Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment


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

Background and Context

In 1923 Alfred G. Bailey, then an undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick, expressed his dismay that the Fredericton literary tradition that had peaked with the poetry of Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, and Francis Sherman in the latter part of the 19th century had “sunk to a low ebb” (15). By the start of the 20th century, New Brunswick’s Confederation poets had all left New Brunswick seeking larger audiences in New York and Toronto, and no group of writers had emerged to fill the gap they had left. What is more, there was in the 1920s a growing sense in Canada that the prevailing literary modes of Victorian Romanticism were inadequate to express the drastically altered social and cultural milieu of postwar Canada. This was a sentiment Bailey expressed when he wrote of his first encounter with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, one of the great modernist poems of the new century:

One felt transfigured, and one could only think that the old symbols and intonations and meanings had become completely dead, that a great spiritual void had been created by a sense of the bankruptcy of nineteenth century beliefs and standards, that the economic system under which we lived was in a state of disintegration, that the great urban wilderness of the modern world marked the sterility and death of our society. Eliot supplied the catharsis. (23)

By the 1920s, modernism – a movement in arts and literature that had begun in Europe during the first decade of the 20th century and of which Eliot had been a pioneer – began to take hold in Canada. Increasingly, the rigid structure and whimsical idealism of the Confederation poets was being replaced by a poetry that was free of form, direct, and concerned with challenging the prevailing assumptions of Western society while giving expression to the emergent sensibilities, anxieties, and disillusionment that accompanied modern living.

In 1935, when Bailey arrived in Saint John, the city was home to a small but vibrant literary and arts community that was pioneering modernism in visual arts and poetry. The studio of painter Ted Campbell served as a gathering point for artists, writers, and intellectuals who took an active interest in the arts. Among those who would meet to discuss and critique one another’s work were painters Jack Humphrey, Miller Brittain, and Campbell, potters Erica and Kjeld Deichmann, and poets P.K. Page, Jean Sweet, John Sutherland, and Kay Smith.

When Bailey moved to Fredericton to begin a professorship in history at the University of New Brunswick, he brought with him the creative energy that had coalesced around Ted Campbell’s studio in Saint John. In 1940 Bailey established the Bliss Carman Society, a small poetry collective, and in 1945 he and other members of the Bliss Carman Society founded a little magazine called The Fiddlehead, Canada’s longest-running literary magazine. Like its counterparts in Vancouver (Contemporary Verse) and Montreal (Preview and First Statement), The Fiddlehead provided both a forum for young poets and a nucleus for the emergent modernists in Fredericton.

The Second World War ended in September of 1945 and the beginning of the school year at UNB saw an influx of war veterans. According to leading New Brunswick modernist poet and editor Fred Cogswell, the returning veterans brought with them a “healthy and determined optimism” and that energy “so long stagnated by the Depression, had been set into motion by the War and now was being turned into constructive channels” (qtd. in Galloway 210). By 1946 the Fredericton modernists were forging a new brand of regionally committed and radically localized modernist poetry, initiating a period of literary and cultural ferment. Once again, Fredericton became an important center for literary activity in Canada.

While there were many poets associated with the Fredericton modernists during the 1940s and 50s, the poetry of Alfred G. Bailey, Kay Smith, Fred Cogswell, and Robert Gibbs is particularly representative of the modernist verse produced during the period of literary ferment at mid-century. Characterized by precise imagery, clear language, and formal innovation, the poetry of Bailey, Smith, Cogswell, and Gibbs shows the attraction to literary modernism. Nevertheless, while the work of those poets marks a critical break from the fixed forms employed in the Romantic and Georgian poetry that had dominated much of Canadian poetry in the early twentieth-century, the New Brunswick modernists did not commit to a wholesale rejection of the Confederation poets as did their contemporaries in Canada’s urban centers. They recognized that the literary tradition established by the Confederation poets was vital to the province’s cultural heritage. Instead of rejecting that tradition, then, the mid-century modernists aimed to renew provincial culture by modernizing verse and making it responsive to the turbulent social and cultural milieu of post-war New Brunswick.

The legacy left by the New Brunswick modernists was two-fold. First, they pioneered a unique form of literary modernism that was both attentive to the universality of literature and art, and also deeply rooted in its New Brunswick setting. In doing so, they put Fredericton back on the literary map of Canada. Second, by founding writers’ organizations, arts centers, and little magazines like The Fiddlehead, the New Brunswick modernists established a cultural infrastructure that would assist future generations of writers and artists in the province. Though lesser known than many of Canada’s urban writers that would follow in their wake, the New Brunswick modernists helped to create a cultural environment in the province that nurtured and encouraged innovation in all fields of creative endeavour.

Works Cited

Bailey, Alfred G. “Literary Memories, Part II.” 1974. TS. MS4.7.1.1, Bailey Family Fonds. Harriet Irving Library Archives and Special Collections, Fredericton.

Galloway, David. “SCL Interviews: Fred Cogswell.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études En Littérature Canadienne 10.1-2 (1985): 208-225.

What to Expect in the Literature

Mid-twentieth century modernism allowed not only freedoms of form and expression, but also brought new and quite daring ideas to New Brunswick’s deeply conservative culture. From A.G. Bailey’s reflections on Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples (“Miramichi Lightning”), to Fred Cogswell’s embrace of non-Christian perspectives (“Zen: the Epicure”), to Kay Smith’s treatment of female sexuality (“When a Girl Looks Down”), to Robert Gibbs’ “making strange” of the familiar (“Conservation Procedures”), the modernists harnessed post-war energies to renew the New Brunswick past while also invigorating its present.

In the process, they pioneered the tools of cultural renovation – not only for New Brunswick but also for Canada. The founding of the Bliss Carman Society and The Fiddlehead, as well as the overhaul of provincial curricula, the enhancement of libraries and archives, and the strategic positioning of the University of New Brunswick as the central hub for New Brunswick and Canadian Studies brought established and new writers and artists to the cities of southern New Brunswick. While Bailey and Cogswell built these instruments of renewal at an institutional level, Gibbs and Smith taught and worked with writers and artists to create a critical mass of provincial artists and scholars. The influence of the modernists, then, is not just restricted to their innovations of form and embrace of new ideas, but in the construction of cultural infrastructure and critical direction for the province’s writers.

What readers will encounter in this module’s writers is a series of challenges to the conservative culture of New Brunswick.

Featured Authors

  1. Alfred G. Bailey
  2. Kay Smith
  3. Fred Cogswell
  4. Robert Gibbs

Further Reading

Tremblay, Tony. The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2019.

---. “Mid-Century Emergent Modernism, 1935-1955.” New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017. 101-27.

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 Kay Smith:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Kay Smith.” 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 Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment, the module within which Smith appears:

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