When one is looking at a site that promotes modern Canadian fiction, one tends to see titles such "Headhunter", which talks about Kurtz from Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness" becoming free in Toronto, or "High Chicago", which talks about crimes in Chicago. Conversely, one may find a work such as "Edith's War" that is a historical fiction, or "Late Night on Air" that takes place in a rugged wilderness instead, a romantic story. One may find many titles of fine and interesting books on a modern Canadian fiction website, but never one that shows the cities in a positive light and is fiction. Therefore, this essay will explain how that state of affairs could have come into being, by examining several novels from the Canadian history.
Before any literature was involved, Canada's history began with the beaver and other animals, when Canada began to be colonized by Europeans - but these Europeans spent little of their time in one place, but preferred to move around, trapping or trading for fur, or baptising the Native Americans, never settling down. Meanwhile, those Europeans that did settle in one place, either found themselves in a completely unexpected situation (for example, out of 24 of Cartier's men only 8 survived their first winter), or were primarily interested in trading - again - with the native Americans, as opposed to purposeful settling down in a colony (thus trading stations and companies were established). Such attitudes were not conductive or positive or encouraging in regards to urban or city-developing tendencies of the first Canadian colonists, as opposed to their rural ones, and because of it, the dichotomy in Canadian life and literature began to evolve.
This Canadian dichotomy was simply mobile/stationary. Some of the first Canadian colonists were stationary, adhered to their settlements, their towns, their garrisons. They were subjected to the severe Canadian climate, the unfriendly native Canadians, the condescending attitudes of their European governments overseas, the social baggage of the European society that they had actually left behind - all of which created an image of a New World city as a rather miserable place to be in Canadian fiction even at such an early age.
There were the other group of colonists, however, the traders and the missionaries, who were not tied to these colonizing settlements, but instead moved around the wild countryside. It is from them, such people as Father Hennepin, that we receive the first literary descriptions of such places as the Niagara Falls: places that are distinctively not cities, but natural sites, unseen before by European eyes or unmatched by anything in Europe. Incidentally, at the time of Canadian colonization and settlement, the cities of Europe were diseased, crowded places that were, perhaps, in nearly perfect opposition to the Canadian wonders of nature, something that was subtly hinted at in Northrop Frye's "Conclusion from Literary History of Canada":
The sense of probing into the distance, of fixing the eyes on the skyline, is something that Canadian sensibility has inherited from the voyageurs. It comes into Canadian painting a good deal, in Thomson whose focus is so often farthest back in the picture, where a river or a gorge in the hills twists elusively out of sight, in Emily Carr whose vision is always, in the title of a compatriot's book of poems, `deeper in the forest.
This `sense of probing into the distance' would appear time and again in writings of Canadian authors, such as Gabrielle Roy, whose character Christine from The Road Past Altamont would often engage in travel and would receive her epiphanies and revelations during those times. Moreover, the voyageurs in the quote, incidentally, are those `other' colonists, who did not live in the first Euro-Canadian settlements and towns, but rather travel all over the country, returning only to trade-in their furs for the new supplies and trading goods.
Through the way of such actions and attitudes, some of the Canadian colonizers thus formed this way of life - quite unorthodox to the other first immigrants-colonists from Europe, the settlers. Moreover, this way of life possibly appeared quite luring and romantic - most likely a better lot in life than that of a serf in one of Canada's first urban settlements. In terms of literature, however, this difference helped to widen the gap between the two parts of the dichotomy, differentiate between the two of them further, as well as to romanticize the mobile, rural, outdoors life in Canada. This romantic outlook would influence the Canadian authors for generations to come, as Desmond Pacey wrote in Literary History of Canada:
More specifically Canadian in inspiration were the escape novels of another variety: those treating of life in the Far North, and especially the lives of Eskimos. Here indeed was the opportunity to deal realistically with a way of life unfamiliar to writers of other countries, and something really compelling might have been made out of the strange terrain, the long dark winters and short vivid summers, the small tenacious inhabitants of the North.
Closely allied to novels of the North, and indeed sometimes overlapping with them, were romantic novels of the West, usually known as "westerns."
Desmond Pacey wrote this piece in 1965, several centuries after these events took place, but even then the split between the `indoors' and the `outdoors' Canadian way of life was fully manifested and going strong. It is still going on strong nowadays, but its roots remain there, in the first years and decades of Canadian settling-in past:
Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological `frontier', separated from one another and from their American and British cultural sources: communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing and formidable physical setting - such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality.
Yet, despite Northrop Frye's harsh words, the real-life, social situation did not remain as such for too long (though where it was, such as in the prairies, the mood of the fiction remains thoroughly dark, whether urban or rural), but it began to change. Namely, as the settlers-villagers began to replace the voyageurs due to social reasons, so in literature the wilderness became partially replaced by the life in small towns and villages, as opposed to life in big cities such as Toronto or Winnipeg. Stephen Leacock, with his works Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich is a perfect example of that transformation of the dichotomy, as well as of a manifestation of something else.
That something else is, basically, patriotism, the spirit of Canada. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town takes place in Mariposa, a small backwater rural town of Mariposa located in the Canadian countryside. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich takes place in a bustling American metropolis instead. Thus, to Leacock and his contemporaries, the big city was not truly Canadian to write about, it was American. That is in important, as in the first years of Canada's existence as an independent country, the relations between USA and Canada were not very cordial. Indeed, the opening paragraphs of the two works demonstrate that: in Sunshine Sketches the readers are introduced to Main Street,
[...] and Smith's Hotel and the Continental and the Mariposa House, and the two banks (the Commercial and the Exchange), to say nothing of McCarthy's Block (erected in 1878) and Glover's Hardware Store.
All of these places have very common, very basic, very general names that can be positioned into a small town anywhere, in any Canadian provincial or territorial countryside, with nary a blink. Alternatively, to understand better the national standard of Mariposa, all it may take is to realize that though the setting of Sunshine Sketches takes place in Ontario, there is a Main street in Winnipeg, Manitoba... At any rate, it is not too much of stretch to realize that the town of Mariposa can be seen as a metaphor for Leacock's vision of true Canada and that he believed that his Sunshine Sketches demonstrate the basic Canadian goodness of nature and spirit.
It is different, however, with the Arcadian Adventures. Here the places have names such as the Mausoleum Club and the Plutoria Avenue. In the first name, the connotations with death are obvious; the second name is related both to Plutos, the ancient Greek god of underground riches, and to Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, both of whom were rather demonic figures even in pagan myths, never mind the Christian. (It also brings to mind plutocrat, another unflattering word in the English lexicon that connects to the idea of riches once again.) Thus, Arcadian Adventures open with somewhat infernal images, and continue with:
Just below Plutoria Avenue, and parallel with it, the trees die out and the brick and stone of the City begins in earnest. Even from the Avenue you see the tops of the sky-scraping buildings in the big commercial streets, and can hear or almost hear the roar of the elevated railway, earning dividends. And beyond that again the City sinks lower, and is choked and crowded with the tangled streets and little houses of the slums.
In fact, if you were to mount to the roof of the Mausoleum Club itself on Plutoria Avenue you could almost see the slums from there. But why should you? And on the other hand, if you never went up on the roof, but only dined inside among the palm trees, you would never know that the slums existed which is much better.
This means that the old dichotomic literary structure continued to change, albeit subtly: the original rural/urban dichotomy was still there, but now the authors would focus only on one side of it, and largely ignore the other. Moreover, that is a direct demonstration of the two-facedness of a city - an American city, perhaps, but a city nonetheless - of both its glamour and slums, at least as Leacock saw it. Other Canadian authors, who wrote after Leacock, such as Dionne Brand, Adele Wiseman, Irene Baird or John Marlyn, would do something partially different: they would focus on the slums and ignore the glamour. Thus the Canadian authors began to create cities that are darker than Leacock's was, or at least grittier, but all the same their cities were just the other side of the same coin, as Leacock's Sunshine Sketches demonstrate (in comparison to Arcadian Adventures). (There were differences between these two approaches to urban fiction, one of the differences the diminishment of patriotism that Stephen Leacock has demonstrated in Sunshine Sketches vs. Arcadian Adventures - now, instead of `good Canada' vs. `wicked USA', there will be only `wicked Canada', with the `good' side of it being overshadowed by the urban.)
That sort of unbalanced dichotomy approach is not limited to the urban landscape, however, as Sinclair Ross, in his anthology The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories did with the rural landscape. His small farms and towns are no better, brighter, or more cheerful than the cities of Irene Baird or John Marlyn. The darkness there - sometimes physical, as it is in the titular story - is practically gothic, as it is in the city of Winnipeg described in Under the Ribs of Death.
If one goes back somewhat in time, there already was a robust tradition of gothic literature in Canada's literary past, often set in a rural, or wild, or historical setting; The Golden Dog, A Legend of Quebec written in 1877 by William Kirby was certainly written along those lines, and it was one of first. However, as some like Desmond Pacey would argue, it was not real, not realistic fiction at any rate, but then again, the tradition of Canadian authors to criticize one another has a long and robust history in Canadian fiction as well. In any case, gothic, especially the supernatural, may not be real or realistic literature, but even the works of the more realist authors like Ross and Marlyn have their own flights of imagination that leaned away from real life:
[...] There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. [...] this first wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away in fright.
[...] A westerly breeze stirred the manure lying on the road. All day long it had been drying in the sun, flattened by wagon wheels, shredded by sparrows. Now the wind brushed over it, with soft fingers pried it apart in little flakes and carried it to the billowy clouds of smoke gushing heavenward from the freight-yard engines, blotting out the early stars; and then settled it slowly and leisurely on houses and heads of the people below.
As one can see, both of these quotations deal with wind or winds, and in both cases the wind is anthropomorphic, it has human- or animal-like characteristics, something that is not overly realistic, but would be more at home in a fantasy-genre book. Alternatively, it also means that one no longer had to follow the established and old literary dichotomy in the Canadian fiction, to be a Canadian author (as opposed to such factor as being born - and preferably live - in Canada).
Another source that supports the theory that what such authors as John Marlyn, Irene Baird and others were writing, maybe unintentionally so, was not purely realistic fiction, but also gothic one...admittedly one that was heavily steeped in realism can be seen in a such quote:
The street was quiet now. His footsteps beat a lonely tattoo on the wooden sidewalk. The wind behind him ruffled his hair. Above him the lights went on, and over the face of Henry Avenue, half-hidden the moment before by soft, fraudulent shadows, there sprang into view an endless grey expanse of mouldering ruin. From the other side of the freight sheds came the rumble of the engines as they started on their nightly round of shunting box-cars to and fro.
Undoubtedly, the paragraph above is very realistic; beside certain anthropomorphism of the inanimate objects, there are no miracles, no wonders, nothing supernatural taking place in John Marlyn's Winnipeg. As one reads these lines, one is struck by the idea how real it all looks - and he or she would not be quite right, for John Marlyn's Winnipeg may be real only to him (and his readers), while to others, it may be completely different.
In addition, when one is reading any piece of urban fiction - especially one so well-written as by Marlyn, or Baird, or Wiseman, or Brand - one should also probably read a piece of urban non-fiction, to put things into perspective, and perhaps to realize that no city is as dark and ugly as fiction makes it out to be. Nina Nelson's non-fiction book Canada is perhaps one of the better examples; in its chapter on "The Prairie Provinces - Saskatchewan and Manitoba", she writes, for example, about "the first steam engine to reach the west [...] gleaming like black satin, on Main Street, north of Cultural Complex and City Hall." (Nelson, 47) That is a very different description from the freight sheds of Marlyn, hidden from view by rubbish and ruins, but much closer to some other early Canadian authors, such as S.G. Sime. Some of S.G. Sime's stories - such as "Motherhood" do emphasize the negative connotations of society, especially urban society, but others, such as "Munitions" are much more positive and upbeat, especially for the urban fiction.
Nevertheless, this kind of positive point of view is once more dependent on the old rural/urban dichotomy of the Canadian authors past. Selfsame Nina Nelson, when talking about Winnipeg, talks "of the museums, that of Man and Nature is outstanding" (47) - i.e. once more about nature, the outdoors, rather than about something man-made or indoors. Moreover, in the paragraph after that, she talks about "the winter when the weather is bitterly cold and blizzards and snowstorms bring the temperature down well below zero". Here Nina Nelson is once more returning to the old Canadian trope of relying upon weather talk to create or re-create the image of Canadian outdoors (rather than indoors) to emphasize the better of qualities of anything (in this case the intersection of Portage and Main city streets and the shopping centre located there). This state of affairs, incidentally, calls out to Stephen Leacock's already-mentioned Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, not only because of a Main street, but also because Leacock often used the imagery of nature, of the rural countryside, to create a positive image of his small town of Mariposa...
What John Marlyn did to Winnipeg, Irene Baird did to Vancouver and Victoria, disguised in her novel Waste Heritage as the cities of Gath and Aschelon, where Matt, Eddy and the rest of their mates come as a part of their movement - the movement of the homeless. Here, we encounter a lot of the same issues as we did in Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death - the lack of work, the social inequality, the general hardship of life in the Depressive Thirties, and, of course, the usual dichotomy of rural vs. urban, of countryside vs. the city life.
[...] The thunder of wheels and the sliding past of the flat, green countryside, the monotonous rhythm, the spaced telegraph poles, the hot glitter of sun on wire, these things filled his eyes and his mind like a familiar drug, that, and the burning wind on his face.
[...] Behind them a sinister shambles of roofs and rotting shacks ran like a gulch between the backs of the tenement houses. Off to one side a garbage dump was piled with empty cans, dead tires and rusting auto guts. Beside the dump stewed a small pool with refuse floating and above the pool a flock of gulls fought noisily over the ageing garbage.
(Baird, 191, 196)
Now, the quotes above demonstrate a fine example of the old rural/urban dichotomy as well as Leacock's idea that a city is not honest and wholesome as a small town would be. Just like the American metropolis, the Canadian city of Gath is two-faced, almost literally emphasized in the slogans: "VISIT GATH, YE OLDE ENGLISH CITY" and "GEORGE LAZARUS, AUTO WRECKING, HIGHEST CASH PRICES IN CITY. COME INSIDE AND LOOK AROUND". (Baird, 194) These signs, hanging together side by side at an auto junk yard, create an oxymoron of common sense: if Gath is an "olde English city" then why does it have modern conveniences such as an auto-wrecking yard, and if it does have an auto-wrecking yard, then how can it be "olde"?
Nevertheless, there is nothing particularly ambiguous or oxymoronic in Irene Baird's message: just as John Marlyn does in Under the Ribs of Death, she shows that the cities are unwholesome, if not downright evil, a fact that is probably derived from the earlier authors, such as Stephen Leacock and others. However, there is also an important difference from, aforementioned John Marlyn, which is ethnic.
One of the main plot points of John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death is the racial issues. The novel's main character, Shandor, is Hungarian by descent and has to make his path of life (at least in his own perception) among the noticeably, if not utterly Anglo-Canadian elite - something that is one of the main obstacles in his presumed path to success. (That state of affairs may or may not reflect the objective reality of Winnipeg's society in the 1930s, but does reflect the subjective reality of Winnipeg's society in the 1930s in Marlon's interpretation.) In Waste Heritage, however, the main characters of Matt and Eddy themselves are Anglo-Saxon by descent, yet it helps them none, and the citizens of Aschelon and Gath treat them hardly any better than how the Anglo-Canadian `elite' of Winnipeg treated Shandor.
Outside the freight shed Tom and George and Old Man Morgan watched the end. As the last car finally disappeared Old Man Morgan moved in out of the sun. "Well," he remarked dryly, "I guess that sees the last of `em. So far as I know the virtue of our women is still intact an' the same goes for our plate glass winders."
Tom eyed him distrustfully. "What I want to know is, what happens when they get to Gath? Mark my words, there's goin' to be bloodshed there the same as there was in Aschelon."
As one can see, Irene Baird too talks about class differences, but unlike in John Marlyn's novel, they are not supported by race; put otherwise, in Waste Heritage the subjective view is that citizens are beginning to turn on their non-urban kin and treat them as different, non-Canadian, perhaps, kind of folk. That state of affairs is also important because Waste Heritage takes place afterUnder the Ribs of Death, i.e. in the middle or late 1930s, while Under the Ribs of Death took place in the 1920s and ended with the massive market crash of Black Thursday. This means that in a span of less than ten years the urban Canadians began to look down on the non-urban ones instead.
That, however, maybe the more extreme case of the far Canadian west. Much more towards the east, in the novel of Michael Ondaatje In the Skin of a Lion, the situation was quite different, and more akin to the world in John Marlyn's novel than Irene Baird's (or Sinclair Ross's short stories, incidentally). Chronologically, In the Skin of a Lion perhaps even predates the previously mentioned novels, for its events largely take place in the first two decades of the 20th century before the Great Depression that began as Under the Ribs of Death ended and Waste Heritage took place in. As a result, this novel holds far less urban (or gothic?) realism and is far more upbeat (or patriotic?) in its content...yet the rural/urban dichotomy is present in it all the same; in fact, the novel's opening lines are rural:
If he is awake early enough the boy sees the men walk past the farmhouse down First Lake Road. Then he stands at the bedroom window and watches: he can see two or three lanterns between the soft maple and the walnut tree. He hears their boots on gravel. Thirty loggers, wrapped up dark, carrying axes and small packages of food which hang from their belts.
Essentially, this entire scene is rural - there is nothing relating it to the urban, to the city, and so it goes for the first chapter of the novel, "Little Seeds". The second chapter - "The Bridge" - is talking about the building of Toronto's bridges and aqueducts; essentially it is about the building of the first, relatively modern, version of Toronto, and it is only in the third chapter, "The Seeker", does the audience arrive in the city proper, alongside Patrick, the novel's main protagonist.
Patrick Lewis arrived in the city of Toronto as if it were land after years of sea. Growing up in the country had governed his childhood: the small village of Bellrock, the highway of river down which the log drivers came [...] Now, at twenty-one, he had been drawn out from that small town like a piece of metal and dropped under the vast arches of Union Station to begin his life once more.
Patrick is an atypical immigrant: he is an Anglo-Canadian, rather than a European like Nicholas Temelcoff, but he is an immigrant all the same - his migration is merely from a different time instead of place. What is more important, though, is that the accents and emphasizes of the two parts of the dichotomy, the rural and the urban, had not changed - the rural is still wholesome, the urban is not so. The self-made millionaire of Michael Ondaatje, Ambrose Small (who probably would fit-in with minimum fuss among the characters of Leacock's Arcadian Adventures) leaves the city of Toronto for Canada's countryside in order to change his life around and he takes his girlfriend slash mistress, Clara Dickens, alongside him. It is not too important that Ambrose probably fails to achieve his goal, what is important is that he goes there, into Canadian countryside, rather than anywhere much more exotic so that he would achieve it in the first place. Put otherwise, even in such modern times 1987, when In the Skin of a Lion was written, the countryside of Canada was a wholesome place, as opposed to the city.
Alternatively, though, someone like Desmond Pacey would not find that state of affairs too surprising:
By far the great majority of the novelists [...] conceived the novel and the short story merely as media of light entertainment, and contented themselves with providing some form of romantic escape.
By far the most popular types of escape literature, however, were the two that have become traditional in Canadian fiction: the historical romance, and the regional idyll.
When in this light, then, Ambrose's flight becomes more understandable: he, with his mistress Clara alongside, is trying to find his escape of sorts in a `regional idyll' mentioned by Pacey. Nevertheless, while Ambrose Small is trying escape into the past, as other characters did before him, like the citizens of Gath, who tried to hide their auto wreck yard and toxic waste dumps with pastoral names of their streets and avenues, Canada itself moves into the future, as Michael Ondaatje introduces the characters of Caravaggio and Hana. Both of them will play a prominent role in the later novel, The English Patient (1992) set in the end of World War II, a potential sequel to In the Skin of a Lion. What is currently important, though, is that Caravaggio is Italian (just as Nicholas Temelcoff is Slavic), and unlike Shandor in Under the Ribs of Death, he is treated as equal by the clearly Anglo Patrick, Buck and Lewis; Patrick actually rescues Caravaggio in jail at one point in the novel. That is a far cry from the treatment Shandor had experienced throughout the most Under the Ribs of Death by the Anglo-Canadians, and what is more important, there is little, far less, anthropomorphic personifications of natural phenomena and what not than in the work of John Marlyn (or Sinclair Ross). Finally, there are works of such authors as Dionne Brand, whose works - for example, What We All Long For - deals exclusively with non-WASP Canadians: Tuyen is Vietnamese, Carla is half-Anglo- half-Afro-Canadian, and Oku and Jackie are wholly Afro-Canadian, and so on. It appears that racially Canadian fiction has moved far from its original, WASP roots, but urban-wise - not so much, Toronto of Brand's fiction is still a dangerous, potentially homely city... though to the novel's protagonists it is undoubtedly home, just as it was home for the characters of the earlier Canadian authors, such as Adele Wiseman. Both Adele Wiseman and Dionne Brand show the humane, nurturing side of the city dwellers, mainly in the characters of the older generations, as they raise, or help raise, their (or not) children in an environment that is not particularly child-friendly with varied degrees of success.
(Of course, a different opinion might be that In the Skin of a Lion is a literary experiment, not unlike Brian Moore's novel Fergus. In Fergus, the gothic or supernatural elements of Canadian urban fiction become openly overt in the ghost of the titular character's dead father, yet in many other aspects, such as Fergus' daily struggles and issues, the novel is relatively realistic. Therefore, this novel - when compared to the earlier novels such as Waste Heritage or Under the Ribs of Death - is... a variation of the norm established earlier, but a rather visually diverging variation. Perhaps then, the same can be said about Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion - it is a just a variation of the old dichotomy theme of Canadian fiction. Even in that case, however, the novel In the Skin of a Lion is much more balanced and patriotic than the novels of the earlier Canadian authors and should be acknowledged accordingly.)
Look, for example, at the works of fiction mentioned in this essay. Stephen Leacock's characters in Arcadian Adventures, admittedly, are not very gothic, but they are grotesque and generally two-faced and dishonest, and the names of the places - the Mausoleum Club, the Plutoria Avenue - have connotations with the underworld, something that can be considered gothic. Moreover, that idea of the unseen but subtly present supernatural element (and gloomily-gothically so), would be taken on by such later authors as Irene Baird, John Marlyn and Sinclair Ross, even though the latter used it in a rural, rather than an urban, setting. Perhaps even, the authors did not recognize it as such, but rather thought that they were being realistic, when dealing with the realities of Canada's life in cities (or prairies, in Ross's case). In reality, however, the authors who did that somewhat unbalanced the original dichotomy, by focusing too heavily on the urban part of it, and not enough on the rural (or vice versa, in Ross's case); the patriotic theme prominent in Sunshine Sketches had also disappeared. In 1987, Michael Ondaatje published his novel In the Skin of a Lion that situation changed: the mood of this novel is extremely more light-hearted than the ones previously mentioned. It is also a lot more balanced between the rural and urban parts of the dichotomy, unlike Dionne Brand's What We All Long For, publishing in 2005, but once again, the novel is urban, and thus unbalanced.
Therefore, then, it is sae to conclude the essay with the idea that Canadian literary culture has run in a practically circular route. It began in a society that experienced its own dichotomy of mobile/immobile, or settled/free-moving, and it followed suit by eventually developing its own rural/urban dichotomy. From then on, by the early 20th century, the Canadian authors merely began to focus on one or the other part of it, preferring to make the rural more positive and the urban more negative in their works. Only in the latter half of the 20th century, by the late 1980s or so, did the balance began to be restored in the books, and the cities are no longer so gloomy, the countryside is not so sunny - but largely that state of affairs keeps on going strong, as the sites of modern Canadian fiction can attest. For that reason, then, it is safe to assume that that state of affairs will continue to shape Canadian literature, both fictional and non-fictional in the future as well as in present until both it and the Canadian society in general change themselves once again.