Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"That 'Ere Ingian's One of Us!": Orality and Literacy in 'Wacousta.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"That 'Ere Ingian's One of Us!": Orality and Literacy in 'Wacousta.'

Article excerpt

Once famous and now forgotten internationally, Wacousta endures in Canadian literature not only as a curiosity but because of its preoccupations with the garrison-versus-wilderness theme, which marks so much other Canadian writing; because its world of violence, terror, and-sexual disturbance is so congenial to students of literary modernism; and, finally, because of its sheer exuberance of plot and action. (Duffy, p. 816)(1)

Neither the lover of amorous adventure, nor the admirer of witty dialogue, should dive into these pages. Room for the exercise of the invention might, it is true, be found; but ours is a tale of sad reality, and our heroes and heroines figure under circumstances that would render wit a satire upon the understanding, and love a reflection upon the heart. Within the bounds of probability have we, therefore, confined ourselves. (Wacousta, p. 440)(2)

The Grounds of the Fort

Wacousta, or The Prophecy; a Tale of the Canadas is a melodramatic tale of love and revenge that uses the historical background of a period of indigenous resistance referred to as "Pontiac's Rebellion" (1763-1765). Wacousta was first published in 1832 and its author, John Richardson, tirelessly--and erroneously--depicted it as the "first Canadian novel."(3) It has long occupied a place of central importance in the canon of Canadian literature, though precisely how and why it is important has been the subject of much debate.(4) In the present paper I will discuss how Wacousta represents European colonialist modes of control over the North American territories, and how its narrative distinguishes between Euro-American written/visual, and indigenous cultures' oral/aural modes of communication that work to produce a politically and culturally determined landscape. Richardson's military background and his political and historical knowledge helped him to write a novel that reproduces minute aspects of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century colonial power.

I will describe briefly some traditional approaches to interpreting Wacousta, and then explain how my present paper offers an important and helpful alternative reading. In his introduction to Gardens, Covenants, Exiles,(5) Dennis Duffy takes a standard historical approach to Canadian literature when he explains that he will "attempt to describe and analyse the effects of United Empire Loyalism on the literary culture of what is now Ontario" (p. 3). He claims that the overall purpose of his book is to "heighten . . . our sense of a culture's roots." Duffy's straightforward argument is that we can understand our present through our past, where the past is constituted by a narrow political theme and an appeal to an organic metaphor; for Duffy, culture is as natural and continuous as a tree and therefore can be explained by digging into its "roots."(6) In The Borders of Nightmare, Michael Hurley employs a similar strategy when he states that "in the novels of our first born poet-novelist are adumbrated imaginative patterns which illuminate the work of Richardson's successors in the canon of English-Canadian literature" (p. 3).(7) Both Duffy and Hurley argue thematically and historically that their studies locate the earliest examples of these patterns and then examine their subsequent influences. Their strategy involves searching for origins and Richardson, as "Canada's First Male Novelist," occupies a seminal position in the history of influences. An historical interpretation is also given credence by his multitude of occupations, including soldier, historian, poet, newspaper editor, and his many other interests that placed him in the political and social center of an evolving nation.

What these critics, and many others who interpret early Canadian literature, fail to discuss is the ideological construction of the grounds over which the Loyalists tread. That is, how do these "adumbrated imaginative patterns" aid in the production of power and government? …

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