When Motilities Were Modern Kitsch: The Serial Seductions of Renfrew of the Mounted

Article excerpt

In the first half of the twentieth century, and perhaps still today, one of Canada's most recognizable cultural exports was the Mountie, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer, wearing the signature red coat of his dress uniform and sitting astride his trusty steed. From its founding as the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873, to its 1920 re-formation as the RCMP, and through to the present, the Canadian federal police force has assumed in literary and popular culture the symbolic weight of national icon and the image has circulated widely, across media and around the world. Starting with the late nineteenth-century colonial press and continuing through the turn-of-the-century fiction market, interwar radio and film, and postwar television and commodity culture, the Mountie has appeared, both earnestly and satirically, at the centre of national mythologies about Canadian liberal democracy. At his most typical, the Mountie is an officer of the law who is part of a rational organization but also a refined gentleman and a unique, special individual. He represents a physically, intellectually, and morally upright and seductive, yet civilized, male hero distinct from the wilder masculinities of American popular culture heroes. Indeed, the fictional Mountie is at the centre of some persistent English-Canadian nationalist mythologies, notably that the West was conquered by a central authority whose "decency and paternalism" is also registered in Canada's "careful and fair treatment of Aboriginal peoples, particularly in comparison with the treatment meted out by the law and order forces of the United States" (Dawson 25). Across a range of twentieth-century cultural forms, from novels to radio to film and television, the Mountie therefore functioned at home and abroad as a metonym for the narrativization of Canada as the "Great White North" settler colony: he is at the vanguard of white civility, in the sense of both a pan-British set of "manners and behaviours that must be learned and performed" in the settler territory (Coleman 21) and a transimperial masculinity disseminated throughout the empire, much like late nineteenth-century immigration handbooks, "to appeal to the imperial imaginations of men [and boys] in the metropole and to guide their gendered performances as the masculine colonizers of the Canadian North West once they arrived" (Henderson 18). This romanticization of invadersettler colonialism and the violent annexation of indigenous territories achieved widespread dissemination in early twentieth-century popular and pulp Northwesterns, adventure stories of a frozen northern territory in which Mounties replace the heroic sheriffs of American Westerns, and exoticized locales such as the Yukon offer the local colour of dogsleds, mad trappers, drunk gamblers, and foolish gold prospectors.

Laurie York Erskine's eight Renfrew of the Mounted novels (1922 to 1941) and their adaptation into eight Renfrew B films (1937 to 1940) are relatively late arrivals in this popular genre that proliferated in the early twentieth century. Northwesterns, of which Mountie fictions are a significant part, often took serial form, whether as novels first serialized in magazines or as a series of novels featuring the same protagonist. As well, by the 1930s Mountie fiction was being adapted into Hollywood films and American network radio serials, a multimedia saturation of Mountie narratives across Canada, the United States, and Britain, lasting for at least three generations, in which Renfrew of the Mounted featured prominently. Erskine, an American who published his Mountie novels simultaneously in the United States, Canada, and Britain, is a good example of an enormously popular writer who has fallen through the cracks of Canadian literary criticism for a variety of predictable reasons: he was neither Canadian nor did he live in Canada; he produced Mountie novels at the tail end of that genre's literary golden age and respectability; and he published first in adventure pulp magazines and then in serial novels marketed as genre fiction for men and boys. …