Case 5: From Nationalism to Global Society: Changing Critical Approaches to Canadian Literature

The vision of Canadian literature articulated by Lorne Pierce was Nationalist in nature: in his Makers of Canadian Literature series he commissioned critical work on both Anglophone and Francophone writers, with an eye to promoting Canada as a bilingual nation; in choosing to publish Prairie voices like those of Frederick Philip Grove, he established a broader vision of a multicultural nationalism. This Nationalist vision was extended and enhanced by the work of Malcolm Ross and the New Canadian Library. It is the task of scholarship, however, to interrogate and challenge the ideas of previous critics, and Queen’s faculty have participated vigorously in an on-going debate regarding the nature of Canadian Literature.

The Nationalist argument that regards literature as important to the representation and construction of Canadian identity continues to shape critical understanding of Canadian Literature, but has been broadened to embrace non-European settler voices. It has also been recontextualized and critiqued from a range of perspectives. The very idea of national boundaries is troubled both by work that places participation by Canadian writers in transnational movements such as Modernism in a global context, and by scholars writing from an indigenous perspective who dismiss “national” borders as an alien concept imposed by colonizing governments. Transnational, post colonial, and indigenous approaches complicate the idea of a national identity and the role of literature in expressing it. Such scholarship also asks us to question how we might define a canon of Canadian Literature and how we might approach teaching Canadian Literature as a subject.

Comparatist, Commonwealth, Post Colonial, Indigenous

One means of reimagining Canadian literature was to examine it in the context of other literatures in English. John P. Matthews, author of Tradition in Exile; a Comparative Study of Social Influences on the Development of Australian and Canadian Poetry in the Nineteenth Century (1962), was one of the pioneers of this comparatist approach that placed Canadian literature in the conversation with the literatures in English of other nations with historical connections to Great Britain, in what became the emerging field of Commonwealth Literature. In Re-siting Queen’s English (1991), a number Matthews’ graduate students paid tribute to his influence which had played a key role in the development of post-colonial literary studies. After writing her dissertation under Matthews’ supervision, Helen Tiffin (PhD 1972) would go on to co- author The Empire Writes Back (1989), one of the foundational texts of post colonial studies.