An Outsider's Eye: Newfoundland Culture as Defined from without and Within

Article excerpt

It was late May 1997 and Memorial University was hosting the annual Learneds congress for the humanities and social sciences. Over the course of a week, about 5,000 academics had gathered to listen to papers, reconnect with mentors and old friends and take in the sights. Typical of the time of year, massive icebergs floated down the Labrador seas in time to impress the visitors. Daily temperatures were still punishingly low for spring, but the promise of bergs and capelin-seeking humpbacks just off the shores of St. John's drew even the most timid linguist or philosopher out of doors.

E. Annie Proulx, as she was then known, had been invited to deliver one of the congress keynote lectures. This was to be a major event. Just three years earlier, Proulx's The Shipping News had earned its author three major literary prizes, including a Pulitzer. Based as it was on a fictional Newfoundland outport community, the novel suddenly cast not only Proulx but the province itself in the full glare of an international spotlight. Both Proulx and the island on which her success had been built were markedly uncomfortable with the attention, but for different reasons.

Proulx's lecture title had been widely advertized as "The Outsider's Eye," a provocative hint at her peculiar situation--an outsider whose astonishing literary success drew heavily on a place with a strong sense of itself, a place she could not rightly claim as her own. The chattering class had been arguing about The Shipping News for years, the popular view being that the novel was grossly inauthentic, misleading and misrepresentative. Open-line callers railed against her culinary fictions, such as squid burgers, while graduate dissertations started to critique the novel's folksy deviations from verisimilitude, including her main characters. The world might have been devouring the novel with relish and in many translated versions, admiring, as Sara Rimer did in the New York Times, its "vivid sense of place," but Newfoundlanders were at best ambivalent. Naturally, by the time Proulx arrived in St. John's to deliver her address, curiosity about what she would say and how she would justify her lucrative exploitation of a place not her own was feverish.

As the local coordinator assigned to manage Proulx's visit, I picked her up at the airport at about 1:30 on the morning of her talk. She had been flying all day from Wyoming where she now lived and was ardently looking forward to a drink. The bars would be noisy, smoky and likely closing in less than an hour, so I invited her over to my place to partake of the perfectly chilled vodka she claimed she preferred. Sometime between two and nine in the morning, while I tried to keep pace with her impressive consumption, while my husband kindly managed to keep replenishing our ice cubes, while a house guest, awakened by the noise, wandered sleepily into the living room to find a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist sitting on the sofa, chatting freely about her life and work, Proulx mentioned that she had decided to change the title--and content--of her talk, the one she was scheduled to deliver in only a few hours.

What could I do? I knew that well over 600 people were soon expected to show up to hear her speak to the subject of writing as a so-called outsider, but she was Annie Proulx and by then I was in no shape to protest. Besides, she had not come prepared with the talk she had promised to deliver. Instead, she had arrived with a copy of an essay entitled "House Leaning into the Wind" a piece commissioned for a forthcoming issue of Architectural Digest. The condition of her reading it was that no one entering the lecture theatre would be permitted to record even a phrase, while the media needed to be firmly instructed against broadcasting any or all of the talk. Her agreement with Architectural Digest demanded the privilege of first publication and so any leaking of the content of the essay would be considered a violation of her contract--and a threat to her income. …