The Literary Miramichi


  1. Background and Context
  2. What to Expect in the Literature
  3. Featured Authors
  4. Further Reading
  5. How to Cite

Background and Context

Flowing more than 250 kilometers from its headwaters to Miramichi Bay, the Miramichi River drains a watershed that comprises one-fifth of New Brunswick’s territory. The river has been crucial to the social, economic, and cultural life of central and eastern New Brunswick since the Mi’kmaq first inhabited the region more than 10,000 years ago. It remains so today: as Tony Tremblay has observed of the Miramichi, “the region is resource dependent, and its most important resource is the river” (3). The remote villages of Blackville and Doaktown, the Mi’kmaq communities of Indian Point (Sunny Corner) and Burnt Church, and the former towns of Newcastle and Chatham (now part of the city of Miramichi) are but a few of the many communities scattered along the Miramichi River and its tributaries. Representing a diversity of languages, religions, ethnicities, and politics, these communities are united, observes Tremblay, by their relationship to the river (4). This shared relationship creates a sense of cultural cohesion among otherwise disparate communities.

The river has always been central to the region’s economy – to the lumber industry, to the Atlantic salmon fishery, and to the once-great shipbuilding industry. When shipbuilding and lumbering waned in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, pulp and paper production and mining took their place as the region’s staple industries. The river remained vital to these industries even after the 1875 completion of the Intercolonial Railway link between Moncton and Campbellton, which passed through Newcastle and which would eventually connect the Miramichi region with the rest of Canada.

For inhabitants of the Miramichi, however, the river was more than a source of industry and income; it was a way of life. As David Adams Richards wrote in River of the Brokenhearted (2003), it was a river “that would swallow you with its life, shout in its rapids, laugh in its eddies, create industry in its currents, a river of Irish and Scottish myth, wedded to the soil” (56). The river was at the heart of the region’s cultural imagination and the stories and songs spun and sung in the lumber camps and on the river imbued the region with a rich folk tradition. Hunting and fishing (“sports”) culture also contributed to the region’s story-telling tradition as sportsmen, with humorous exaggeration, told of their adventures on the water and in the woods of Miramichi.

The first writer from the region to gain renown, Michael Whelan, contributed greatly to this folk tradition. Whelan was influenced by the Scots-Irish narrative tradition that had been brought to the river by Scottish settlers who arrived in the late eighteenth century and by Irish immigrants who began to arrive in the early nineteenth century. In fact, Whelan’s father was an immigrant from County Laois, Ireland, and Whelan’s poetry reflected his Irish Catholic heritage. Whelan’s first book, Poems and Songs, was published in 1895 and described the people and landscape of his beloved Miramichi. It would be more than half a century before a significant flowering of literary activity would appear in the Miramichi, but later writers were nevertheless indebted to Whelan’s work. He was the first to give expression to life on the river, passing down to later writers a sense of local literary heritage and a buoyant self-sufficiency.

The example set by Whelan was just one of many factors that contributed to the Miramichi’s literary renaissance in the latter half of the twentieth century. St. Thomas College, established in Chatham as a secondary school and junior college in 1910 and gaining degree-granting status as a university in 1934, provided the region with an intellectual and cultural nucleus. Even after St. Thomas University moved to Fredericton in 1964 (much to the chagrin of most in the region) it retained close ties to the Miramichi, and many Miramichiers, including the writer David Adams Richards, moved to Fredericton to attend St. Thomas during the 1960s. Two important teachers at Newcastle’s Harkins High School, Doug Shanahan and Doug Underhill (known as “the two Dougs”), would also have a significant influence on young writers of the Miramichi. Finally, Newcastle was the childhood home of Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, who would become an important patron of the arts on the Miramichi, amassing an enormous personal library and providing the financial resources for the region’s cultural infrastructure. Beaverbrook provided folklorist Louise Manny with the resources to record stories and music from the area, funding her work and many other historical, archival, and heritage-preservation projects.

These positive conditions created the perfect environment for a surge of literary activity in the 1960s and 1970s. At the forefront of this literary upsurge were three important writers: Raymond Fraser, Wayne Curtis, and David Adams Richards. Beginning with Fraser’s Poems for the Miramichi in 1965, the region became the setting for some of the earliest expressions of social realism in Canada. With the publication of Fraser’s Black Horse Tavern (1972) and Richards’ The Coming of Winter (1974), the Miramichi, which provided the setting for both works, was catapulted onto the national stage.

The works of Richards and Fraser provide distillations of Maritime life through the lenses of social realism – a genre of art and literature which depicts the everyday lives of the working class and the poor realistically, without fancy or idealism. In contrast to the fantastical depictions of the Miramichi provided by Michael Whelan, Fraser and Richards depict marginalized, working-class characters whose lives have been shaped (but their dignities not eroded) by poverty, class conflict, alcoholism, and violence. In this way, their work reflects the economic decline of the Miramichi that began after the First World War and whose social impact became increasingly detrimental in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In contrast to the work of Fraser and Richards, the fiction of Wayne Curtis bends toward social romance. Fantasy, extravagance, and adventure are the hallmarks of social romance, as well as nostalgia for a lost time and place or for lost traditions. Like Fraser and Richards, Curtis’ work is deeply informed by its Miramichi setting, offering stunning portraits of the region’s landscape and historical way of life. As such, Curtis has become the literary scene painter par excellence on the Miramichi, his essays especially valuable as timepieces that evoke the psychic attachments that New Brunswickers have to their places of origin. His first book, a collection of essays titled Currents in the Stream, was published in 1988, and since that time he has become one of the most prolific writers in the province.

Works Cited

Richards, David Adams. River of the Brokenhearted. Toronto: Doubleday, 2003.

Tremblay, Tony. “Introduction: Cultural Life on the Miramichi.” David Adams Richards of the Miramichi. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. 3-17.

What to Expect in the Literature

Like the confessional humanists before them, and the powerful figure of Alden Nowlan who influenced them, Raymond Fraser and David Adams Richards parse out how environment shapes individuals, specifically those individuals who belong to the underclass. Their explorations are neither pretty nor comforting – nor have they been popular among people who insist on believing in the New Brunswick pastoral, that sense of the province as pristine, innocent, and folksy.

The power of Fraser and Richards, however, is in their frankness. Each shows that poverty, alcoholism, and violence are not the result of personal failing (as far right political ideology would have us believe), but from social and familial cycles that are structurally embedded in economics, education, religion, politics, etc. As such, the work of Fraser and Richards combats the longstanding perception that New Brunswickers (and, more generally, Atlantic Canadians) are gripped by what ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper characterized as “a culture of defeatism.”

The social realism of Fraser and Richards is in sharp contrast to the social romance of Wayne Curtis. Readers of this module will want to consider why these authors, all from the same region and roughly the same age, adopt these different approaches in their work. Is it because of slight differences in location (Fraser and Richards spent their formative years in the towns of Chatham and Newcastle, while Curtis had a much more rural experience upriver)? Whatever the reason, the differences in approach to “writing” place provide the occasion to think about how the province is represented in literature and how grievance can be marshalled to elicit notice.

Featured Authors

  1. Michael Whelan
  2. Raymond Fraser
  3. David Adams Richards
  4. Wayne Curtis

Further Reading

Fraser, James A. By Favourable Winds: A History of Chatham, New Brunswick. Chatham: Town of Chatham, 1975.

MacAllister, Edith. Newcastle on the Miramichi: A Brief History. Newcastle: Newcastle Printing, 1974.

Manny, Louise, and James Reginald Wilson, eds. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton: Brunswick P, 1968.

Martin, Lois. Historical Sketches of the Miramichi. Chatham and Newcastle: Bicentennial Committees of Chatham and Newcastle, 1985.

Tremblay, Tony. “Introduction: Cultural Life on the Miramichi.” David Adams Richards of the Miramichi. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. 3-17.

How to Cite

Use of material in the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English is restricted to scholarly, research, or educational purposes only. Use should include appropriate citations. The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the author pages for Wayne Curtis:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Wayne Curtis.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.

The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the module pages for The Literary Miramichi, the module within which Curtis appears:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “The Literary Miramichi: Background and Context.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.