Non-Fictional Prose

by Joseph Edmund Collins

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley




A NUMBER of writers in our newspapers and periodicals glibly speak of "Canadian Literature" as if we really did have a literature that might be said to be Canadian.  There is no Australian Literature, no Heligoland Literature, no Rock-of-Gibraltar Literature: neither is there a Canadian Literature.  A number of books have been written by English-speaking colonists here, but the majority of them have the tone of the kitchen of the empire: the histories are the record of happenings which are regarded only with respect to their relation to the Motherland; the fiction and belles-lettres, generally, have the limits of the municipality and the flavour of the log-hut.  I suppose some will call this "an attack on Canadian Literature," but it is really nothing of the kind: to say anything else would be inaccurate, to expect anything better, absurd.  We are yet only the pioneers of the future Canada; our wealthy classes are not yet born; and a people who have their sleeves rolled up could be no more expected to read than to produce polite literature.  I suppose that, in a sort of way, with respect to flavour and local colour, we would soon have a Canadian Literature if Canada were a nation in the harmony of her provinces as well as in name.  We are not now united, except by legislative cords that cut into the flesh of one another, for we are all pulling in different ways: so that if we did speak of a literature we would be obliged to subdivide the term and say, "a New Brunswick Literature," "a Nova Scotia Literature," "a British Columbia Literature."

But a good many important works have been written in Canada, several of which will go to swell  the stock of English Literature; the term "English Literature" meaning that wealth of letters contributed by literary workmen in every part of the globe where the English language is spoken.  In presenting the list of our writers, I shall confine myself to those who have written books; though many of such writers, in my judgment, are far inferior to several who have never permitted themselves to indulge in anything beyond an unbound essay, a short story, or a fugitive poem.

In historic literature we have a number of books, most of them very poor, the balance of them not very good.  On the whole, Mr. McMullen's "History of Canada" is the best.  The author had no other historian to steal wholesale from, but was obliged to resort to the original documents.  Many of his facts, however, he got out of the air, where there is always plenty of information.  It was through such means that came about all the carnage at Montgomery's tavern.  The book has little style or literary merit, though here and there it is vigorous; sometimes it is picturesque, while it is, on the whole, fairly comprehensive and lucid.  A number of other writers conceived the idea of outrivalling Mr. McMullen, but none of them has succeeded.  Mr. Withrow recast the McMullen volume, and scrupulously reproduced all the inaccuracies, giving special prominence to the slaughter at Montgomery's tavern.  The book is written in an easy, semi-slovenly style, exhibiting no superior quality, and flowing over with a sentiment of abasement before the British Crown.  Mr. Tuttle wrote two tremendous volumes on the history of the country, but the work is slatternly, uneven, and inaccurate.  The latter portion of it, dealing with recent events, is not to be trusted at all, for each of the public actors treated of seems to have written the part relating to himself.  Hence, as I have elsewhere stated, the effect is to remind one of "a large crowd of persons tied together somehow by a rope, each one pulling in a direction contrary to his neighbour."  Dr. Henry H. Miles wrote a conscientious book, entitled, "Canada Under the French Regime."  The book has no more movement or enthusiasm than a block of wood, but it is exceedingly valuable as a painfully accurate and cold-blooded record of events.  Mr. Robert Christie wrote a work in five volumes, known as the "History of the late Province of Old Canada."  There is a vast but exceedingly ill-ordered and undigested array of facts in this volume.  There is no index or device of any sort to point the searcher to the fact that he may desire; and there is no style or literary merit in the work.  Of much the same class is Dr. Caniff's "Bay of Quinte," though the author loves nature, and here and there gives a bit of description poetical and picturesque in treatment.  Mr. Archer's "History of Canada," though a jumble, is on the whole well written; and Mr. Hannay's "History of Acadia," though only a fragment, is of some historic value, and displays a moderate share of literary skill.  Mr. John Charles Dent's "Last Forty Years" is also a fragment; it is accurate and fairly conscientious, but it is on too dead a level, exhibiting none of the qualities that make the histories of Carlyle, of Froude, of McCarthy, full of interest as well as moving pictures.  Mr. Nicholas Flood Davin's name is also in the list of historians, his work being "The Irishman in Canada."  This book is biographical, rather than historical, and is written with a lightness of touch and much vivacity.  More sober and solid is a sister book by the late Mr. Rattray, "The Scot in British North America."  The early portion of this book showed vigour, and much research and painstaking, but the latter part was flabby, inane, and careless.  Mr. Charles Lindsey wrote a vigorous book, "The Life and Times of William Lyon Mackenzie."  Bearing in mind that the subject of the history was the father-in-law of the author, impartiality could not be expected.  Accuracy however might have been, but expectation is solaced with wood cuts representing a slaughter at Gallow's Hill.  Yet, for all its bias, slovenliness and inaccuracy, the work is valuable.  Thomas D'Arcy McGee was better as an orator than as an historian.  The swinging of arms and the pounding of a desk may be effective on the sump, but it is not in place when writing history.  In the "Popular History of Ireland," Mr. McGee is for the most part vigorous, is often brilliant, but he frequently boils over like a pot.  if we could count Mr. Goldwin Smith upon our list, then might there be some excuse for us obtruding our colonial output upon the world's notice.  But his pen is seen in England and the United States, as well as in Canada; so that we can set no claims above the other countries save such as we get from his domiciliation.  Prof. B.J. Harrington's book, "The Life of Sir William Logan," will prove of interest and value in all quarters.  Mr. George Stewart, jun., has laid Canadian Literature under very much obligation.  He is probably the most industrious writer in the country, and he is always readable.  His "Canada under Lord Dufferin" is his chief work, though he has accomplished lesser literary projects innumerable.  Mr. R.W. Phipps, our well-known pamphleteer, has given the country some valuable and very readable literature on forestry; Mr. G. Mercer Adam has always been identified with our literature, saying good words for it when it hardly deserved good words, and blowing breath into its nostrils when it looked so like a corpse.  Dr. Scadding's book, "Toronto of Old," is a readable, polished, and valuable addition to the historic literature of the country.  The writer of this paper has contributed two books, the "Life and Times of Sir John Macdonald" and "Canada under the Administration of Lord Lorne."

In fiction we can make only a wretched exhibit.  Mr. Kirby's "Le Chien D'Or," although crude, and full of jarring colour, is the best novel published in this country.  The works of Prof. De Mille, our best novelist, can hardly be called Canadian, for the author took his manuscripts, and very properly, to another country, where their merit was seen and appreciated.  Mrs. Moodie and her sister, Mrs. Traill, wrote some pleasing and meritorious fiction which was, after a long time, fairly received.  Mr. Huntington produced a political novel the other day—a work that I regard as the poorest of the kind ever published, at least by a man of Mr. Huntington's ability.  In taking stock of fiction and essay work I must not make an omission, which I regret I inadvertently made elsewhere, and that is the name of one of our most able lady writers, Miss Louisa Murray.

The late Dr. Alpheus Todd spent much of his life and energies in collecting and tabulating material on the British Constitution, and the result of his researches and study is "Parliamentary Government in England," and "Parliamentary Government in the Colonies."  From their author's stand-point, these books are valuable, but I am not able to find much regard for them.  Lieutenant-Colonel George T. Denison wrote a very clever work, "The History of Cavalry," etc., for which he obtained the Czar's prize of a purse of roubles.  The book is reprinted in nearly every civilized language, and is a standard in the Military Service of many European countries.  The author is always cool and self-possessed, but a red flag has the same effect upon him as a member of another order of creation; and it seems to me, that our friend, when he sees the Royal arms, and hears the clink of swords and the blare of bugles, imagines himself to be a relation of the Queen.  Dr. G.M. Grant has a place too in our letters.  His chief work is "From Ocean to Ocean."  Mr. J.G. Bourinot is enthusiastic, but it would seem as if at his nativity the physician inserted a "fourteen puzzle" into his head.  His writings on the "Intellectual Development of Canada" are of some merit, however.

In poetry we have some that is very good, and some that is exceeding bad.  In these days nearly every sentimentalist writes verse; and he not alone writes poor verse, but he gives himself airs, adopting the affectations and the attitudes of some gymnast writers of the modern school.  About a thousand silly young men in this country repeat the following line till they grow drunken and inspired:

"And his heart grew sad, that was glad, for his sweet song's sake,"

and, inspired, they go away and endeavour to write in the same strain.  Not in this category is Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts.  His note is original, virile, and manly.  His range is wide, and his work full of sensuousness and colour, and the music of happy as well as skilful word arrangement.  Dr. Mulvany is master of a rapid, nervous, passionate note.  Charles Heavysedge was a true, and, in some senses, a great poet.  His "Saul" will always hold a place in English song.  John Hunter-Duvar sings upon a sweet, antique instrument, and gives us much delicious verse, quaint and full of the flavour of the olden time.  Miss Kate Seymour Maclean sings a note with the true ring and feeling, and since the publication of "The Coming of the Princess" shows distinct evidence of advance.  Mr. John Reade has done some highly cultured work, through which we often hear the voice of a very sweet singer.  The list might be enlarged by the names of Mr. Evan McColl, Miss Mountcastle, Mr. Barry Stratton, Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. H.K. Cockin, and several others, in all of which one will find some verse that is good, and in some, work that is frequently excellent.  Mr. S. Dawson's "Study of the Princess," in literary criticism, stands foremost for its discrimination, insight and finish.

In science we have very prominent names and conspicuous work.  The names of Sir William Logan and Prof. Wilson are known far and near, and Dr. Dawson has much more than a Canadian reputation.  Then we have such names as Prof. Bailey, Prof. Hind, and Prof. Macoun, all industriously and skilfully garnering and putting to the general stock of English literature.


"English-Canadian Literature," The Week 1.39 (Toronto, ON), 28 August 1884: 614-15. [back]