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Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada
W.H. New, ed.
Toronto & London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
CDN$75.00, USD$75.00, £50, 1357 pages, ISBN 0802007619.
Université de Rouen
W.H. New is University Killam Professor at the University of British Columbia.
He was the editor of the well-known journal Canadian Literature from 1977
to 1994. He has written more than forty books, principally collections of poems
and literary criticism, including A History of Canadian Literature (1989).
He has been a member of the Royal Society of Canada since 1986. W.H. News
impressive Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada is an invaluable and indispensable
addition to the library of anyone interested in the literatures (plural intended)
of Canada and should be ordered by the libraries of every English and French
department across the globe. It is on a par with encyclopedic books such as Margaret
Drabble's essential Oxford Companion to English Literature.
W.H. New has recruited more than 300 contributors, all of them distinguished
Canadianists. This might seem a bit excessive to some, but on the contrary it
means that each and every one of the 2000 or so entries has been written by a
real specialist. As reference books go it is extremely up to date, every contributor
having made sure that no recent development eluded them, as far as I can judge.
This Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada is politically correct, in
the non-derogatory sense of the phrase, discussing as it does not only literature
in French and English, but also in Yiddish, Spanish, Haida and Cree. Flipping
through it I learnt things I did not even remotely suspect. Some writers I
assumed were American (and I know I'm not the only one) turned out to be Canadian,
the way some Canadian actors like Christopher Plummer are thought by everyoneat
least in continental Europeto be British or American.
As you do with such books, I immediately reached for the entries concerning authors
I was familiar with, confronting my own knowledge and personal tastes with that
of the authors. Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Audrey Thomas,
Michel Tremblay, Nancy Huston, Alice Munro (more than two excellent pages by
Coral Ann Howells, author of successful books of criticism on the Gothic, Margaret
Atwood, Jean Rhys, and women novelists in general), Russell Smith (cf. in particular
his 1999 book Young Men), Aritha Van Herk, Timothy Findley, Mordecai
Richler, Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, etc., and found nothing shocking
or even slightly
irritatingalmost frustrating really.
I was a bit disappointed not to find Donna Morrissey, though. The book jumps
from Norval Morrisseau to Stephen Morrissey. Morrisseau is a fascinating character,
more of a painter than a writer (I remember seeing his "shamanic" work
in Paris back in the 1980s), he has transcribed some of the traditional oral
narratives of his Ojibwa ancestors. Stephen Morrissey is a Jungian poet. Why
isn't Donna Morrissey featured between the two? Is she too new? Too much of
a bestseller? Downhill Chance (2002), reviewed in Cercles, was on the
bestseller list in Canada for more than twenty weeks.
Canadian literatures are increasingly read and taught outside Canada, and these
past few years Canadian authors have won just about every famous literary prize.
At a time like this, the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada is particularly
welcome, as it will help the ongoing critical reflection on the subject and
possibly foster new research. Besides the individual entries on individual
offers very helpful concise texts on more or less important "literary
and social issues, professional institutions that play a role in the lives
writers, and the major historical and cultural events that have shaped Canada
] commentaries on humor and satire, genre (including radio drama and
the long poem), social history, film, television and popular culture, literary
language, critical theory, the oral literatures of the First Nations, petroglyphs,
the publishing industry, journalism, gender, race, religion, region, myth,
and class." The longish entry on "gender and gender relations" by
Donna Palmateer Pennee contains more than a fair share of highly interesting
narratives are gendered in ways that mythologize a nation's identity,
both past and present. If we compare Canada to the United States
that, for the most part, Canada has worked with a relatively low-level national
definition, that it did not have a "frontier," that it did not
make a revolutionary break with the "mother" country (Britain),
and that it does not present itself on the world stage as a military heavyweight,
might conclude that the American national mythos is masculine and the Canadian
feminine (though it is nevertheless not without violence in its history).
If we consider the enormous success both within and beyond Canada's borders
many of "her" women writers, we might say that the historical gender
imbalance of masculine over feminine has long been overcome in the nation's
if not in the nation itself. (426)
your friends to cite as many contemporary Canadian novelists as
they can, you will find that they come up with a majority
of female names. This
not the case with British or American novelists.
All those texts are completed by a chronology, an additional index, and
suggestions for further reading. As the critic Sam Solecki (the authority
on Czech-Canadian author Josef Skvorecky) put it: "This is a very impressive work of scholarship
that will be invaluable to scholars, students and general readers. I can't
imagine anyone seriously interested in this country's literatures who will
not want to
own a copy."
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