Nineteenth-Century English-Canadian Anthologies and the Making of a National Literature

By Lecker, Robert | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Nineteenth-Century English-Canadian Anthologies and the Making of a National Literature


Lecker, Robert, Journal of Canadian Studies


The term "Canadian literature" was popularized by early Canadian anthologists who viewed their collections as evidence of the country's coming of age. These editors were driven by a mix of evangelical nationalism, political allegiance, literary alliances, and the desire to profit from shifting perceptions of the country and its literature as Canada moved towards the twentieth century. The representation of Canada that emerges in these formative collections is intimately linked to the conditions surrounding their production, which impacted the anthologies as much as the editor's religious, political, or aesthetic values. These conditions influenced the representation of nation and affected the ways in which readers came to understand the meaning of "country" as a textually constructed ideal. This essay examines seven anthologies of English-Canadian literature published in the nineteenth century in an attempt to determine the kind of values they promoted, the tensions their editors faced, and the extent to which they established canonical norms that would be inherited by their twentieth-century successors.

Le terme « littérature canadienne » a été popularisé par les premiers anthologistes canadiens qui percevaient leurs collections comme la preuve que le pays entamait une ère nouvelle. Ces éditeurs étaient motivés par une combinaison de nationalisme évangélique, d'allégeance politique, d'alliances littéraires et d'un désir de profiter de perceptions changeantes du pays et de sa littérature à l'orée du vingtième siècle. La représentation du Canada qui émerge de ces collections formatives est intimement liée aux conditions qui entourent leur production et qui ont influé sur les anthologies autant que les valeurs religieuses, politiques ou esthétiques des éditeurs. Ces conditions ont influencé la représentation de la nation et ont affecté la façon dont les lecteurs en sont venus à interpréter le concept de « pays » comme un idéal cré à partir de textes. Le présent article examine sept anthologies de littérature canadienneanglaise publiées au dix-neuvième siècle afin d'essayer de déterminer le genre de valeurs qu'elles louaient, les tensions qu'ont dû affronter leurs éditeurs et jusqu'à quel point elles ont établi des normes canoniques dont hériteront leurs successeurs du vingtième siècle.

The publication and dissemination of national literature anthologies involves imagining a country, imagining a community, imagining an identity. Considered individually, these anthologies reflect the various concepts of nation that gave them currency in their time; viewed collectively, they construct a narrative that depicts an evolving but often tension-ridden national ethos. National literature anthologies are frequently identified as focal points in debates about literary canons and cultural literacy, mainly because such debates are actually displaced arguments about national identity. As cultural texts, national literature anthologies carry a special burden. They transmit a particular world vision, a deliberate textual construction of the country that the reader is invited to join. By promoting this construction, these anthologies become deeply conflicted books. Their editors have to wrestle with questions about how the nation is mirrored in its literature and about the extent to which its existing literary canons (when such canons exist) should be repudiated or reproduced.

The challenge to the canon that marks the study of American literature over the past four decades is implicitly a rethinking of the nation. This challenge finds its most fervent expression in the rise of feminist theory, and in revisions to the canon prompted by a reconfigured concept of the nation that is plural, multi-ethnic, and open to interrogation. Such revisions, and all the conflicts they invoke, are nowhere better represented than in some of the ambitious American literature anthologies that have appeared over the last 40 years.

Assertions about the relationship between anthology formation and nation are certainly not new, however. …

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