Regionalism in Literature

Geographer R. Cole Harris describes the inhabited part of Canada as "an island archipelago spread over 4000 east-west miles Different islands were settled at different times within different technologies and economies by people from different backgrounds." Throughout Canada's history this concept has been a powerful alternative to the idea of a homogeneous nation spreading from sea to sea. To the writer, Northrop FRYE argues, the concept is essential: "What affects the writer's imagination ... is an environment rather than a nation Regionalism and literary maturity seem to grow together."

But in 1943, E.K. BROWN suggested in On Canadian Poetry that REGIONALISM threatened the growth of a Canadian literature, "because it stresses the superficial and peculiar at the expense, at least, if not to the exclusion, of the fundamental and universal." The main achievement of Canadian literature before WWII was finding the vocabulary, and some sense of appropriate forms, to articulate authentically a new place. Given the power of the imperial language and its literary tradition, the accomplishment was great but in itself could only be "superficial." Those early writers, committed to naming the details of a new world, inevitably emphasized a local area.

 T.C. HALIBURTON, our first humorist, was regional in his recording of the dialects and folkways of pre-Confederation Nova Scotia; Charles G.D. ROBERTS depicted the New Brunswick landscape, particularly in Songs of the Common Day (1893); D.C. SCOTT evoked several northern settings in his narratives of Indian life. The popular romance, which dominated Canadian fiction until 1920, encouraged the more sentimental side of regionalism, with quaint peculiarities of mannerism or costume to provide relief from the didacticism and melodrama. Gilbert PARKER's historical romances are unusual in suggesting a connection between setting and character. Ralph Connor (C.W. GORDON) animated his best-selling, fictionalized sermons with the local colour of Glengarry and the Canadian West.

Regional literature in the more precise sense is tied to the conventions of realism because it attempts to distinguish accurately the features of a clearly definable region, either rural or closely linked to the land. In its fullest achievement such regional literature, as the works of Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner show, is not synonymous with surface detail and pedestrian style but with profound exploration of the shaping influence of particular regions on individual lives.

Anticipated by D.C. Scott's connected short stories In The Village of Viger (1896), by Sara Jeannette DUNCAN'S finely detailed picture of Brantford in THE IMPERIALIST (1904), and by Stephen LEACOCK's humorous insights in SUNSHINE SKETCHES OF A LITTLE TOWN (1912), literary regionalism firmly established itself in Canada in the 1920s, particularly in Frederick Philip GROVE'S suite of essays, Over Prairie Trails (1922), and his novels Settlers of the Marsh (1925) and FRUITS OF THE EARTH (1933).

Other western writers more inclined to the romance, such as Martha OSTENSO, Robert STEAD and Frederick NIVEN, contribute to an identification of literary regionalism and the Prairies in this period. In LITERATURE IN FRENCH, the interest in le terroir, associated with the École littéraire de Montréal in the late 19th century, continued strongly into the 1930s; comparison of Louis HÉMON's MARIA CHAPDELAINE (1916) with TRENTE ARPENTS (1938) by Ringuet (Philippe PANNETON) shows the same shift from sentimentalism to realism that took place in LITERATURE IN ENGLISH.

Until 1940, however, even Grove's frequently ponderous prose and the nostalgia implicit in le terroir justify Brown's view of the inherent weakness of regionalism. But Sinclair ROSS's AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE (1941) demonstrated that Canadian literature could be intensely concerned with regional landscape and social structure, and that it could also be challenging in its shrewd use of form and language.

Certainly much of the most interesting Canadian fiction of the next 15 years is confidently regional: Emily CARR's KLEE WYCK (1941), W.O. MITCHELL's WHO HAS SEEN THE WIND (1947), Hugh MACLENNAN's Each Man's Son (1951), Ernest BUCKLER's The Mountain and the Valley (1952), Ethel WILSON's Hetty Dorval (1947) and SWAMP ANGEL (1954), and Charles BRUCE's The Channel Shore (1954).

More recently Margaret LAURENCE's Manawaka, Alice MUNRO's Jubilee and, in drama, James REANEY's SouWestO have become favourite places in Canadian literature. Except for Edward McCourt's The Canadian West in Fiction (1949; rev 1970), sustained critical comment on literary regionalism did not appear until the early 1970s when a proliferation of studies and anthologies began to change the direction of Canadian studies.

The concurrent decentralization of political power in the 1970s was reflected in various stimuli to the growth and awareness of regional literatures: the development of provincial arts councils or departments of cultural affairs, the creation of academic courses and centres for regional studies, the organization of many conferences with regional emphases, and the appearance of dozens of LITERARY PERIODICALS with pronounced regional loyalties.

A fantastic, or burlesque, or even anti-regional regionalism emerged as a significant extension of regional fiction, especially in the works of such writers as Sheila WATSON, Robert KROETSCH and Jack HODGINS. Meanwhile, many regional SMALL PRESSES, from Breakwater in St John's, Nfld, to Oolichan in Lantzville, BC, appeared to promote the growth of regional poetry, in which the connection between region and realism continues to be strong. Al PURDY's fusing of artifacts, stories and voices of particular regions has been extremely influential. Canadian regional poets, as various as Alden NOWLAN, Don Gutteridge, Andrew SUKNASKI, Glen Sorestad and Peter Trower, find inspiration in Purdy's casual combining of historical processes and the immediately local.

In the 1980s writers and critics have developed a different approach to region, one that is conceptually broader (embracing ideas of culture, wealth and class) and theoretically more focused (incorporating the sciences of perception, cognition, anthropology and rhetoric). Regional presses expanded ambitiously, from poetry to chapbooks to fiction and nonfiction, consolidating their regional interests. A connection to place and land remains important, but the multitude of historical, economic, ethnic and linguistic regions which comprise Harris's archipelago are shifting or destroying the boundaries of the traditional regions (Atlantic, Québec, Ontario, Prairies, British Columbia, North), which have too simplistically shaped the understanding of Canada's literary regionalism.