Canadian literature, French

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Canadian literature, French

French Canadian literature, the body of literature of the French-speaking population of Canada.

Except for the narratives of French explorers (such as Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Esprit Radisson) and missionaries, no notable writing was produced before the British conquest of New France in 1759. Since that time the inspiration for much French Canadian literature has been a concern with preserving an autonomous identity in a country dominated by the English language and the Protestant religion. Traditionally, there has been little contact between Canada's French and English literature. Until the 20th cent. French Canadian writers found their models mainly in writers from France and their themes in nationalism, the simple lives and folkways of the habitants, and the devotion to the Roman Catholic Church.

The first artistic expression of this spirit was F. X. Garneau's Histoire du Canada (1845–48), still the classic of French Canadian nationalism. Other historians, including Benjamin Sulte, Thomas Chapais, and L. A. Groulx, also placed their emphasis on pride in and protection of their French heritage. This school of thought inspired the first nationalist poet, Octave Crémazie and the Quebec school of poets, novelists, and historians. In 1861 they began a deliberate effort to create a national literature, with such French authors as Hugo and Lamartine as their chief models. The group included Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, J. B. A. Ferland, Louis-Honoré Fréchette, Pamphile LeMay, Abbé H. R. Casgrain, Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, and Nérée Beauchemin.

About 1900 a new group of writers developed, centered chiefly in Montreal, who tried to achieve the stricter technique and keener artistic perceptions of the Parnassians of France. These more sophisticated poets included Charles Gill, René Chopin, and Louis Dantin. Some writers of the new group, such as Émile Nelligan—considered French Canada's first native poetic genius—and Paul Morin, abandoned the national note for exotic subjects. Others, such as Albert Lozeau and Albert Ferland, found inspiration in Canadian nature. About the same time another movement began, led by Adjutor Rivard, aimed at preserving the purity of the French language in Canada. Influential critics included Camille Roy, Henri d'Arles, and the poet Louis Dantin.

In the novel, a rural romanticism was expressed in the works of Félicité Angers (Laure Conan). A more realistic fiction took impetus from Louis Hémon's Maria Chapdelaine (1913), a novel of the peasants of the Lake St. John country. There followed a stream of fiction on habitant life in the backwoods, on the farms, and in the villages, by such native Canadians as Robert Choquette, F. A. Savard, Claude Henri Grignon, Roger Lemelin, and Ringuet.

Although some novels were set in cities and the notable author Robert Charbonneau explored the psychological defeatism of his characters, the realistic regional novel about the simple Catholic community remained dominant until the 1950s. Important poets since 1914 include Clément Marchand, whose inspiration is often religious; Alfred DesRochers, who writes of the life of the soil; and Robert Choquette and Roger Brien, whose romantic lyrics are eloquently individualistic.

Following World War II there was evidence of a new, less self-conscious spirit. Poets and novelists, trying to settle the language problem, declared that pure French should be standard, with the use of Canadianisms accepted wherever these served a purpose. Although it was still possible to detect the influence of France, in the mid-20th cent. much creative writing in Canada, as elsewhere, was characterized by experiment with subject matter and technique.

From the 1970s to the 90s a nationalist focus in the novel was generally replaced with irony, skepticism, and universalism, reflecting developments in both Europe and the United States. Among noteworthy postwar novelists are Herbert Aquin, Yves Beauchemin, Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, Jacques Godbout, Gilbert La Rocque, Antonine Maillet, and Jacques Poulin. Among the poets are Michel Beaulieu, François Charron, Anne Hébert, Paul Marie Lapointe, Rina Lasnier, Gaston Miron, Yves Préfontaine, Jacques Godbout, and Jean Guy Pilon, the last two founding the literary magazine Liberté in 1959.


See I. F. Fraser, The Spirit of French Canada (1939); E. Wilson, O Canada (1964); A. J. M. Smith, ed., Modern Canadian Verse in English and French (1967); N. Story, The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature (1967); R. Lecker and J. David, ed., Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors (7 vol., 1979–87).

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