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Wilson in Canada

Two years from now (LBJ willing, French Canada permitting), Canada will be a hundred years old and this, The Unknown Country, The Golden Hinge, The Uneasy Neighbor, The Giant of the North, will be transmogrified, albeit along decent Presbyterian lines, into a Disneyland that will rock ‘n’ roll from coast to coast. Put plainly, there is not a township so small or a city so cynical that it can risk being caught without a centennial project. Some of the schemes, like Montreal’s Expo 67, are very grand, indeed, even if the freshness of conception (“The theme of Expo 67 will be: ‘MAN AND HIS WORLD’ “) doesn’t exactly hit you bang in the eye. Other municipal projects, among the 2000 expected to be approved, incude a centennial salmon-spawning channel. And just in case the sapients on your town council fail to come up with something sufficiently fetching then, waiting to guide you in Toronto, rather like glorified bar-mitzvah caterers, is a centennial advisory company. In a recent issue of Saturday Night. Hugh Alexander listed, among hotsy projects already undertaken, one, by the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, sponsoring a competition for a centennial poem and another, this from our very own Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.), announcing a contest for the best novel or play “set in one of Canada’s provinces as it is today or was in the past.” Canadian Municipal Utilities, a trade journal, suggests “it would be a very fitting Birthday Present for a municipality to have a water system or sewage treatment plant in 1967…Canada’s people in 1967 may not think of the Fathers of Confederation each time they wash their hands or flush a toilet, but…”

Meanwhile Canada, already ninety-eight years old, remains a loosely-knit, all but unmanageable confederation. There is trouble, trouble everywhere. “There is no Canadian nation,” Marcel Chaput, a French Canadian separatist leader, has written, “There is a Canadian state [which is] a purely political and artificial entity…” French Canada, quiescent for years, is in a turmoil. John Diefenbaker’s inept, but comic, federal government has been displaced by an equally inept and scandal-ridden government, this one led by Lester Pearson, of whom so much was hoped. Industry and natural resources everywhere are too often American-owned. And sadly it is not only our iron and copper ore that are going down to the States, but also, at the alarming rate of 50,000 a year, some of the people most crucial to Canada’s development. Scientists, engineers, doctors, and businessmen, too many of whom are understandably drawn to what Morley Callaghan has called “the sources of light.”

This is the climate then in which Canadians have become increasingly anxious to discover within themselves a culture-cum-national identity that amounts to something less nebulous than being nicer than Americans and not as snobby as the British; and the protracted search has made for many changes since I first left Canada in 1954.

At the time it seemed to many observers, myself included, that the country was starved for culture and nothing could be worse. How foolish we were. For now that the country is culture-crazed and more preoccupied than ever before with its own absence of a navel, how one years for Canada’s engaging buckeye suspicion of art and artists of not so long ago. I was brought up in a folksy Canada. I remember the bad old days when it was necessary to come to the defense of artistic youngsters, and we suffered a wave of enlightened CBC radio and TV plays which educated the public to the fact that we were not all notoriously heavy drinkers like William Faulkner, or queers like Jean Genet. We strung words together sort of, but we were regular fellers: Canadians. In a typical play a sensitive little twerp named David or Christopher, usually son of a boorish insurance agent, roused his dad’s ire because he wouldn’t play hockey or hit back. Instead he was studying piano with an effeminate Frenchman or painting with a tricksy Hungarian Jew (“A piece of blank paper! Mit a brush und paints, vot an opportunity for beauty!”) and in the end made dad eat his words by winning the piano competition in Toronto or, if the writer was inclined to irony, by being commissioned to paint a mural for the new skyscraper being built by the insurance company dad worked for.

That’s some kid you’ve got there, Henry. When it comes to splashing paint on walls he’s a real home-run hitter.”

Gosh.”

When I was a student there was actually a course on Can. lit. at Sir George Williams U., but the text was mimeographed and a typical assignment was for a student to list all the books ever written about the Hudson’s Bay Co., noting the dimensions, number of pages, and photographs. Now there are a number of books, most of them embarrassingly boosterish, about Canadian writing, and there is at least one serious quarterly, the bi-lingual Canadian Literature, edited by George Woodcock, that is exclusively—no, quixotically—devoted to the study of Canadian writing past and present. In the very first issue Dwight Macdonald, asked to appraise a number of Canadian little magazines, was left with the impression of “a starved, pinched version of our own culture.” Canada, he felt, was “a mingy version of the United States.” That was 1959. Since then a real Canadian book club has been formed, with monthly selections that run from Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine to Love and Peanut Butter (“Lesley Conger’s warm and lively account of the trials of being a wife, mother and writer in a wild Vancouver household”); and there is a worthy and useful paperback library of Canadian, um, classics. Blue chip Leacocks, some good Callaghans, and rather too many of our frontier day unreadables indecently exhumed. In fact today the cultural heat is such that the shrewd downtown grocer who has survived supermarket competition must now live through another crisis: the spadebearded entrepreneur who wants to buy out the lease and convert the premises into an art gallery. Instead of Libby’s soup and Kellogg’s Super “K”, pictures of Libby’s soup and Kellogg’s Super “K”. If when I was a student there was something shamefully un-Presbyterian in admitting you were a writer, today to merely let on that you’re “creative” is to stand back and duck a shower of prizes and offers, and to enjoy a nice little side income in supplying radio and TV stations with your outspoken opinions on divorce, household pets, masturbation, and the Bomb (a shadow we live under).

There are rather more art than harvest festivals in Canada these days and variations on a seminar I attended in Toronto in 1961 (“to measure Canada’s national cultural development in relation to other nations”) are plentiful. A recent edition of the Entertainments supplement to the Saturday edition of the Montreal Star lists no fewer than fifty art galleries in its calendar of events. The calendar also informs readers that this is “Liberal Judaism Week” and aficionados can hear Rabbi H. Leonard Poller discuss “Count Up, Count Down, What Does the Liberal Jew Count?” An ad in the same edition runs,

SOMETHING MISSING?

What do Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa (soon) and Halifax have that Montreal hasn’t? A professional English language theatre that’s what! Want to do something to help change this terrible situation? Send your name to…

All of which goes to prove that Canadian culture, and criticism thereof, is clearly a growth industry, though it always seemed to me to be one of the few that was proof against an American takeover bid. Then, in 1960, Edmund Wilson wrote in The New Yorker that Morley Callaghan “is today perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world” and that here was a writer “whose work may be mentioned without absurdity in association with Chekhov’s and Turgenev’s.” A shot that ricocheted through all the universities on the northerly side of the world’s largest unarmed frontier and sent critics scrambling after the Callaghan novels…only to report back that they still found them wanting.

Then it was rumored that Mr. Wilson was in Montreal, he had actually been seen in Toronto, and was working on a book about Canadian writing. (Canadian writing, for Christ’s sake! Edmund Wilson!) Now O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture has at last been published. O CANADA, O EDMUND WILSON, O NUTS, ran a review headline in the Toronto Telegram, which now reports on books as well as axe-murders, and underneath somebody called Michael Bawtree wrote, “not quite my idea of criticism.” H. L. M. of the Windsor Star agreed. Taking issue with Mr. Wilson’s evaluation of Callaghan, he wrote, “Much more can be learned about Canada from the writings of Thomas Costain, who isn’t mentioned.” H. L. M. also did not concur with Mr. Wilson’s opinion that Canadian criticism tended to be provincial. “In the main it probably doesn’t go along with the presumption that if a book is dirty enough, it’s good enough, in fact superior.”

Well, well. But this is really no more bumpkinish than reviews in too many American newspapers and the truth is not all Canadian criticism comes off the cob. Some of our most discerning critics (George Woodcock, Robert Fulford) found much to admire in Mr. Wilson’s book, but they were also troubled by other aspects of it. Speaking for myself, I’m more than an admirer of Mr. Wilson, I’ve been a grateful addict for years, but I felt let down by O Canada. Maybe the trouble was I approached the book too much in the spirit of the hero of Walker Percy’s The Movie-Goer, who could not feel his district was real until it was put on the silver screen. Unfortunately, not even Mr. Wilson could make Can. lit, real for me. O Canada, especially in its discussion of the French, is acute, even illuminating at times, but elsewhere it is too often cursory, and Edmund Wilson’s approach to Canadian culture suffers from being filtered through a romantic American lens, a nostaigia for things past. I will return to this point later. Meanwhile, some notes on Mr. Wilson’s notes.

Morley Callaghan. It is Mr. Wilson’s opinion that Callaghan has been unjustly neglected by his compatriots, possibly because it is difficult for them to imagine a writer of such stature living amongst them, and also because “literary mediocrity is predisposed to be spiteful to talent.” Yes, yes, but it is not Canadians who have for so long neglected Callaghan, surely out most talented writer, but rather the Americans and the British. Years ago Malcolm Cowley wondered (in Exile’s Return, I think) whatever became of Morley Callaghan, and Mr. Wilson himself observes that after Callaghan returned to Canada in the late Thirties he was “quickly forgotten in the United States…and almost unknown in England.” In all that time, Canadian publishers continued to keep Callaghan’s novels and collected stories in print and serious Canadian critics continued to regard him very highly indeed. During Mr. Callaghan’s lean period the C.B.C. helped to sustain him with non-literary work (panel shows, interview programs) and Maclean’s awarded him a $5,000 prize for an early version of The Many-Coloured Coat. This is not neglect. “The fact is,” George Woodcock recently wrote in the New Leader, “that Callaghan has, if anything, been overpraised in Canada, and that, if critics there were mildly annoyed at Wilson’s somewhat inapt comparisons, it was not because, as he suggests, mean spirits were trying to martyr an artist, but because the time has come to look honestly at the very uneven work of a novelist who has produced some of the best Canadian writing—and also some of the worst.”

I tend to agree. I have found many of Callaghan’s novels heavy going, but I think his short stories are superb and add up to the best work ever to have come out of Canada.

Hugh MacLennan. Canadian intellectuals are inclined to be patronizing about MacLennan because he is a culture-hero to the Canadian middle class. That is to say, those Canadians who find Yousuf Karsh artistic, CBC-TV documentaries about homosexuals thought-provoking, and the need for a Canadian theater urgent, tend to be among MacLennan’s most ardent readers. Mr. Wilson writes that MacLennan is a “writer strongly to be recommended to anyone who wanted to understand Canada.” and I would emphatically agree with this as well as the implied criticism that he can’t be recommended on purely literary grounds. He can be read with enjoyment by those who look forward to the next Morris West novel or find Stanley Kramer’s movies stimulating. But there is something else. MacLennan genuinely loves Canada, he worries over it, and writes about the country with intelligence and sympathy. “He has set out,” as Mr. Wilson observes, “to render in his fiction some systematic dramatization of the life of eastern Canada. Unfortunately, the upshot is often mechanical. MacLennan’s characters seem to be fabricated of points-of-view rather than flesh and blood.

Mr. Wilson has not tried to be comprehensive, and so there is no consideration of the novels of Ethel Wilson or Robertson Davies, but what a pleasure it was to find Mavis Gallant’s fiction deservedly praised for once. Mrs. Gallant, possibly because she has never run with the Can. lit. hounds, is generally overlooked in such studies. However, it is a pity that Mr. Wilson has not gone into the special relationship of the C.B.C. to Canadian writing. For years, in the absence of literary magazines of quality, C.B.C. radio (as distinct from CBC-TV, which is largely imitative of and inferior to American TV) has run a little magazine of the air, Authology, and has broadcast, on one program or another, the first stories, poems, plays, and criticism of our liveliest young writers. On the other hand, it was not surprising that on the first page of O Canada Mr. Wilson does acknowledge a debt to Robert Weaver, who was the originator of Anthology and is the editor of our most reputable literary magazine, The Tamarack Review.

Mr. Wilson notes the hostility among Canadians “of taste [to] the ever-increasing addiction of the popular audience to [American] popular entertainment: magazines, movies and jazz. In the case of [American] magazines, the Canadian publishers have a serious grievance that, by bringing out special Canadian editions, such periodicals as Time and Reader’s Digest divert from the Canadian magazines a good part of the national advertising…” All of which, I’m afraid, only adds up to a partial truth. For, as Mr. Wilson notes elsewhere, Maclean’s, Canada’s national magazine, which flourished all too briefly under Ken Lefolii’s editorship, has reverted to fight its circulation battle in a sentimental quagmire abandoned by the Sat Eve Post long ago. Other Canadian magazines are either well-intentioned but boring, like the pathetic Canadian Forum, or second-rate versions of American magazines, and most Canadians of taste would rather do without all Canadian magazines, than their New Statesman, Esquire, Time, New Yorker, Spectator, or what have you. And if Canadians were shut off from American mass culture—if, as Richard Rovere once wrote, the border was sealed tight against American junk—then the country would happily set to producing inferior junk of its own. It must also be clearly stated that the best, as well as the worst, cultural influences on Canada, are American. We are Americans, for God’s sake! We have always looked to New York, not Toronto, for our standards of excellence. New York is our cultural capital.

Finally, my fundamental quarrel with Mr. Wilson is he does not seem to have journeyed north so much to discover a country as to rediscover a vanished America. We Canadians, as I wrote in the Spectator years ago, are the English-speaking world’s elected squares. To the British, we are the nicest, whitest Americans. To Americans we represent a nostalgia for the unhurried horse and buggy age. In his youth, Mr. Wilson writes, he tended to imagine Canada as a vast hunting preserve, and even now he gets the impression in Canada of less worry and more leisure. Canadians, he feels, listen to one another, instead of “shooting off their faces.” So it is not surprising, in this context, that Mr. Wilson found in Hugh MacLennan’s book of essays, Scotsman’s Return, “a point of view surprisingly and agreeably different from anything else” he knew in English. Let’s look at just one of the essays, “Portrait of a Year.” It begins,

The year 1965 was surely one of the loveliest years any living person can remember. Like a woman of perfect tact, she let her moods follow her natural growth in harmonious sequence…Through January and February she was bright, flashing and thoughtless. In March she turned teen-ager and dumped four feet of snow on our sidewalks…In June she married the countryside and at once began to produce a family.

Is this so different, I wonder, from what Mr. Wilson surely would have mocked had it appeared in the Reader’s Digest?

In O Canada, Mr. Wilson has justifiably accused Canadian critics of sometimes overpraising their own writers, but hasn’t he, possibly in a generous mood, applied rather less severe standards to Canadian writing than he once memorably put to Somerset Maugham’s work? But having said this much, let me add that I agree with Professor Neil Compton who wrote in Commentary that Edmund Wilson “wrong” still makes better reading than most critics right. And in setting out the grievances and reviewing the literature of French Canada, Mr. Wilson has written the most lucid account of a sad history for the non-specialist that I have read anywhere.

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