Noble Canadians, Ugly Americans: Anti-Americanism and the Canadian Ideal in British Readings of Canadian Literature

By Sugars, Cynthia | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Noble Canadians, Ugly Americans: Anti-Americanism and the Canadian Ideal in British Readings of Canadian Literature


Sugars, Cynthia, American Review of Canadian Studies


For some years now Canadian literature has been generating immense attention on the international stage. This has been no less true in Great Britain, the erstwhile imperial center, where Canada has been the long-time subject of British fascination. While in the early decades of this century Canadian literature was considered the inferior production of a cultural backwater, from the late 1960s onwards Canadian culture has garnered intense notoriety in Britain. The institutional study of Canadian literature has flourished in Britain since at least the founding of the British Association of Canadian Studies (BACS) in 1975, which eventually established a branch specifically devoted to literature. Under the aegis of commonwealth and later postcolonial literary studies--not to mention Canadian studies specifically--Canadian literary texts have become a fixture in many university courses and programs in the UK. This has been true, as well, in more general circles--such as the various highbrow literary magazines and the popular press--where Canadian fiction has been regularly and widely reviewed.(1) Writers such as Leonard Cohen, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, and others received wide attention up into the 1970s, while more recently such figures as Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and Carol Shields--aided, of course, by various Booker Prize nominations--have almost become household names.

If in a sense Canada has always existed at some sort of fantasy level for British interpreters--as a landscape of pure, untrammeled immensity and possibility--today it is the Canadian social landscape that persists as a location of desire. The "Canada" that emerges from this swirl of popular and academic literary acclaim is a postimperial ideal: a location close enough to the familiar (and perhaps compromised) homeland, yet distant enough historically, to offer an amenable role model--yet another instance of Canada as a vacant space onto which can be projected various fantasies of (post)imperial desire.

This takes a variety of forms, including that which I would like to consider in this paper: the figuration of Canada as a welcome postcolonial Eden in clear opposition to an American empire that is offered up as the latest source of global--economic, spiritual, political, environmental--malaise. In this triangular formulation, the willed demonization of the United States enables a convenient externalization of societal ills (and responsibility for them) away from the projecting self. My critique throughout this paper, then, is not a defense of the relentless projects of economic and military imperialism imposed on the global stage by American enterprises; instead, I want to highlight the complicity in these projects of other Western nations such as Canada and Britain. One does not counter imperialist oppression by denying one's involvement in it.

Anti-Americanism in discussions of Canada is not a new phenomenon. Surely the expression of Canada's vulnerability to the cultural and economic domination of the United States has for some time been taken as something of a given in Canadian nationalist discourse, and with clear and urgent justification. I want to make my accordance with this sentiment clear at the outset. What is less convincing, however, is the ardent defense of Canada (and things Canadian) as necessarilymorally superior to the gluttonous impulses of American enterprises, the figuration, that is, of Canada as an innocent, noble, and marginalized other in opposition to rampant American individualism and materialism. Coincident with this figuration of the respectively good and evil nations, is the idea of Canada as marked by a more communal ethic over the U.S.'s individualist ethos, which is in turn paralleled by the notorious mosaic versus melting pot figuration of each nation's policy of multiculturalism, a distinction which garners immense lip service both at home and abroad. …

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