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Edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David and Ellen Quigley
Toronto, ECW Press, 1991.298pp, cloth, $45.00
ISBN 1-55022-052-7. CIP


Reviewed by L. Maingon.

Volume 20 Number 2
1992 March

The twenty-volume series "Canadian Writers and Their Works" presents to the general public and specialists alike the most comprehensive survey of Canadian literature. Whatever our disagreements with the critical assess­ments of the writers discussed, this series is an absolute must for literary research. A unifying essay by George Woodcock introduces each volume, made up of a series of critical essays in four sections - biography, tradition and milieu, critical assessment and a selected "biography." Professional bibliographers will rightly take excep­tion to this misuse of the term "bibliog­raphy" for what is, in fact, an excellent work list.

The unity of volume four rests in common themes of prairie writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Frederick Grove, Martha Ostenso, W.O. Mitchell, Sinclair Ross and Raymond Knister. In spite of Woodcock's lucid attempt to bind these authors together through common preoccupations with agrarianism and naturalist determinism, the anomalous inclusion of Knister in this group points to the major flaw of the six essays that make up this volume. Although from a southern Ontario agrarian background, Knister was a very urbane experimentalist, as is Sinclair Ross, who is intellectually and artistically far removed from provincial concerns.

W.J. Keith's "Frederick Philip Grove," Joy Kuropatwa's "Raymond Knister," Dick Harrison's "W.O. Mitchell," Stanley S. Atherton's "Martha Ostenso," and Morton L. Ross' "Sinclair Ross" are all models of biographical criticism. They attempt to understand literary works in the domino method of father-figure worship by tracing influences that would establish the Canadian tradition. As is obvious in the case of Knister, and explicit in that of Sinclair Ross, who has repeatedly rejected any link with his social milieu and with literary influences - "art is ... a rejection of the material common-sense world for one that's illusory" - literature is not a very social business. In fact, the more socially imitative it is, the worse it gets. The bedrock of any good art is the drive to eradicate tradition and influence in order to assert the self. Literature is art, not a social chronicle or a passive mirror.

This is where the commonsensical critical approach of these essays stum­bles. The vast body of mediocre literature in Canada, as elsewhere, is the product of a confusion between self-identity and national tradition. Tradi­tion becomes a socially imposed second-degree imitation removed from the practice of who we are. This practice and the attendant iconoclasm is the central question of any great novel. Indeed, there is a pattern in the five novelists reviewed that bears this problem out. Following the success of initial works such as Grove's Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Ostenso/Durkin's Wild Geese (1925), and W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), there is a fall from grace into the inner circle of social respectability, which produces inferior or, in Mitchell's case, uneven work. Reclusion in Ross' case and an early death in Knister's produce the more provocative and intellectually demand­ing, if less popular, works.

In this respect, informative as they are, the essays that make up this volume seek to be definitive interpretations and thereby avoid both the literary and intellectual complexity of some of the works they discuss. Within the frame­work of this type of criticism justice is done to Knister and Ross, and the authors have generously presented the critical evaluations of the various authors. In this respect the format of these studies gives an excellent survey of the conditions that have produced Canadian fiction, but it inadequately addresses the authors' reactions to those conditions.

The essays are lucid and well informed. The text is generally free of typographical errors, except in Kuropatwa's essay on Knister.

L. Maingon, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.
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