The Myths That Make Us: Different Literary Takes on the Western Frontier Reveal What Binds and Separates Canada and the US

By Gailus, Jeff | Alternatives Journal, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Myths That Make Us: Different Literary Takes on the Western Frontier Reveal What Binds and Separates Canada and the US


Gailus, Jeff, Alternatives Journal


WHEN I WAS ASKED to compare nature literature in Canada and the United States, particularly in the West, I quickly went for my bookshelves--only to discover that the lion's share of my library was still far away, sequestered, like a lost collection of ancient Middle Eastern scrolls in a mountain cave.

Like the grizzly bear and the wolf, I have been something of a wanderer, though I have spent most of my life within walking distance of some of the wildest remaining places in the Rocky Mountain West. Even now that I have settled in Missoula, Montana, I make regular migrations south into Yellowstone and north to Banff and Canmore, Alberta, which is where my books had gathered dust for almost two years while US Immigration processed my desire to make a home south of the Medicine Line.

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With my freshly minted Green Card in hand, I jumped in the car and circumnavigated the Crown of the Continent--up the North Fork of the Flathead River, over the Continental Divide, along the mighty Bow River, and back down the southeastern slopes (what Americans call the Rocky Mountain front)--to bring my book-heavy boxes home. My anticipation was like a child's on Christmas morning.

The Ninemile Wolves. Leaning on the Wind. Grizzly Country. The Big Sky. Fools Crow. As I unpacked these textual treasures and cracked open their covers, I realized that many of them were borne of the landscape through which I had just driven. They're part of a larger lexicon of western nature writing that transcends the national literatures of Canada and the United States to create a bioregional literature carved from the bedrock of the Crown of the Continent. Dominated by the Rocky Mountains, this is the central vertebrae of North America's wild backbone; while there is wilderness elsewhere, there is more accessible wild country here than in any other part of the continent, and it has spawned a body of work with a character all its own.

Literary critics and academics don't usually get rewarded for dwelling on similarities, and much has been made of the differences between Canadian and American literature. At least, that is the case in Canada. American literary critics seem to have little to say about Canadian writing, if they think about it at all, so the task of differentiation has been left to academics and writers north of the 49th parallel.

Northrop Frye set the stage in 1965 when he wrote, "Everything that is central in Canadian writing seems to be marked by the imminence of the natural world."

A few years later, Bruce Littlejohn and Jon Pearce stated the matter more clearly: The thing that sets "Canadian literature apart from most other national literatures ... is the influence of the wild." But what influence? And how has it been represented?

Frye, one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, identified two distinct themes in Canadian literature: "The identity of the sinister and terrible elements in nature with the death-wish in man," and the "fusion of human life and the life in nature," embodying a "sense of kinship" between humans and the natural world. Margaret Atwood, perhaps Canada's greatest living woman of letters and a student of Frye's at the University of Toronto, rifled off his work to conclude that "survival" was a central part of the early Canadian experience and, as a result, our literature.

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Her thesis isn't as simple as it sounds. By "survival," Atwood refers to the need to outwit a hostile and frightening wilderness in order to endure and reap the rewards of exploitation. Alluding to a more modern condition, she also points out that some writers have realized that "Man is now more destructive towards nature than nature can be towards man; and, furthermore, that the destruction of nature is equivalent to self-destruction on the part of man." We must survive, then, not only wild nature, but our own human nature--which evolved, of course, over millennia in the wilderness, as a fundamental influence on who and what we are.

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