Sunday, April 04, 2010

National Divisions Hide More than They Reveal

Another passage from Nick Mount's When Canadian Literature Moved to New York that I can't resist sharing:

But however legitimate a concern for cultural nationalists, for the literary historian, national divisions hide more than they reveal. A national focus was essential for recognizing Canadian literature's arrival, and it remains essential for periodically reaffirming its health, but it cannot explain the actual circumstances of much of that literature's production. No national model can account for [Bliss] Carman writing the first of his Vagabondia poems after reading an English law book in a New York library, or for Palmer Cox creating his Brownies by combining the Scottish legends he heard as a child in Quebec with the skills he acquired as a cartoonist in California, or for Ernest Thompson Seton submitting his career-launching story about a New Mexico wolf to a New York magazine because he was urged to do so by a Toronto economist⎯or indeed for the circumstances that produced any literary work, in any literature.

Late 19th century focus notwithstanding, this still resonates today. For a bit more on Mount's book, see my post below.

A Continental Literary Culture

An interesting snippet from one of my current reads, Nick Mount's When Canadian Literature Moved to New York, a book that traces the roots of what ultimately became a canonical Canadian literature to "the cafés, publishing offices, and boarding houses of late-nineteenth-century New York":

The problems confronting domestic literary production were real, but the domestic market was not the only option for Canadian writers of this generation: they also had access by mail or in person to the much larger American market, a market that by this time included Canada. Canadians had few home-grown literary models, but the flood of American magazines and American books into Canada provided models for them, models that had become features of a North American literary landscape. At a professional level, the decision by so many Canadian writers of these years to move to American cities wasn't about giving up one national literary culture for another; it was about moving from the margins to the centres of a continental literary culture.

My primary interest in this literary period is in L.M. Montgomery, one of the few Canadian writers who stayed at home. But the expatriates whose late 19th century exodus to the United States preoccupies Mount were Montgomery's precursors and contemporaries, her role models and her colleagues. Their markets were her markets. She may have stayed home physically, resisting the lure of New York as did her writer-character Emily Byrd Starr, but she built her career on the publication of stories in U.S. magazines and of novels by U.S. publishing houses. So Mount's book provides a context that I think will prove very helpful in developing a fuller understanding of Montgomery's career, even though she herself receives only a few passing mentions in it. As you can imagine from the passage quoted above though, the book also offers much food for thought in considering Canadian literature more broadly, now as then evolving in a global context. So far, a most intriguing read.