Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Satire in Canadian Literature

This is a quest story. The grail being sought is knowledge about satire in Canadian literature. It starts where all quests start today – on Google.

I searched "satire in Canadian literature" and was surprised at the results.

An Australian children’s encyclopedia, for example, was the second most prominent link. Wikipedia also provides this underwhelming insight: "Satire is probably one of the main elements of Canadian literature."

The Australian article, on the other hand, began reasonably enough: "How to describe the literature of a nation is often debatable."

It then continued with what it called The Problem of Canadian Literature: "Canadian literature may be more difficult to discuss than most because of Canada's unique geographical and historical situation."

That is, Canada is big, young and "generally committed to multiculturalism."

Australian children were also tantilizingly told: "One recurringly important piece of the Canadian literature puzzle has been the question, Is there a Canadian literature at all?"

There followed a list of Traits of Canadian Literature, which looked strikingly similar to the Wikipedia disaster, though it startled with this:

Satire and irony: If Canadian literature had to be distilled into a single word, for the sake of comparison with all other literatures, that word would be "satire". Satire has jokingly been called Canada's national sport.

The article ended (helpfully?) by informing Aussie kiddies:

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.

One is reminded of Mordecai Richler’s praise of Frederick Philip Grove as "a good speller." In Geist 51, Stephen Henighan suggested Hugh Garner was the victim of Richler’s remark. Richler was known to recycle jokes, so both may be true.

Is there a Canadian literature? What intelligence exists about Canada’s national sport?


I pressed on, with the help of a variety of virtual Sancho Panzas. Using Facebook and email, I cast queries far and wide.

A sample of responses follow:

  • I haven't seen an article on satire in CanLit since about 1960. There might be something on individual authors like Richler or Leacock, but nothing general that I know about. It was a topic that I did some research on many, many years ago and there wasn't really much to go on--just a vague idea of a tradition running from Haliburton to Leacock to various 20th century writers, including poets like Smith, Scott, Klein, Birney, Layton, etc. And there was an anthology some years ago that Margaret Atwood had something to do with but other than that, I'm afraid I can't help you.
  • Didn't John Metcalf write something about this? And if not, why not try "Earnestness and Canadian Literature" for a much richer source list.
  • Canadian literary criticism shies away from satire. We're too busy lobbying the world to take our literature seriously. Having said that, there are fantastic Canadian satirists. The old guard -- Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Steven Leacock -- tended to take on nationalist and identity questions. The middle guard -- Margaret Atwood, Russell Smith -- extended this discussion to contemporary urban settings. More recently a third guard -- e.g., Thomas King, Rabindranath Maharaj -- has brought cultural and race questions forward.
  • The Blasted Pine (1957)
  • Linda Hutcheon on parody and pastiche in The Canadian Postmodern (1988).
  • Do you have WH New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002) handy? Jennifer Andrew's article on 'Humour and Satire' gives some further sources: Margaret Atwood 'What's so funny? Notes on Canadian Humour'; Claude Bissell, 'Halburton, Leacock and the American Humourous Tradition.' in Canadian Literature 39 (1969); Tom Marshall 'Revisioning Comedy and History in the Canadian Novel.' blah blah blah, it goes on.
  • See also:
  • John Metcalf's (edited anthologies) Kicking Against the Pricks and The Bumper Book.
  • "Playing the fool: the satire of Canadian cultural nationalism in Mordecai Richler's The Incomparable Atuk." Morra, Linda. Studies in Canadian Literature. 2001. Vol. 26, Iss. 1; p. 1
  • "To know the difference: Mimicry, satire, and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water." Horne, Dee. Essays on Canadian Writing. Toronto: Fall 1995. p. 255
Amy Lavender Harris pointed me to a chapter in her book to be published later this year:

In Imagining Toronto there's a chapter called "The Myth of the Multicultural City" arguing (in part) that satire is used to criticize cultural hegemonies in Toronto literature, applying Northrop Frye's description of satire as "militant irony" that challenges oppressive but unspoken social conventions.

I also went to Quill and Quire and searched "satire."

And did the same at Canadian Literature.

These results provided a richer, livelier commentary on Canadian literature than I’d expected.


My quest, however, wasn’t without its tilting at windmill moments.

My Google research uncovered an article by UNB’s Professor Jennifer Andrews: "Humour and Satire in Canadian Literature." Reader’s Encyclopaedia of Canadian Literature. Ed. W. H. New. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002. 679-89.

Off to the Toronto Public Library website I went, a trip that would lead nowhere. I used the library’s online help to see if I could shake loose the title. I received this response:

Subject: Re: ADULT - Ask a Librarian
Received: Wednesday, June 3, 2009, 12:04 PM

Hello Michael: thanks for using the Answerline Quick Reference

I'm sorry, the library does not carry this title.

To which I replied, "Is it possible to ask the library to order a copy?"

Subject: Re: ADULT - Ask a Librarian
Thursday, June 4, 2009 9:50 AM

Because of the complexities in selecting and ordering new materials for
the Library, it is always best to approach the staff at your local
branch and ask to fill out a "New English/French Title Suggestion" form
(popularly known as the blue form). You may also request materials
published in other languages, using the "New Multilingual Material
Selection" form.

After the form has been filled out in its entirety, the branch staff
will pass it along to the Library's Collection Development department
for consideration. If you've asked to be informed about your request's
eventual outcome, the local branch staff will contact you, not the
Collections Management department. You may also specify that you be
placed on the hold list for the item if it should be ordered.

Thankfully, this wasn’t necessary. The title of the article could be found in an encyclopedia of a different title: Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002).

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