The Literary Titans Team Reflects on the Evolution of CanLit

The Literary Titans Team Reflects on the Evolution of CanLit

Posted on August 31 by Kyle in Non-fiction
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Before the mid-twentieth century, if you’d asked someone to describe a quintessentially Canadian story, they might’ve used the words “historical” and “wilderness”. That’s because many of the popular Canadian books from this period — such as Wacousta (1832) or The Man From Glengarry (1901) — followed characters contending with natural forces and historical contexts. These kinds of books created a mythology around a so-called Canadian identity: a mythology rooted in the natural landscape and a particular version of the country’s history.

Yet, as we discovered through our research, the Canadian writers of the 1960s and 70s did things differently. They didn’t confine their literary imaginations to the wilds or to the past. Authors like Mordecai Richler and poets like Raymond Souster described distinctly urban spaces; Richler sets much of his work in his native Montreal, while Souster’s poetry abounds with intimate vignettes of Toronto, the city he called home for almost his entire life.

Others expand their geographic scope even farther, and engage with the international political issues of their day. Dorothy Livesay worked as a communist activist and writer during the interwar years, while Hugh Garner travelled to Spain to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and Souster penned a long, bitter poem that railed against the injustices of the Vietnam War. Clearly, these authors were neither insular nor backward-looking; they were engaged with the world beyond their national borders, and created literature that reflected this engagement.

Others still dealt with more personal themes — aging, loss, love, and family — that transcend any specific national context. In The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence paints a vivid portrait of Hagar Shipley’s physical and mental decline, and Irving Layton’s “Song for Naomi” captures the bittersweet experience of a parent watching their child grow.

In short, the authors of the mid-century CanLit boom created works that are both timely and timeless, engaged with their contemporary context, but rooted in broader human emotions and experiences.

Canadian writing is just as exciting, timely, and timeless now as it was during the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s writers — and readers — are even more diverse, and this diversity enriches our literary culture, in terms of both breadth and depth.

What’s been fascinating for us — as people who have been reading, studying, and thinking about Canadian literature — is how certain themes recur and morph throughout our literary history. For instance, Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 Two Solitudes is considered to be a seminal novel on the divide between English and French Canada. When it was published, many believed this divide to be deep-rooted and difficult to overcome, due to a lack of communication and goodwill on both sides. Almost seventy years later, Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night re-engages with this theme of an Anglophone–Francophone divide, albeit with a completely different style and narrator than MacLennan. Still other authors challenge the notion that the English–French divide is the biggest rift on our political landscape, with Indigenous writers like Eden Robinson, Katherena Vermette, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson exploring the fraught relationships between Canada and First Nations. So, even this single theme of a divided Canadian identity has many permutations throughout literary history; the dialogue around this issue, and many others, keeps growing and evolving along with our literature.

We feel privileged to have had the chance to learn about prominent Canadian writers from the 1960s and 70s, and can’t wait to watch the country’s literary scene continue to flourish.