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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.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
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. New’s 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 had 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 everyone—at least in continental Europe—to 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 irritating—almost 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 authors, it offers very helpful concise texts on more or less important "literary and social issues, professional institutions that play a role in the lives of Canadian 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 awards, 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 lines.

National narratives are gendered in ways that mythologize a nation's identity, both past and present. If we compare Canada to the United States and consider 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, we might conclude that the American national mythos is masculine and the Canadian more feminine (though it is nevertheless not without violence in its history). If we consider the enormous success both within and beyond Canada's borders of 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 literature, if not in the nation itself. (426)

Ask 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 is certainly 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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