Do We Gag Our Writers?

Why is there no great Canadian novel? Because Canadians are placid, puritanical, behind the times, says MacLennan

HUGH MacLENNAN March 1 1947

Do We Gag Our Writers?

Why is there no great Canadian novel? Because Canadians are placid, puritanical, behind the times, says MacLennan

HUGH MacLENNAN March 1 1947

Do We Gag Our Writers?

Why is there no great Canadian novel? Because Canadians are placid, puritanical, behind the times, says MacLennan


NO ONE knows better than I that Canada is a practical country. She is famous for her railroads and wheat, for her science and her law, for engineering and a capacity for affairs. But she is not famous for her books.

This situation, I believe, is changing. I think the time has come, as it is bound to come in the growth of a country, when books written by Canadians about the Canadian scene are necessary. Up to the present moment they have not appeared necessary for a very simple reason. With a few notable exceptions, they have not been sufficiently significant.

The reason why they have not been significant is not entirely the fault of the writers. It is to a large extent the result of a condition which all Canadian writers have felt, whether they have clearly defined it or not. It is the result of the time lag which is present in so many aspects of Canadian life and thinking.

Long reflection has convinced me that this is the core of the whole matter. To say we are a young country is to put the problem too vaguely and to tell too little. The tune lag to which I refer is something definite. In morals, in manners, in values, even in ambitions and everyday habits, most Canadians live on ä slightly different time level from that of older and more dominant nations of the world. Elderly Americans coming up to this country are apt to feel that Canada reminds them of the United States they knew in their youth. If they are talking about culture, they are not far wrong.

If you look at American books of 40 years ago, you discover a state of mind remarkably similar to that of the public mind of Canada just before the Hitler war. You find a strong puritanism.

You find a tendency to consider that literature should be concerned with “uplift,” instead of with the revelation of youth. You notice an acute sensitivity to criticism of current national shibboleths. In the early part of this century, Theodore Dreiser was always in trouble with the censors, both official and self-appointed, in the United States. Today Americans honor his name. But only last year the book of an American disciple of Theodore Dreiser, the much-respected and completely sincere James Farrell, who has never written a line in order to be sensational, was banned in Canada.

Honest writers are spiritually damaged by being banned. They are apt to lose their balance and sense of proportion if they are considered indecent when they are only trying to be sincere.

For years this old-fashioned attitude toward literature has scared many Canadian writers into impotence. I state it as a fact that for years Canadians were afraid of looking the truth in the face if the truth was a shock to their predigested notions of morality.

Our idea of wickedness was almost invariably

confused with some aspects of sex. Many Canadian readers believed that a writer who presented a sexually sinful man was certain to be sexually sinful himself. This preoccupation blinded many of us to the reality of evil, and reduced our conception of morality to something worse than the ridiculous.

Only recently I read a review of a novel in a Canadian paper: “It is a healthy, refreshing book, clean and free from sex.” The book in question was an adventure story dealing with robbery, murder, piracy, plank-walking and bloodshed on the Spanish Main.

Even while writing these lines, I can estimate the automatic response they are going to produce in some quarters. I would like to soften that response, for I am not a devil’s disciple. I would like to keep the issue clear. I am not recommending that Canadians write books like “Forever Amber,” even though that book outsold all others in Canada in the year of its publication. I object to “Forever Amber,” not because it deals with immorality, but because it deals with it insincerely. Mainly I am concerned with stating evident facts.

The most relevant fact to the subject is this: No man can be a good novelist if he is afraid of life, and no man can be an honest Continued on page 50

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Do We Gag Our Writers?

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novelist if he pretends that human beings are different from what they are. Humanity is more complex than the copybooks pretend. Good is meaningless without evil. Good and evil, in varying degrees, exist within every one of us. Society is not helped by pretending that evil can be done away with if we forbid one another to mention it.

The essence of a good life is balance. The total abstainer is not always a temperate man, and the sexually repressed are seldom the purest.

The nineteenth century gives us a ghastly example of the results produced by the well-meaning perjury popular at that time. At that period, the middle classes of Europe and America, intent on making money and becoming respectable, shut their eyes to nine tenths of the conditions which existed around them. They established such a virulent censorship over literature and conversation that they drove underground the natural impulses to frankness. There they festered, and Europe today is the logical fruit of the hypocrisy of the Victorian age.

Psychologists well know that the first world war, which irreparably

ruined European civilization, was to a great extent caused by the fatuous theory of respectable Victorians that the only sins that mattered were sexual sins, and that it was still another sin to mention these in plain language. As a result, people remained blind to the vicious nationalisms in which they rejoiced. That wicked militarist, Moltke, was admired because he was sexually above reproach.

Economic Powder Keg

Forced in infancy to deny the obvious truths of their natures, the populations were easily led to accept the falsehoods imposed on them by jingoistic leaders. The first war was a monstrous outpouring of all the suppressed and festering desires of two generations. Those who insist, with typical Victorian self-confidence, that the first world war was solely caused by economic rivalries, are at best stating a half-truth more dangerous than a total falsehood. Economic rivalries may have provided the powder keg, but neuroticism supplied the match. You have only to read the memoirs of great politicians and businessmen who have written about their feelings in 1914. With hardly an exception, they were appalled by the prospect of the war.

Until 1939 nearly all of Canada still

clung, rather coldly and without much passion it is true, to this outdated Victorian conception of morality. We took part in the first world war. Our troops acquired a world-wide fame and our casualties were so heavy that for a whole generation the country suffered from the loss. But the Canadians who suffered between 1914 and 1918 had no Remarque to speak for’them, no Dos Passos, no Graves or Sheriff, no Hemingway. One short poem commemorates their sacrifice— “In Flanders Fields”—and this is only a fragment.

The time lag in our social and moral development, the old censorship which stops the Canadian’s tongue when on the point of uttering what is in his heart, stifled our expression a generation ago. Will it stifle it again?

I don’t think it will. At last the discoveries of the great psychologists of this century have begun to penetrate Canadian thinking. The younger generation is a new breed. It is for them, not for the unchanged elders, that the novelist should write. Already the work is beginning.

For the first time in Canada, Canadian books are beginning to take their place beside the work of famous English and American writers, both in volume of sales and in prestige. Young

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Canada is tired and sick of the old conspiracy of silence. Our young people know that beneath the surface Canada is good and bad enough, raw and polished enough, vulgar and noble enough to be presented in realistic terms by a hundred novelists.

To those of us who have tried in the lean years to learn the difficult trade of writing, this rise of a new point of view has been an exhilarating experience. It seems only yesterday that we thought we should probably have to get out of the country if we wanted to write at all. This new demand—so surprising, so rewarding—has at the same time put a weight on our shoulders we had never expected to find there.

For it is one thing to recognize a need, and an entirely different thing to fulfill it. Art can’t be organized by the government or created like an automobile factory by an act of will. It is a mysterious activity. The Canadian writer who takes his work seriously wants to do more than merely write for momentary entertainment, though he never scorns the hope of giving pleasure. He wants Canadian books to be important in the eyes of the outside world. And this is where he finds himself up against a greater hazard than his own frailties. He finds himself formidably up against the time lag in Canadian life. Whether he can overcome this hazard, time and his own ingenuity will decide. He has not overcome it yet.

But before going further into this question, let us first settle another,, which is not irrelevant to it. What makes any book of imagination important to the world? What must a book possess—whether it is written originally in German, Chinese or Russian—to make us feel that the pity and terror, the laughter and good living it evokes, touch our own lives?

What Makes a Good Story?

For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the form of writing I know most about, I shall try to answer this question in terms of the novel. An important novel, like any other important work of art, stands for a great deal more than itself. Its main function is not to answer questions and solve problems, but to illuminate problems and create a sense of life. Essentially— because it stands for more than itself —it is symbolic. The truth it reveals is a symbolic truth. And this symbolism may be of two kinds (or rarely of the two kinds together). For lack of better terms, I call these human symbolism and social symbolism.

The great human themes—man against fate, man against the gods, man in combat with his own predicament as a human being—have already been so marvellously handled by the Greeks and by Shakespeare that writers since the eighteenth century have partially taken them for granted. The serious novel of modem times has usually concentrated on what I have called social symbolism —on man in his relation with organized society, with politics, war, economic conditions, with the local morals of a specific group.

This literature is not, in the light of the ages, the best there is. It is not a heroic literature. It is shrewd, rather than profound; analytic rather than poetic. But on the whole it is the best that has been done in the past century. And it is by reference to this social symbolism that most critics, and most readers, judge the fundamental importance of a book today.

This leads us to a fact which the Canadian writer must face squarely. The importance, in the eyes of the world, of the social novel depends to a

considerable extent on the sociological, political, economic and military importance of the country where the scene is laid. A true novel of social customs and public morals in Soviet Russia would today seem vitally important to almost any reader of books in the world. A novel about social customs and public morals in Bolivia, to take another example, would not.

Let me carry the point one step further. The most important novelist in the world, in the eyes of the Victorians, was Charles Dickens. Today he seems much less significant than some of his early or late contemporaries like Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevski, Turgenev and Tolstoy. The reason is simple.

The great Frenchmen and Russians, though they wrote of deeper human themes than Dickens, with far deeper insight into humanity, wrote of societies which in the nineteenth century seemed to lag behind that of England. Dickens wrote matchlessly of the underside of the industrial revolution, and in the last century, England led the world in industrialization. The industrial way of life began to affect the whole world. But because it hardened in England first, Dickens was able to get a head start on the rest of the world novelists in his subject matter. Characters like Mr. Murdstone, in “David Copperfield,” like Mr. Gradgrind, in “Hard Times,” were profoundly symbolic of what the industrial revolution was doing to the human character.

“Babbitt” Was America

Twenty-five years ago, the mosttalked-of novel in the world was probably Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt.” This was a brilliant book about one of the most preposterously dull characters in all literary history. George F. Babbitt, as an individual man, was completely unimportant. He had the kind of face you can hardly remember even when you are looking at it. But Babbitt, as a symbol, was terrific. For Lewis imposed this man—who believed that civilization is measured solely in terms of bathtubs, gadgets and salesmanship—on the entire world as a typical American. Nearly every foreign country accepted him as a typical American, for the simple reason that all they knew of the United States was its bathtubs, gadgets and salesmanship.

Europeans read that book almost as an act of revenge—of revenge against every American tourist who went to Paris with only one thought in his mind. But if “Babbitt” had been written by a Canadian, about a Canadian — and believe me, there are Babbitts in Canada—it would not have been read by 10,000 people outside of Canada itself. It was a book which rode to international fame on the international importance of the United States.

That was 25 years ago. What of today?

Let me, if I may, use one example of the kind of book which is considered significant today. Let me consider briefly the novel which has been by far the most controversial of the past 15 years . . . Arthur Koestler’s famous book, “Darkness at Noon.”

Koestier was bom in Hungary. He was once a communist but is one no longer. He was a soldier in the British Army in the past war. He has been in political prisons in two different countries. “Darkness at Noon,” in reflecting the kind of world he knows, has been accepted universally—even by those who disagree with its thesis as a great document of our time.

With profound symbolism, the scene of the entire book is laid inside a jail. It presents a full-length picture of the

kind of man who, more than any other, has set the pace for all of us during the past 15 years—the revolutionary who is prepared to sacrifice the well-being of the individual now living for the wellbeing of millions yet unborn . . . who believes, in fact, that the individual is worth nothing, and that the mass is worth all.

No one, just because he happens to live under a political democracy, can afford to dismiss Koestler’s book as a foreign nightmare. The hero of this book differs from many great men in the West—men whom you and I could name—merely because he is completely logical. Many great men in the West act as if the individual was valueless in comparison with the efficiency of the mass, even while they pay service to Christianity. But Koestler’s hero both thinks and acts uniformly.

He is brave. He is clever. He believes a thought is useless unless it is turned into action. Quite literally, he knows too much. Quite literally, he knows too much to survive. And if his life proves anything, it proves this: that the totalitarian state is the logical result of a century of materialism, and that the political prison is the logical result of the totalitarian state.

Have We What It Takes?

Now—let us return to the question of the time lag in Canada. What I have tried to show by these examples is merely this: to a great extent, the significance of the writer’s work depends on the social significance of the country in which he lives and the kind of life he knows. For the writer is a product of his own society.

This question, .therefore, asks itself: Can the Canadian scene, in the modern world, provide material the rest of the world will find vitally important?

Up to the present moment—after noting the single exception of Gwethalyn Graham’s “Earth And High Heaven,” which deals with a universally pressing social theme and happens to be laid in Montreal—the blunt fact must be stated that it has not. Our few famous Canadian writers have been denied that combination of circumstances the critics expect to find when they announce a masterpiece. They have seldom heard a critic state that they have written of a great theme. Stephen Leacock was internationally loved for his humor. Sir Charles Roberts, Ralph Connor and Mazo de la Roche have been read for the pleasure of their stories. To create such pleasure is a great achievement, but the world at large has not paid these writers the compliment of considering them interpreters of dynamic forces at work in society.

One of our finest writers, Morley Callaghan, not only suffered from an unmerited neglect in Canada because he seemed too frank in his examination of society; he was also tagged by Americans with the label of “the Canadian Hemingway”—as if the Canadian scene automatically diminished him. Morley Callaghan is absolutely individual. He does not derive from Hemingway at all.

One American critic, in reviewing a book of my own, said: “Canada is a country which few Americans ever think of except in connection with the Dionne Quintuplets and the Mounted Police.” More succinctly, another American critic provided me with the theme of this whole article in a single sentence: “This book deals with the

problems of Canada, a country which has no important problems at all.” Such remarks are not so absurd as they may sound in Canadian ears. We live in a century of unparalleled violence, and Canada is the most peaceful

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country there is. We live in a century of dynamic political ideas. None of these violent ideas have originated with us, out of the conditions of our lives. The quiet ideal of Canadians— peace in diversity—has been infinitely more successful within its limits than any totalitarian philosophy. It has made a great history of its own and Canadians would do well to remember that the unique experiment of the British Commonwealth of Nations arose out of conditions in Canada to which Canadian statesmen directed the attention of those great administrators, Durham and Elgin, and that the work these men furthered was begun almost a century earlier with the Quebec Act.

But it is the tragedy of the present century that its tone has not been set by any ideal so quietly reasonable as this. The wars and revolutions which * have enthralled and horrified the imagination of our time have not been produced by people who prized peace in diversity. They have been products of a point of view which prizes uniformity above all else. It is vastly to the credit of Canada that she is not typical of the age we live in. But this fact makes it difficult for the Canadian writer, presenting the Canadian scene in honest terms, to produce work which appears truly representative of the twentieth century.

Industrial Age

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we live in an age entirely dominated by industrial technology. One of our chief claims to social significance, many believe, is our rapid change fro n an agricultural to an industrial nation.

Has it profited our writers to celebrate this change? It profited Frederick Philip Grove very little, for he has been neglected even in Canada. What of Gabrielle Roy? Her “Bonheur d’Occasion” is certainly the best fictional study we possess of the proletariat in a Canadian city. “Bonheur d’Occasion” is a magnificent novel, vibrant, sympathetic and true. For Canada it was. an event. It was acclaimed by nearly everyone who read it in the French in which she wrote it. But “Bonheur d’Occasion” handles almost exactly the same kind of society which Dickens discussed. It handles it with equal acuteness and with a modern approach. Now that a large American book club has sponsored it, hundreds of thousands of Americans will become acquainted with it too. If it seems as exciting and important to them as it does to us, it will be great news for Canadian literature.

At the moment the question remains: can a Canadian, entering on the scene of world literature so late, write truly of what he sees in Canada without appearing somewhat old-fashioned?

I have a vested interest in optimism and so I believe he can. The quiet vitality of this country has not yet been tapped. We will not go on thinking small forever. At this moment— somewhere in the Maritime provinces, somewhere in Ontario or the West, perhaps in Montreal itself—there may be an unknown young man who has within him the genius to discover an entirely new form of writing. And besides, there is no necessity for believing that the kind of social novel I have been describing is the only kind that is good. Literary fashions change with human needs.

It seems to me that the sociological novel has already neared the saturation point in human interest. I think so because I believe the world must either abandon its present disastrous reliance on scientific and material progress or perish, like Koestler’s hero, of an excess

of its own ingenuity. Unless the individual is restored to his own rights, unless he is respected for his own value, there will soon be no books, no art, no happiness, and perhaps no life on this planet. The atomic bomb, which wipes out in a single flash the innocent with the guilty, the genius with the idiot, is the ultimate proof that materialistic man is not fit for survival.

If the time comes when the sociological novel of today can be replaced by the novel which concentrates on the older, deeper and more universal humanity of the ancient Greeks, then the time lag in Canada will no longer hinder Canadian writers. If this development occurs, the entire world will have changed. Man will have recovered his old confidence in his own value as an individual human being, and literature will no longer be obsessed with social types.

But the present is still very much with us. And at the present it is not practical for any writer, in Canada or anywhere else, to leave out of his work the effect of his own society on his characters. At the present moment the Canadian writer must write of what is probably the most quiet and internally secure nation in the whole world. Our security may not last, but such as it is, it is essentially Canadian, for to a great extent it derives from the quiet character of the Canadian people.

We know these things, but who else does? I submit that it is vitally important for the rest of the world to know the kind of men who live in a country which is so unique. Who is going to tell about them? Not the politician; he has other things to talk about. Not the journalist; facts are his job. Photographers and those who compile tourist folders concentrate on romantic landscape. I can see no one else who is capable of fulfilling this function but Canadian writers who are willing and trained to create a living literature.

It is their opportunity to hammer out a literary pattern for Canadian life. They must capture the flavor of the

varying shades of Canadian speech, bring the landscape to life as our painters have done, make visible the small towns of the provinces and the changes wrought when small-town people move into large cities. And they can’t afford to stop there. Somehow they must go on, and link up the pattern in Canada with the patterns of older nations. And they can aftord to take nothing for granted. Our writers must assume that they are writing of an entirely unknown country until they themselves have made her known.

During the next 15 years better books will be written by Canadians, in greater numbers than the sum total of all we have to date. Somehow, I feel sure, Canadian writers will find their own way of defeating the present opposition of the time lag. Where there is a will to work, the work is generally done.

That work of the writer, fundamentally, is illumination. Finished art produces nothing, cures nothing, moves nothing, governs nothing. In the eyes of the materialist, it is completely useless. But it is the light of society, and it is the only agent which reveals, and in revealing imparts, a new and peculiar meaning to the men and women who served as its raw material.

All that I have been saying adds up to this one implication: It is necessary for the rest of the world to read good novels about Canada. Today Canadians are sitting in the councils of the nations. We may lag behind the time level of those countries which are setting the pace. But we are far ahead of most of the others. It appears to be Canada’s place to mediate between the two groups. Therefore, what stands behind the words of our representatives must be understood by everyone.

I leave you with one more question: How would the world know so well the value of the opinion of an Englishman or of a Frenchman, or of an American in these council chambers, if the world did not believe it knew how the English, the French, and the Americans live and think, after generations of reading the literature of these three countries? It