In novelist John Irving’s 1989 best-seller, A Prayer for Owen Meany, published this month in paperback, Meany notes in a diary that his best friend should leave a “morally exhausted” United States during the Vietnam War as a matter ofconscience and for his peace of mind (like Irving, the character was exempted from military draft) and settle in Canada. “I’m sure it’s a nice country to live in,” Meany says. Nice enough, the friend finds, when he moves to Toronto and settles there as a schoolteacher. But he remains transfixed by the moral and political issues that plague his native land. Irving himself, who was born and
raised in Exeter, N.H., lives and writes part time in Canada—roughly one-third of each year in all, he estimates.
Irving and his Canadian wife of three years, literary agent Janet Turnbull Irving, divide their time among an apartment in Toronto, a summer cottage on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and a home on Long Island, N. Y, a base that they plan to leave for a new house that they are building in southern Vermont. Irving, 48, visited Atlantic Canada in his boyhood summers and Montreal as a youth. He discussed the two countries, and whether they should become one, in a two-hour conversation with Maclean’s in the Toronto home that the Irvings also use as a workplace. Excerpts from that conversation-.
Throughout my childhood, Canada was always perceived as a more beautiful, unspoiled version of New Hampshire and Maine. We certainly had—I think most Americans had—no sense of any nationalistic differences. As kids, we were interested in the ocean and fishing and lakes and forests, and the Canadians we met were all interested in the same thing. So it was never perceived as particularly different. It was always summertime; it was always people who enjoyed the outdoors.
It wasn’t until I lived in Vermont in the 1960s and spent a lot of time in Montreal that I was aware of a political life in this country that was quite different and separate and not at all connected to my own. It was a great shock to me to realize, at a certain time in the 1960s, that if you were seen in Montreal as an EnglishCanadian you were treated rather badly, but if you were seen as an American it was okay. It was okay if you didn’t speak French if you were an American. And that was probably my first awareness of this country as having a political life. I just made the gross assumption, that I think all Americans make, that the way things are done in Canada are rather like they are done in New Hampshire and Minnesota. During the Vietnam years, I had friends who came here, and stayed here, both in Montreal and Toronto. I was of that generation where there was a lot of deciding where to live, and I remember spending many hours with friends who were weighing the differences among Stockholm and Montreal and Toronto. I did know people, largely after the fact of the Vietnam years and not out of need to evade the draft, who just simply left. It was that period of the late 1960s, between 1968 and 1970-1971, that a lot of people were just disgusted with what I would call ingrained deceit on the part of government. And I think the effects of that decade are still with us. I think that a sizable per cent of the people in the United States who do not vote are people who were conditioned in the 1960s to assume that anything anyone in government said could automatically be discounted.
Should Canada and the United States become one country? Are they already one country culturally? I see it as a very basic conflict. It is the expectation of Canada’s social system to look after the people who cannot take care of themselves. There is no such expectation in the United States. That is a huge difference between our two countries. And if our two countries were conceivably one day to merge, I do not think that Canada’s social welfare system would prevail in the United States. I think that our lack of social consciousness would overrun this country and be rather widely embraced by this country in a hurry.
I could put on another hat and say that, from a writer’s point of view, I think nationalism in all its forms is both intellectually and artistically indefensible. I think that nationalism is just a bullying euphemism for provincialism. And it defines rather simply to me as the notion that the town you grew up in is better than all those towns you do not know as well, and that your baseball team is somehow intrinsically better than all those baseball teams that you have not played yet. It is puerile.
There is something about the constant examination of what is Canadian in Canadian culture that is truly provincial. Artistically, Canada would be greatly helped by being a part of the United States. So I think that there are different sides to this argument. I do not read Alice Munro or Robertson Davies or Margaret Atwood for what is Canadian about them; I read them for what is good about them. And what is good about them is universal, and it is why they are also read outside of this country.
I cannot fervently stand up and say this country and the United States should be one, or I cannot quite take the repercussions of that. Off the top of my head, I would say it is a terrible idea. But the more I think of it, the more to me it is already happening. And now I am going to get myself in a lot of trouble with a lot of my Canadian friends by saying that I think the cultural differences, for the most part, are not worth keeping.
Canada’s notion of supporting its citizens is applaudable, however, and if Canada becomes a great big country, you will not be able to do it anymore. You may, by joining forces with us, join forces with all of our wonderful economic opportunity. But I would hate to see what we would do to your water, among other things, or what we would do to your health services.
There are some things that are so deeply a part of the fabric of Canadian society that I think it is a little superficial to say simply that, because this culture is becoming more American day by day, that ‘Oh, what the hell, why not just go the whole hog and become like the United States?’ There are things about the United States that are opposite to everything that now exists in the fabric of this culture. What I hear, at least in lip service, is that this country still wants to help people who are not quite making it, whether it is in the arts or whether it is in medical aid, whatever it is. People are not quite making it in the United States, and we just do not care: if you are poor, it is your fault.
I also think that our countries right now share a very similar weakness in central government, which also makes it easy to spot superficial similarities. Those may become deeper similarities as time goes on, if your central government continues to resemble our central government. I think it is a sure indication of feeble leadership in central government when the provinces or, in our case, the states are afforded rights in excess of the central government’s. It is a very faulty democratic position. To recognize the rights of the province as to any extent greater than the rights of the country as a whole means that you do not believe in the country as a whole. It means that your leadership at the centre has crumbled.
In the United States, it is most insidiously on the issue of abortion rights where that buck has been passed, where Ronald Reagan and now George Bush, basically lacking the courage to make the decision or to stand by the decision, are saying, ‘This decision is so tough I think the states ought to make it themselves.’ And this is nothing but weak-kneedness. It is chaos. I think there is a similarity in weakness at the head.
It is an indication of how starved we are for a dramatic leader—we in the West, we in North America—that we have lavished all this attention and fondness on Mikhail Gorbachev. And all the cards are not in on Gorbachev. He is in a lot of trouble. You wish he were doing as well at home as he is in the eyes of the Western media. But I do not think it is a coincidence that he seems so terribly attractive to us. Look at what we have to compare him to. Look at what a bunch of schmoes we have running our countries, hangdog defeatists by comparison. So I think that there is a danger.
There is always a danger when government has not been very exciting, when leadership has not been very progressive. There is a great hunger in people to find somebody who is a real zealot. Sometimes, those people are very dangerous, and sometimes the Pied Pipers are genuine world-changers. I think that both this country, and especially my country, are vulnerable right now to some real swashbuckling hero who may bring us out of the depths of our own making but, on the other hand, could get us into a lot worse trouble.
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