In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s protagonist, Queen Elizabeth II, pays an official visit to Canada. Unfortunately for the royal born-again reader, the supply of books that she takes with her — her equerry advises that Canadians are not “a bookish people” — goes astray.
Now the case can be made that we in the New World came late to the business of developing our separate national literary canons — the rigours of frontier life leave little time for such refinements — but nonetheless we did manage to become lettered albeit belatedly. But when we did, Canadians and Americans achieved it in rather different ways
Our stories are similar, but I assure you they are not the same; and they entered our national consciousnesses along different timelines. Being of good British heritage, Canadians stayed loyal not only to the Crown but to what for a long time was considered the only real literature. It took us about 100 years to get our own indigenous literary act together. Americans on the other hand, started telling their stories far and wide in the most revolutionary style before the tea had even settled on the bottom of Boston Harbour. (They of course would spell it Harbor.)
We do have some literary commonalities. Thematically, just below our bookish surfaces you will find frontier life, nature and wilderness, and a search for our status in the world community. The first theme often presents itself in a culturally mythical form; the second is linked to the “Westward Ho” experience of both nations (although it happened quite differently in each); and the third “issue” is of course ongoing and one in which our literatures strike a universal chord.
Canada is very much an east-west experience because of the transcontinental railway (the natural extension of the Great Lakes), which opened up our West and in the process led to our “negotiating” less-than-fair land treaties with our First Nations people; whereas in the States, they tended to have Indian Wars. The latter used to make for better stories — the Hollywood “Cowboys and Indians” genre.
It has often been said that Canadian literature is remarkable for its sense of place: Maritime provinces; the largest fresh water inland waterway in the world; the rugged and blackfly-infested Canadian Shield; immense prairies; stupendous Rocky Mountains; a lush and laid-back Pacific West Coast (and culture), and I musn’t forget (as for some time we did) our vast Arctic storyboard. The Americans have similar geographical and topographical story starters and more; such as the languid regions of the Deep South. But in their rush for nationhood, they kind of went every which way, which had a direct impact on the themes and variations that emerged in their stories.
But the prime literary theme in both our storybooks is probably the question of identity. Will that be the parliamentary plate or the republican hot dog? And Canadians, who have struggled to get a good night’s sleep in bed with the elephant to the south, have always had an inferiority complex. In a literary sense, we used to “do” failure quite nicely, but we also are good at humour, especially if it is self-deprecating. And a somewhat benign anti-Americanism can often be found in our narratives. However what the literary world really needs to understand about CanLit is our “two solitudes”, that is, our two founding cultures of French and English; quite separate literary and cultural modes, don’t you know. And added to this, thanks in part to our membership in the British Commonwealth, is Canada’s “vertical mosaic” of boisterous multiculturalism. So what’s a Canadian eh? Ask the average citizen of the land of the maple leaf to sing “God Save the Queen” and you are likely to get a blank stare or perhaps a dredged-up memory of Freddie Mercury. Because we are adept at changing the subject when feeling disconcerted, you might also get a commentary on Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s Man Booker Prize-winning The English Patient.
Now Americans also do angst well, but theirs is louder and more expressive; after all, they had a Civil War that almost tore them apart. And if you have been following the melodrama of the upcoming U.S. election, you will have detected contextual subplots relating to issues such as ethnicity, civil rights baggage, unwinnable wars, fears of imperial decline — but also heroism. Now that last theme may well be where we really draw our literary 49th parallel. Traditionally Canadians are still a bit too British to do the dauntless hero or anti-hero thing. If you Google “The Canadian Dream” and “The American Dream” you will find lots of references, but there is no way the former has the literary and socio-cultural punch of the latter. Canadians tend not to ride off into the sunset; we quietly slip away muttering to ourselves about why Americans just don’t get it.
At one point in The Uncommon Reader, Queen Elizabeth manages to work in a little literary walkabout with Canadian author Alice Munro, who has been called the best fiction writer now working in North America. Her books are always bestsellers “abroad”; Her Majesty admires them very much. Well, need I say more?
This article was first published in Emag, the inflight magazine of Eastern Airways, one of the UK’s principal regional airlines.