Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'A Righteous Cause': War Propaganda and Canadian Fiction, 1915-1921

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'A Righteous Cause': War Propaganda and Canadian Fiction, 1915-1921

Article excerpt

War fiction enjoys a long critical and historical legacy in Canada, although little attention has been paid to the many novels and stories published during and immediately after the First World War. The line between literature and propaganda in many works of this period is sometimes pronounced, sometimes difficult to distinguish. Popular novelists such as Gilbert Parker and Ralph Connor used their writings and widespread influence overtly to support the Allied propaganda effort. Others, such as Stephen Leacock, L.M. Montgomery and Harry M. Wodson, reflected the rhetoric of imperialism, total victory and Germanophobia that effective propaganda had made an intrinsic part of wartime discourse in Canada. By recovering, contextualising and analysing fictional works about war published between 1915 and 1921, this article seeks a deeper understanding of the complicated connections among war, propaganda, literature and Canadian society.

You are my only son, but your going MAKES ME PROUD AND HAPPY - proud to feel that in your heart the fires of patriotism burn, happy to know that your sword will be unsheathed in a righteous cause. (Wodson 1915: 21)

Canada has long been known for its compelling fiction about the First World War, with such works as Charles Yale Harrison's Generals Die in Bed (1930), Timothy Findley's The Wars (1977) and Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road (2005) garnering widespread critical and public interest. While these works comprise a stable literary legacy, little is known about many earlier novels, novellas and short story collections published during and shortly after the First World War. Works such as Harry M. Wodson's Private Warwick: Musings of a Canadian in Khaki (1915), S.N. Dancey's The Faith of a Belgian: A Romance of the Great War (1916), Ralph Connor's The Major (1917) and The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land (1919) and Jean Blewett's Heart Stories (1919) are obscurities in today's literary milieu. Even war-related works by better-known authors of the period: Stephen Leacock's The Hohenzollerns in America (1919), and L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside (1921) receive scant critical atten- tion. Part of the problem is that all of these works complicate their status as literary fiction by reflecting themes and language more in keeping with propaganda. While we might normally consider 'literature' to be motivated by artistic and aesthetic expression and 'propaganda' to be devoted to ideological indoctrination (often under false pretences), the works under consideration in this article straddle a border that can be difficult to define. Propagandist works published between 1915 and 1921, the period of greatest activity for the first wave of Canadian war novelists, can make for ethically troubling and aesthetically displeasing reading by today's standards. However, these works should remain part of the socio-historical discourse of Canadian literature because of what they reveal about the connections among war, propaganda, literature and society.

Jörg Nagler defines propaganda as 'the manipulation of collective attitudes', which in cultural production amounts to 'words and visual images [creating] negative emotions strong enough to justify killing on the battlefield' (2000: 486). Despite this sweeping definition, not all war literature with a romantic or patriotic basis is propagandistic. War and Peace is not propaganda; nor is The Red Badge of Courage; nor are Hugh MacLennan's Canadian wartime novels Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes. Any nation at war tends to inspire literary works that address the origins of conflict and justifications for fighting, and such works can serve an important social and artistic function in offering a medium of shared experience and collective memory. Yet there is a point at which hyperbole, hysteria and the uncritical perpetuation of myth - sometimes outright lies - subsume a work so that its function as a medium of indoctrination and interpellation takes precedence over artistic and cultural values. …

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