other works] we are no longer part of the European tradition"’ (qtd in Pennee 234, 236). As George Bowering observed in 1985 in regard to the "Sheila Watson canon" (Craft Slices 55) that he himself played no small part in creating through his essays and in his anthology of critical views of the novel from the Golden Dog Press (1985), "The Double Hook…[was] the first and last modernist novel in English-speaking Canada, and the text that would be honoured as a holy book by the few postmodernists of the following period" (Imaginary Hand 4).
Given the refulgent High Modernism of The Double Hook—its Eliotic "impersonality" and its Joycean "mythic method" as well as its rejection of the Romantic-Victorian tradition (see Pennee)—its treatment of houses is as revealing as it is predictable. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, James Potter, and his sister, Greta, live with their mother in a two storey house whose contents ("cups," a "teapot," and "lamps" with "globe[s]" [36, 37, 31]) bespeak their English and Victorian roots,9 but by the end James is contemplating the construction of a "new house…[a]ll on one floor"—perhaps a ranch-style bungalow more suited, at least in modern eyes, to the North American terrain. What makes these plans possible and necessary is Greta’s destruction of the old house in a fiery act of suicide that Bowering follows Margaret Atwood in describing as "redemptive" because it releases James from the past that "his heart had wished destroyed" and allows him to conceive of himself as a new Adam in "the first pasture of things" (Imaginary Hand 33; Atwood Survival 202-03; The Double Hook 131; and see Bentley The Gay] Grey Moose 251-72 for the Adamic fantasies of other Canadian Modernists and their characters). And, of course, the event that sets this process in motion is James’s murder of his mother in the old house, an act that recalls two murders of ancient myth and legend: the slaying of the priest of the cult of Diana at Nemi by his successor which gave Sir James Frazer the title of The Golden Bough (1890-1915) and the slaying of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes which Luce Irigeray sees as the necessary prerequisite for "the establishment of patriarchal order" (35). Despite being written by a woman, The Double Hook clearly participates in the misogynous masculinism that, as Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and others have amply demonstrated, characterized High Modernism and its Canadian offshoots in the years between and around the two world wars.10
To argue that The Double Hook is a femicidal text, however, would be both to exaggerate and to underestimate the implications of the novel’s mythic Modernism. Certainly, Greta and "the old lady" or "Ma" (19, 31) are female in gender, but they are not rounded characters who come to life in the reader’s imagination and whose deaths, in consequence, generate sympathy and distress. On the contrary, and as Watson herself acknowledged during a reading from the novel in 1973, they are cartoon-like "figures in a ground," types in a space which itself never becomes a distinctive locale ("What I’m Going to Do" 15), female entities in the sort of mythological pattern that Frazer and his literary heirs believed to be as universal as it is ancient.11 "[T]here was something I wanted to say: about how people are driven…either towards violence or towards insensibility…if they have no mediating rituals which manifest themselves in what…we call art forms," explained Watson at the same reading; "I didn’t think of them as people in a place…which had to be described for itself" (15). In The Double Hook, people and places are simultaneously essentialized and abstracted to serve the needs of universal myth: as surely as the waters of the St. Lawrence during the period in which the novel was written and published, its "figures" and "ground" are reduced and elevated to "force[s]" in a "structure" (Margaret Morris 89, 86) that rises above personality and locality in order to serve the needs of a community that was already long in acquiescence to the levelling tendencies of modernity and internationalism.
Much has been made by writers and critics in the "Sheila Watson canon" of the regional nature of the Coyote figure whose utterances punctuate and conclude The Double Hook, and Bowering has meditated with his usual acuity on what might have prompted Watson to remark towards the end of her 1973 reading that if she were to rewrite the novel she might not "use the Coyote figure" ("What I’m Going to Do" 15). The answer that Bowering favours is that by 1973 "our literature had evolved to such a condition that one could simply write a fiction that was not naturalistic, not regional, not ‘about’ the West or Indians, not thematic; and that one did not any longer have to prepare the audience by suggesting a structure based on indigenous myth instead of sociology" ("Sheila Watson, Trickster" 199). Both Watson’s reservations and Bowering’s explanation reflect the privileging of the cosmopolitan (universal, international) over the native (national, regional) that flows like an electric current through High Modernism into several postmodern circuits. Moreover, in doing so they recall A.J.M. Smith’s dislike of his treatment of the Canadian North in "The Lonely Land" (1943) as "too romantic, too theatrical," "too much in the patriotic-nature-Canadian poetry style" ("The Voice" n.p.; "An Interview" 59). Is it too much to hope that as the century draws to a close, works that are "naturalistic," "regional," and "patriotic" have ceased to be cause for embarrassment on the part of their creators and critics?