CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

Doyle, James.

Toronto, ECW Press, c1983. 185pp, paper, $9.95, ISBN 0-920802-84-2. CIP

Reviewed by Robert E. Wheeler

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

In this well-researched, scholarly study the author brings together a wide selection of United States novelists, poets and curious tourists who express highly divergent, and usually ambivalent, responses to the fascination of a seemingly limitless continent. While some, reared in the genteel tradition of New England, tended to regard Canada as a land teeming with troglodytes and savage Fomorians, others could not resist the allure of Whitman's image of the country with its emphasis on unspoiled nature and infinite vistas of intrepid human achievement.

Writers as diverse as Thoreau, Howells, Henry James and the New York journalist Julian Ralph are moved by the mystery and enchantment of the expanding frontier, finding it a powerful stimulus to the American imagination. Howells in particular, in "A Chance Acquaintance," and other works, finds the challenge of the wilderness a healthy corrective to much that is effete and inhibited in the fastidious culture of New England. Significantly, the character of the Boston aristocrat, Miles Arbuton, considers "wild nature in bad taste." Sublime grandeur in nature, as depicted by the Canadian painter Lucius O'Brien or the English Romantic artist John Martin, proved to be too awe-inspiring for ultra-refined sensibilities.

Doyle introduces numerous excerpts from travel tales, diaries, novels and other illuminating material that helps the reader to acquire a broad perspective on the cultural evolution of the two countries. The book demonstrates that, even among cultivated individuals such as the historian Francis Parkman, basic attitudes are determined to a disquieting degree by social prejudices and misconceptions. This study covers a sadly neglected aspect of American literary history, and suggests that knowledge, empathy and patient understanding remain the best antidotes to a tenacious xenophobia.

Doyle argues that ambivalence and uncertainty constitute the most pervasive American literary reaction to Canada, but there is also a deeper conflict, that which Jack London in The Call of the Wild ascribes to the inveterate antagonism between man and nature. The latter is a recurrent theme in Thoreau's "A Yankee in Canada" and the realistic writing of Hamlin Garland, Henry James and others. The north was not merely an enigma; it also embodied a threat, an unsettling alternative to a demure domesticity. Boston complacency shrank from a widening of horizons, clinging to the comforting certitudes that offered a warm haven from a hostile world. North of America shows the far-ranging consequences of this fundamental disharmony and how ultimately it led to a greater bond between maturing cultures.

Robert E. Wheeler, Gananoque, Ont.
line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission Copyright information for reviewers

Young Canada Works