Canadians at Last: Canada Integrates Newfoundland as a Province. Raymond B. Blake. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
This decade has seen a rising national and international interest in the cultures and histories of Atlantic Canada. This attention - most conspicuously manifest in the popularity of such contemporary artistic events as The Shipping News, Margaret's Museum and the Celtic music revival - perhaps signifies that a certain romantic nostalgia for the simpler life lingers in the popular imagination. In the academic world, nostalgia is taking a reflexive turn, being acknowledged as an element at work in the hermeneutics of texts and events. Such reflexivity is particularly evident in Ian McKay's The Quest of the Folk and Ronald Rompkey's Labrador Odyssey, both of which offer alternatives to the founding fictions that have worked to efface the cultural histories of at least some Atlantic Canadians. These texts foreground the representation of culture, challenging us to read against historical and folkloric constructions of societies and their identities. They ask that we acknowledge the subject positions of historical narratives and question the processes behind what we are asked to read as culture. It is this reading practice that informs my own comments on the five diverse accounts of maritime histories and cultures offered in The Quest of the Folk, Labrador Odyssey, Home Medicine, Canadians at Last and The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island.
McKay's The Quest of the Folk examines the antimodernist impulse at work in the processes of cultural selection and invention in twentieth-century Nova Scotia. Its thesis is interesting and adversarial: "The Folk," as category and construction, reduces "people once alive to the status of inert essences" and voids "the emancipatory potential of historical knowledge" (xvi). What is perhaps most contentious is not the argument itself, but the representation of "cultural producers" such as Helen Creighton as aesthetic colonizers who actively sought and produced the Folk according to their own romantic impulses:
This book is about the "path of destiny" that led Creighton and countless other cultural figures to develop "the Folk" as the key to understanding Nova Scotian culture and history. It is about the ways in which urban cultural producers, pursuing their own interests and expressing their own view of things, constructed the Folk of the countryside as the romantic antithesis to everything they disliked about modern urban and industrial life. (4)
Its five chapters contextualize the concept of the Folk, explore Creighton's role in the development of maritime folklore, examine the commodification and discourse of "Innocence," and survey the idea of the Folk under postmodern conditions (30). In its demystification of the interpretative framework and construction of culture and identity, The Quest of the Folk revises twentieth-century Nova Scotian history and calls for a "questioning of the ways in which a politics of cultural selection has made certain debatable assumptions seem like 'natural' commonsense" (40).
Strategic representation is both a conceptual focus and a rhetorical tactic of The Quest of the Folk, which characterizes Creighton as both a romantic ethnographer and a shrewd businessperson with copyright privileges and movie rights on her mind: "To preserve the idealized 'culture' of the Folk was necessarily to commodify it. This was the contradictory logic of modernizing antimodernism" (136). McKay's rhetorical manoeuvring is particularly evident in his many references to "Helen" that implicitly work to diminish her authenticity as a professional. In representing the influences that informed Creighton's reading of the Folk and her criteria for canonization, McKay foregrounds her class perspective and split subjectivity, "caught between the roles of Victorian ladyhood and the twentieth-century professionalism of a 'new woman'" (61). …