Thumbnail Sketches: What to Expect in the Literature
Below are brief summaries of Module contents. Modules mirror the dominant historical periods or clusters of New Brunswick literature. For more detailed explanations of the characteristics of those dominant periods, see “Background and Context” information at the top of each Module.
The literature of First Nations peoples in New Brunswick is rooted in traditions, forms, and histories that are unfamiliar to non-Indigenous readers. First Nations literature is oral, meaning that it is meant to be spoken and heard in its original language, and it is also utilitarian, a storehouse of knowledge from which the First Nations draw. For our purposes, the stories in this curriculum are presented in written form and in English translation; however, readers should remember the differences between oral and written traditions, and consider these stories, as much as possible, within the context of the First Nations rather than that of European or settler communities.
Two stories in this module (“How the Wabanaki Confederacy Began” and “Glooscap and His Four Visitors”) carry Christian undertones, likely introduced to the tales before they were recorded and translated. These Christian echoes reflect both the flexibility of First Nations orality – stories would adapt to new and changing circumstances – and the ways in which European influence altered, and often harmed, Indigenous culture.
Language is key to the oral traditions of all Indigenous peoples. In the introduction to his still-relevant Legends of the Micmacs, Rev. Silas T. Rand noted that none of the Mi’kmaq he met told their stories in English, despite knowing the language well (Rand would read back his English translations to the storytellers, who would offer corrections). Part of the tragedy of Canada’s colonial legacy with the First Nations, then, is linguistic assimilation. As knowledge of Indigenous languages declined, so too did knowledge of First Nations history and society.
Jacques Cartier’s Voyages and John Gyles’ Memoirs of Odd Adventures provide valuable insight into early European attitudes toward Indigenous peoples in New Brunswick. Marked by a sense of entitlement to the lands that others occupied, the colonizing attitudes on display in Cartier and Gyles are offensive today. That said, it is important to read and study those early accounts, not only as history but also as shapers of colonialist attitudes sustained even to the present day.
The writings of pre-Confederation authors are markedly different in subject and tone from the works that appear later. Indeed, there is very little in this module’s texts that code them as “New Brunswick.” William Leggett’s “The Harp of Brunswick” suggests the reason for that: namely, that a sense of New Brunswick as a distinct place has not yet materialized. Thus, many authors – chiefly Jonathan Odell, Adam Allan, Oliver Goldsmith, and, despite his awareness of the fact, Leggett himself – address New Brunswick in the language and imagery of other places. As settlement becomes more established in the province, though, so does a literature that is distinctly New Brunswick, beginning with the imagery found in Peter John Allan’s work.
Readers will note that many of the authors in this module are not only intensely political, but also likeminded in their pro-British imperialism, hostile to those outside of it (whether Indigenous peoples or American revolutionaries), and Christian in outlook (primarily Protestant). Many of the writers are Loyalists or descendants, and thus inheritors of a conservative, class-based ethos. The exception to this is Martin Butler. His difference in political philosophy is reflected in his work, but he is also the exception that proves the rule, his life made difficult by his otherness. Again, the now-dated, pro-British sympathies of the time should not be discounted, for those sympathies shaped the political attitudes in New Brunswick – and the hegemony against which Acadian, Irish, and working-class writers in the province would later react.
A distinct New Brunswick literature emerges in the work of the Confederation poets. Possessing, finally, the rootedness and loyalty to place, the familiarity with landscape, and the leisure to create imaginative worlds, this group of Fredericton poets become not just the first school of New Brunswick writers but also the first distinctly nationalist group in a fledgling Canada.
A major theme in New Brunswick literature makes its first appearance in Roberts’ “The Tantramar Revisited.” That theme is outmigration, which strikes a sharp contrast to Oliver Goldsmith’s depiction of growth and prosperity in The Rising Village (see Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets). While outmigration and economic disadvantage will be explored in greater depth by later poets such as A.G. Bailey (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment), Alden Nowlan, and Elizabeth Brewster (see Confessional Humanism), that this dominant theme of New Brunswick appears here, just after Confederation, is not coincidental.
One of the most significant departures from earlier writers is how the Confederation poets treat landscape. Unlike pre-Confederation writers such as Adam Allan and William Leggett, who treat landscape solely through description, the Confederation poets explore the effect of landscape on the human psyche, examining the ways that environment seeps into consciousness.
New Brunswick is rather unique in the country (perhaps “isolated” is the more apt word) for not possessing a contemporary historical fiction – a fiction, that is, that takes a measure of a region’s history in order to explore the genesis of attitudes and to “trouble” those attitudes. This is not to suggest that writers of contemporary historical fiction seek to re-write history from the always-enlightened perspective of the present, but rather to say that writers of historical fiction are essential to all cultures for the light they shine on the past. Such writers often are critical of past practices, but they are critical in the service of greater understanding. They work from the premise that to know oneself and one’s culture, we all must look in the rear-view mirror. And they also work from the premise that all history is fiction, a series of stories and interpretations that are written by the powerful and that change over time. If history is fiction, they surmise, then so too is identity, that sense we have of ourselves that is informed by where we come from, where we are, and what stories we choose to tell about ourselves.
In New Brunswick, historical fiction of an earlier type (more searching, less critical) made an appearance in the nineteenth century. Douglas Huyghue’s Argimou: A Legend of the Micmac was released in serial form in 1842. The novel examined both the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians and the collision of European and Indigenous cultures. Moses Henry Perley and later Charles G.D. Roberts undertook work of a similar type, but the spirit of Huyghue’s social conscience was never repeated in New Brunswick with the same moral urgency.
In The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007), readers will encounter one of the few examples of contemporary historical fiction in the province. The novel examines New Brunswick’s pre- and post-Loyalist tableaux, shedding light on a history that most New Brunswickers do not know. We hope that the novel sparks others to write about the province’s past in the ways that Prairie, Newfoundland, and Quebec writers have done for generations – and with lasting benefit.
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.
Where the Confederation poets focussed on the intersections of landscape and psyche, musing about environment as a total field (that which was both inside and outside the individual), the confessional poets focus on how the social environment shapes the individual. For the latter group, environment includes class, age, faith, family, gender, and other social determinants. Anticipating and coincident with the reforms of New Brunswick social renovator Louis Robichaud, the province’s first elected Acadian premier, the confessional poets write about the vulnerable, the forgotten, and the disadvantaged. Whether the teenaged mother in Alden Nowlan’s “Beginning” and “It’s Good to be Here,” the bag lady in his “Daughter of Zion,” or the footnoted economic migrants in Elizabeth Brewster’s “River Song,” the subjects at the centre of this module’s poetry are what earlier critics might have called “the unpoetic” – that is, they are not beautiful, powerful, learned, or rich. What makes them apt subjects for poetry, however, and thus poetic, is that they are human. The great advance of Nowlan and Brewster, then, is their exploration of both the “how” and the “why” of personal disenfranchisement in the province.
While Nowlan and Brewster’s concerns appeared in some of the work of their predecessors – Charles G.D. Roberts’ treatment of leaving and return, for example, or Francis Sherman’s preoccupation with ennui (see Confederation Poets) – there was always a measure of intellectual or emotional distance between those earlier writers and the suffering they portrayed. By contrast, Nowlan and Brewster’s intensely personal portrayals offer poignant, sympathetic treatments that have no trace of artifice and, as significantly, few equivalents in Canadian literature.
Readers should note the situational aspects of the work of the confessional poets, and ponder the appropriateness of such work in a “have-not” province. Again, linkages to the earlier notions of the environment as total field, an idea pioneered in the work of New Brunswick’s Confederation poets, is useful for understanding contemporary literary humanism in a provincial context.
New Brunswick’s Tantramar poets literally “revisited” and advanced the environment-as-total-field perspective of the earlier Confederation poets. Whereas the confessional poets (Alden Nowlan and Elizabeth Brewster) placed human vulnerabilities at the centre of that total field, the Tantramar group redoubled interest in landscape-as-landscape, thus re-mythologizing New Brunswick space in ways similar to how Tantramar painter Alex Colville did – and as later photographer Thaddeus Holownia would do.
Their work seeks to enter landscape; that is, to enter into dialogue with an environment that is not just dominant but, because of its configuration (long sloping grasslands that go down to the sea), envelopes humans in its contours. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Charles G.D. Roberts pioneered his own period’s embrace of landscape in the same locale (the Parish of Westcock).
Beginning with John Thompson, the Tantramar writers entered landscape by literally going into the marsh to meet wilderness on wilderness’ terms. Attempting to articulate what they found, they brought language to its crisis point, either exhausting its potential or coming up against its limitations. Their work, as a result, is often characterized by gaps and silences, the interval or lacuna becoming the space across which humans cannot reach. In their forays into wilderness, the Tantramar writers should be read as some of the earliest pioneers of eco-poetics in Canada.
The most likely question to be asked about this module is Why include French literature in an English-language curriculum, even if that literature appears in English translation? That is a fair question, especially in New Brunswick, where, despite legislated bilingualism and all the promise it entails, a divisive biculturalism has been the norm. New Brunswick is a province of two solitudes (two dominant language cultures) where the politics of language has been used on both sides to serve ideological ends. Including Acadian literature in this English-language curriculum, then, serves a number of purposes. It recognizes that Acadians are a large, vibrant, and essential community in the province; it acknowledges that Acadians have advanced far beyond English New Brunswickers in their cultivation and preservation of cultural enterprise; it celebrates the world-class achievement of Acadian writers; and it reaches across the divide in the province to declare that building bridges between both language communities is vital for our future. Put simply, we will not advance as a province until we find better ways to come together.
Language is as important to Acadian writers as it is to Indigenous peoples. Both are working very hard to keep language, the storehouse of their culture and history, alive. For Acadians, writing in French or its various vernaculars (Chiac the most well-known) is a political act in a province where being Francophone has led to secondary or at best minority status. A useful way to approach Acadian writing, then, is to think of it as an alternative consciousness within New Brunswick. That consciousness does indeed reveal the struggles of minority citizens, but it also reveals the enlivened, resilient, and deeply humane spirit of a vibrant people. The Acadian voices in this module are humorous and playful, and generally more daring linguistically and metaphorically than many of the Anglophone writers we’ve encountered. That is not to imply that Acadian writers are better or more experimental, but that their narratives and styles differ from the dominant Anglican/Protestant/Loyalist forms that we’ve encountered.
Because language shapes perspective, Acadian literature, even in English translation, offers English New Brunswickers a vista to different ways of seeing the province. We should be grateful for that perspective, just as Acadians should be grateful for the perspective we offer.
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 defeat.”
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 provides the occasion to think about how the province is represented in literature and how grievance can be marshalled to elicit notice.
The field of contemporary literature in New Brunswick is varied and dynamic. No one writer dominates, nor does one school or region of the province stand out. The most telling feature of contemporary writing is the fact that most of the writers in this module were born but no longer live in New Brunswick. The only time that happened with the same frequency was in the era of the Confederation poets – and then, like now, economic outmigration was at the root of absence. Elisabeth Harvor lives in Ottawa, Brian Bartlett in Halifax, Alan Wilson in Victoria, Richard Vaughan in Toronto, and Tammy Armstrong in southwest Nova Scotia. It is not surprising, then, that feelings of waywardness and deracination are evident in our contemporary literature.
Those feelings are not tied to postmodern moods of angst or listlessness, but to a sense of ambivalence about New Brunswick. Whether writers feel they have been riven from place by economic circumstance or choose to distance themselves from what they feel are outmoded notions of place-based sympathy and fidelity, the result is the same: writers have been orphaned, and like all orphans have an uneasy relationship with parentage.
What readers should look for in this module is the extent to which those feelings of ambivalence about New Brunswick are changing the narrative of the province. Is New Brunswick sustainable as an imagined space when so many of its finest writers are outside its borders? And if it is, how is its identity changing as it is increasingly viewed at a distance, as both memory and regret? Is it being turned to folklore or is it being further modernized by outside perspectives, perspectives that, perhaps, represent the new norm in the 21st century?