Canadian literature

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For the quarterly academic journal, see Canadian Literature (journal).

Canadian literature is literature originating from Canada. Some criticism of Canadian literature has focused on nationalistic and regional themes, although this is only a small portion of Canadian Literary criticism. Critics against such thematic criticism in Canadian literature, such as Frank Davey, had argued that a focus on theme diminishes the appreciation of complexity of the literature produced in the country, and creates the impression that Canadian literature is sociologically-oriented. While Canadian literature, like the literature of every nation state, is influenced by its socio-political contexts, Canadian writers have produced a variety of genres. Influences on Canadian writers are broad, both geographically and historically.

Before European contact and the Confederation of Canada, Indigenous peoples in North America have occupied the land and maintained a rich and diverse history of culture, identity, language, art and literature. "Indigenous literature" is a problematic term, as every cultural group has its own distinct oral tradition, language, and cultural practices. Therefore, Indigenous literatures in Canada is a more inclusive term for understanding the variety of languages and traditions across communities.

After the colonization of Canada, the dominant European cultures were originally English, French, and Gaelic. After Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's "Announcement of Implementation of Policy of Multiculturalism within Bilingual Framework," in 1971, Canadian critics and academics gradually began to recognize that there existed a more diverse population of readers and writers. The country's literature has been strongly influenced by international immigration, particularly in recent decades. In the past critics thought that Canada’s literature often reflected the Canadian perspective on: (1) nature, (2) frontier life, and (3) Canada’s position in the world, all three of which tie into the garrison mentality. Since the 1980s Canada's ethnic and cultural diversity have been openly reflected in its literature, with many of its most prominent writers focusing on ethnic minority identity, duality and cultural differences; themes which are in contrast to environmental readings, as Joseph Pivato argues in his critique of Atwood's Survival.[citation needed]However, Canadians have been less willing to acknowledge the diverse languages of Canada, besides English and French, and give equal consideration to works in such languages.[1][2]


Because of its size and breadth, Canadian literature is often divided into sub-categories.[citation needed]

  • The most common is to categorize it by region such as the prairie novel or by province such as Quebec theatre province.
  • Another way is to categorize it by author. For instance, the literature of Canadian women, Acadians, Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and Irish Canadians, as well as Italian-Canadians and South-Asian-Canadians have been anthologized as bodies of work.
  • A third is to divide it by literary period, such as "The Confederation Poets", "Canadian postmoderns" or "Canadian Poets Between the Wars."


Traits common to works of Canadian literature include:[citation needed]

French-Canadian literature[edit]

In 1802, the Lower Canada legislative library was founded, being one of the first in Occident, the first in the Canadas. For comparison, the library of the British house of commons was founded sixteen years later. It should be noted the library had some rare titles about geography, natural science and letters. All books it contained were moved to the Canadian parliament in Montreal when the two Canadas, lower and upper, were united. On April 25, 1849, a dramatic event occurred: the Canadian parliament was burned by furious people along with thousands of French Canadian books and a few hundred of English books. This is why some people still affirm today, falsely, that from the early settlements until the 1820s, Quebec had virtually no literature. Though historians, journalists, and learned priests published, overall the total output that remain from this period and that had been kept out of the burned parliament is small.

It was the rise of Quebec patriotism and the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion, in addition to a modern system of primary school education, which led to the rise of French-Canadian fiction. L'influence d'un livre by Philippe-Ignace-Francois Aubert de Gaspé is widely regarded as the first French-Canadian novel. The genres which first became popular were the rural novel and the historical novel. French authors were influential, especially authors like Balzac.

In 1866, Father Henri-Raymond Casgrain became one of Quebec's first literary theorists. He argued that literature's goal should be to project an image of proper Catholic morality. However, a few authors like Louis-Honoré Fréchette and Arthur Buies broke the conventions to write more interesting works.

This pattern continued until the 1930s with a new group of authors educated at the Université Laval and the Université de Montréal. Novels with psychological and sociological foundations became the norm. Gabrielle Roy and Anne Hébert even began to earn international acclaim, which had not happened to French-Canadian literature before. During this period, Quebec theatre, which had previously been melodramas and comedies, became far more involved.

French-Canadian literature began to greatly expand with the turmoil of the Second World War, the beginnings of industrialization in the 1950s, and most especially the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. French-Canadian literature also began to attract a great deal of attention globally, with Acadian novelist Antonine Maillet winning the Prix Goncourt. An experimental branch of Québécois literature also developed; for instance the poet Nicole Brossard wrote in a formalist style. In 1979, Roch Carrier wrote the story The Hockey Sweater, which highlighted the cultural and social tensions between English and French speaking Canada.

See also: List of Quebec writers, Literature of Quebec, List of French Canadian writers from outside Quebec

Contemporary Canadian literature: late 20th to 21st century[edit]

Following World War II, writers such as Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, Norman Levine, Margaret Laurence and Irving Layton added to the Modernist influence to Canadian literature previously introduced by F. R. Scott, A. J. M. Smith and others associated with the McGill Fortnightly. This influence, at first, was not broadly appreciated. Norman Levine's Canada Made Me,[3] a travelogue that presented a sour interpretation of the country in 1958, for example, was widely rejected.

After 1967, the country's centennial year, the national government increased funding to publishers and numerous small presses began operating throughout the country.[4]

In the late 1970s, science fiction fan and scholar of Canadian literature Susan Wood helped pioneer the study of feminist science fiction, and (along with immigrant editor Judith Merril) brought new respectability to the study of Canadian science fiction, paving the way for the rise of such phenomena as the French-Canadian science fiction magazine Solaris.

By the 1990s, Canadian literature was viewed as some of the world's best.[5]

Canadian authors have won international awards:

Notable figures[edit]

Because Canada only officially became a country on July 1, 1867, it has been argued that literature written before this time was colonial. For example, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, English sisters who adopted the country as their own, moved to Upper Canada in 1832. They recorded their experiences as pioneers in Parr Traill's The Backwoods of Canada (1836) and Canadian Crusoes (1852), and Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings (1853). However, both women wrote until their deaths, placing them in the country for more than 50 years and certainly well past Confederation. Moreover, their books often dealt with survival and the rugged Canadian environment; these themes re-appear in other Canadian works, including Margaret Atwood's Survival. Moodie and Parr Traill's sister, Agnes Strickland, remained in England and wrote elegant royal biographies, creating a stark contrast between Canadian and English literatures.

However, one of the earliest "Canadian" writers virtually always included in Canadian literary anthologies is Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796–1865), who died just two years before Canada's official birth. He is remembered for his comic character, Sam Slick, who appeared in The Clockmaker and other humorous works throughout Haliburton's life.

Arguably, the best-known living Canadian writer internationally (especially since the deaths of Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler) is Margaret Atwood, a prolific novelist, poet, and literary critic. Some great 20th-century Canadian authors include Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, and Carol Shields.

This group, along with Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, who has been called the best living writer of short stories in English,[7] were the first to elevate Canadian Literature to the world stage. During the post-war decades only a handful of books of any literary merit were published each year in Canada, and Canadian literature was viewed as an appendage to British and American writing. When academic Clara Thomas decided in the 1940s to concentrate on Canadian literature for her master's thesis, the idea was so novel and so radical that word of her decision reached The Globe and Mail books editor William Arthur Deacon, who then personally reached out to Thomas to pledge his and the newspaper's resources in support of her work.[8]

Much of what was produced dealt with extremely typical Canadiana such as the outdoors and animals, or events in Canadian history.[citation needed]

A reaction against this tradition, poet Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers (1966), was labelled by one reviewer "the most revolting book ever written in Canada".[9] However, Cohen is perhaps best known as a folk singer and songwriter, with an international following.

Canadian author Farley Mowat is best known for his work Never Cry Wolf (1963) and his Governor General's Award-winning children's book, Lost in the Barrens (1956).

The best-known Canadian children's writers include L. M. Montgomery and Monica Hughes.

Histories of Canadian literature[edit]

There are numerous histories of Canadian literature, written in different languages. The vast majority of these deal exclusively with literature in a single language. Reingard M. Nischik (ed.)'s History of Literature in Canada: English-Canadian and French-Canadian. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008 is an exception as his book addresses both English and French-language literature.

In 2016, Michael Newton published Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada. This is the first literature history which has addressed Scottish Gaelic literature in Canada.[10]


There are a number of notable Canadian awards for literature:

Awards For Children's and Young Adult Literature:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newton, Michael (2015). Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest. Cape Breton University Press. 
  2. ^ Rankin, Effie. "A shared song lasts long". Comhairle na Gàidhlig. Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia. Retrieved 14 January 2017. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Robert Fulford's column about the international success of Canadian literature
  6. ^
  7. ^ "For a long time Alice Munro has been compared with Chekhov; John Updike would add Tolstoy, and AS Byatt would say Guy de Maupassant and Flaubert. Munro is often called the best living writer of short stories in English; the words "short story" are frequently dropped." Riches of a Double Life, Ada Edemariam, Guardian Online, retrieved 11 October 2006.
  8. ^ "Author and educator Clara Thomas was a relentless advocate of CanLit". The Globe and Mail, November 28, 2013.
  9. ^ Who held a gun to Leonard Cohen's head? Tim de Lisle, Guardian Online, retrieved 11October 2006.
  10. ^ Newton, Michael (2015). Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest. Cape Breton University Press. 
  11. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]