Canadian Literature in French: Before 1960.
Some writing was done in New France, but the pioneer authors were all Frenchmen born and educated in France, and the significance of their work was more historical than literary. These early chronicles are among the main sources of Canada's early history, and while they are an important part of the nation's cultural heritage, they do not constitute a national literature. Achievement of this goal began to be realized in the second half of the 19th century. The most important of the early documents are the memoirs of Cartier and Champlain; the historical narratives of Lescarbot, Sagard, Leclercq, La Potherie, Hennepin, Charlevoix, and Lahontan; the correspondence and spiritual writings of Marie de l'Incarnation; and the Relations des Jesuites. There was also published in Paris in 1664 the Histoire naturelle et veritable des moeurs et productions de la Nouvelle-France by Pierre Boucher. The first work by a Canadian-born author was the Annales de l'Hotel-Dieu de Montreal by the nun Marie Morin (1649-1717). Thus, when New France fell under British rule in 1763, there was no French-Canadian literature worthy of the name.
Nor was this literature produced in the first seventy-five years that followed the British conquest. Introduction of printing in 1764 led to publication of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and a few books, but most of this early production could boast little, if any, literary merit. The most influential literary and political newspaper of the early 19th century was Le Canadien, the organ of the French-Canadian patriots fighting for survival of the French-speaking majority that was ruled and exploited by a small group of British colonists.
The first book of verse came out in 1830, Epitres, satires, chansons et autres pieces de vers by Michel Bibaud. The first novel was L'Influence d'un livre by Philippe Aubert de Gaspe, Jr., published in 1837, and the first play was Antoine Gerin-Lajoie's Le Jeune Latour (1844). Among the books published at that time were such novels as Les Fiances de 1812 by Joseph Doutre, and Charles Guerin by Pierre Chauveau; historical books such as Michel Bibaud's Histoire du Canada in three volumes; and books of law, agriculture, medicine, and religion.
Most of the best prose and verse published in newspapers and magazines in the first half of the 19th century was collected by James Huston in a four-volume anthology entitled Repertoire national (1848-1850). All this is of limited literary value. When Lord Durham wrote that the French Canadians had "no literature and no history," he was right as far as literature went, but wrong with respect to history--as Garneau immediately set out to demonstrate. In revealing the basic characters and aspirations of the French-Canadian people as he recorded their past history, Gareneau provided his contemporaries with a major reference book from which writers could draw their subjects and inspiration.
The development of a native literature reflected the growth of the French-Canadian community. The foundation of colleges, libraries, literary clubs, bookstores, and magazines contributed to improvement in the literary quality of the production, and the first books still readable today appeared between 1845 and 1866. Most writers of the first generation quite naturally were men of action, militant writers rather than artists. Most of the literature of the time was historical, sociological, political, and religious, and it was provincial in scope, light in substance, and deficient in technique. Of local interest were the works of those who wrote mainly to assist the French Canadians in their struggle for survival. Such are the recorded speeches of public men like Papineau, La Fontaine, Morin, and Cartier; and the writings of religious leaders such as Louis-Francois Lafleche, as well as of the better journalists, Jean-Charles Tache and Etienne Parent.
Quebec City was then the metropolis of Lower Canada, and most writers of the first generation lived and worked in this capital city of the colony. There was established in 1852 the first Canadian university in which French was the language of instruction. Also established in Quebec City were the first newspapers, magazines, and bookstores. There Garneau wrote his Histoire du Canada, and there lived most of the other historical writers of the time, including Jean-Baptiste Antoine Ferland, whose Cours d'histoire du Canada remains a basic reference book for the history of New France; and Henri-Raymond Casgrain, author of many monographs, including biographies of Marie de l'Incarnation, Montcalm, Levis, and others.
The works of many versifiers are included in Huston's Repertoire national, such as those of the historian Garneau, of Joseph Lenoir, and of Louis-Joseph Fiset, but the first poet worthy of the name was Octave Cremazie, whose inspiration was mainly historical and patriotic and whose influence was much greater than his literary talent justified. Poetry remained mainly historical in inspiration and romantic in style for some forty years. The major poet of the time was <IR> LOUIS-HONORE FRECHETTE </IR> , whose most important work was his Legende d'un peuple, a series of epics inspired by the leading men and main events of French Canada's history. Other poets of the first generation were Pamphyle Lemay, the poet of rural life; William Chapman, Frechette's rival in oratorical developments; and Alfred Garneau, who opened a new era in turning his back on historical subjects to express the intimate feelings of his soul.
Similarly, most early Canadian novels were historical. The best work of fiction of that period was Les Anciens Canadiens by <IR> PHILIPPE AUBERT DE GASPE </IR> , a chronicle of the life of the seigneur and habitant under the old regime. Gaspe also wrote very interesting Memoires; he is, with Garneau, the best prose writer of his generation. The most popular historical novels of the time were Une de perdue, deux de trouvees by Georges Boucher de Boucherville; Jacques et Marie by Napoleon Bourassa; and those of Joseph Marmette and Laure Conan. Angeline de Montbrun by Conan was the first psychological novel to be published in Canada. Short stories, tales, and legends were also written at the time, and the best collections of such works of fiction were Forestiers et voyageurs by Joseph-Charles Tache, and those of Casgrain, Faucher de Saint-Maurice, and Louis Frechette.
Worthy of mention also are such journalists as Hector Fabre, Napoleon Legendre and, foremost, Arthur Buies; and such orators as Wilfrid Laurier and Honore Mercier. By the end of the 19th century, there had appeared a few books of verse, three or four novels, and as many collections of short stories, but most of the writing was still militant literature dedicated to the religious and ethnic survival of a small community separated from the rest of the continent by the language barrier.
At the turn of the century, new trends developed in French-Canadian letters. Without completely turning their backs on historical subjects, most writers began to look at the contemporary scene and to pay more attention to an inner life. Montreal became a more active literary center than Quebec City, and smaller centers began to contribute authors to the nation. The leading writers were poets, historians, or journalists; strangely enough, few novels were published during that period, and none of them is remarkable. The better works of fiction were collections of folksy tales and sketches such as Adjutor Rivard's Chez nous, Marie-Victorin's Croquis laurentiens, and Lionel Groulx's Rapaillages.
Poetry, on the other hand, flourished throughout the period. Frechette, Lemay, and Chapman were still writing at the turn of the century, and historical subjects were still in fashion. The regional school grouped many poets, such as Blanche Lamontagne, the poetess of Gaspe, and rustic poets such as Jules Tremblay, Adolphe Poisson, Louis-Joseph Doucet, and Gonzalve Desaulniers. Neree Beauchemin was the outstanding poet of the group, as demonstrated in Floraisons matutinales and Patrie, intime; Albert Ferland, the poet of the Canadian forests, was the most original of the group. Traditions of the 19th century were thus maintained well into the 20th century, and the romantic school still had several adepts.
New trends, new themes, and new techniques were introduced, however, mainly by poets of the Ecole litteraire de Montreal and by a few independent poets. Baudelaire's influence superseded that of Hugo, and Verlaine, Rollinat, Rodenbach, Regnier, and other French poets also had their Canadian disciples. Poetry became more personal than historical, more lyrical than narrative; the general evolution was from the outer world to the inner life. Romanticism still prevailed in the works of a few members of the Ecole litteraire, such as in Charles Gill's epic Le Cap Eternite or in the sentimental poems of Albert Lozeau. Other poets, such as Jean Charbonneau and Alphonse Beauregard, were more attracted to philosophical themes, while Louis Dantin and Lucien Rainier in the main were religious poets. The most accomplished artist of that generation was <IR> EMILE NELLIGAN </IR> , who produced some of the best poems ever written in Canada before going out of his mind in his early twenties. Thanks to him and to Beauchemin, Lozeau, and Delahaye, by the time of World War I French-Canadian poetry had attained a standard never reached in the 19th century--it was more diversified in inspiration and more accomplished in craftmanship than ever before.
The best prose throughout the period was written by men of action or by scholars. Journalists of the nationalist school had a deep influence on many intellectuals, and there appeared some gifted writers. The leader of the nationalist movement was Henri Bourassa, a sharp journalist and a great debater; he was supported by men like Olivar Asselin, Jules Fournier, and Paul-Emile Lamarche. Economists such as Errol Bouchette and Edmond de Nevers are worthy of mention here, and one of the best prose writers of the time was Leon Gerin, whose essays on sociology were collected in Le Type economique et social du Canadien and in Aux Sources de notre histoire.
Many historical works appeared during that period, mainly as biography. Narcisse-Eutrope Dionne, Alfred De Celles, Ernest Gagnon, Auguste Gosselin, and Laurent-Olivier David popularized important figures of the past as well as living personages. The two leading historians of the time, however, were Thomas Chapais and Joseph-Edmond Roy. The latter wrote many monographs and two larger works, Histoire du notariat and Histoire de la seigneurie de Lauzon, which throw much light on the daily life and customs of Canadians of the past. Chapais, for his part, in addition to writing biographies of Talon and Montcalm, completed Garneau's survey by writing a general history of Canada covering the period 1763-1867; his Cours d'histoire du Canada is a detailed study of British colonial policy in Canada and of the constitutional development of the colony into an independent nation.
Finally, during that period, Adjutor Rivard, Camille Roy, Henri d'Arles, Louis Dantin, and others contributed to make French-Canadian letters better known by reviewing the better books as they were published.
Progress was achieved in most fields of literary activity between the two World Wars. Louis Hemon's Chapdelaine clearly showed that, with a Canadian theme, a gifted writer could achieve a book of universal appeal. It was an achievement local authors could endeavor to emulate. When World War I made rural Quebec a highly industrialized province, the resulting social transformations were soon reflected in local literature, mainly in the novels of the `20s and '30s. Traditional, folksy subjects still attracted some novelists, such as Damase Potvin (La Robe noire), as did historical subjects, as may be seen with Lionel Groulx (Au Cap Blomidon), Robert de Roquebrune (Les Habits rouges and La Seigneuresse), and Leo-Paul Desrosiers, Canada's best historical novelist (Les Engages du grand portage, Les Opiniatres).
Other novelists, however, showed their concern for economic, social, and religious problems resulting from the deep changes then going on in traditionally rural French Canada. Most significant among those are Marcel Faure and Les demi-civilises by Jean-Charles Harvey; Andre Laurence by Pierre Dupuy; and La Chesnaie by Rex Desmarchais. The best novels of the '30s, however, were portrayals of rural manners and customs, such as Un Homme et son peche by Claude-Henri Grignon and, particularly, 30 arpents by Ringuet (Philippe Panneton). Remarkable also was a poetical epic by Felix-Antoine Savard, Menaud, maitredraveur. All these authors showed more skill in the art of writing and a deeper insight into the human soul and into social problems than had their predecessors.
In poetry, the romantic trend was still alive, thanks to <IR> ROBERT CHOQUETTE </IR> and to a group of women poets that included Simone Routier, Eva Senecal, and Jovette Bernier. More influenced by the French Parnasse were <IR> PAUL MORIN </IR> , whose Paon d'email is one of the most polished books of verse published in Canada, and Alfred Desrochers, the poet of A l'Ombre de l'Orford. In 1937, there appeared Regards et jeux dans l'espace by Saint-Denys-Garneau, a small book that influenced many younger poets and is now considered a turning point in the history of Canadian poetry.
More literary essays and book reviews were collected in book form between the two wars than before or after. The best critics of the time were Albert Pelletier, Marcel Dugas, Louis Dantin, Claude-Henri Grignon, Maurice Hebert, Victor Barbeau, and Seraphin Marion. History remained the favored field of literary activity during that period. The most active historians were Pierre-Georges Roy, Gustave Lanctot, and Jean Bruchesi. The leading historian of the period was Lionel Groulx, whose nationalistic interpretation of Canada's historical development was much discussed. By the time World War II broke out, French-Canadian literature had reached a standard never attained before.
Several authors had already broken away from the provincial traditions of the past generations and grappled with more universal themes, as they had experimented with new techniques. Their example was to be followed by most of the younger writers, and French-Canadian literature became more cosmopolitan, more individualistic, and more diversified than ever before.
The novel reached new peaks with <IR> GABRIELLE ROY </IR> , Germaine Guevremont, Roger Lemelin, Yves Theriault, and Andre Langevin. Gabrielle Roy is the dominant figure here with Bonheur d'occasion, which portrays a poverty-stricken family during the depression of the '30s; La Petite poule d'eau, two poetical narrations of her youth in her native Manitoba; the portrait of a common man, Alexandre Chenevert; and the largely autobiographical stories of Rue Deschambault. Germaine Guevremont's Le Survenant is a highly poetical novel of a rural family, while <IR> ROGER LEMELIN's </IR> novels, such as Au Pied de la pente douce and Les Plouffe, are fine satires of parochial customs in Quebec City. The prolific <IR> YVES THERIAULT </IR> has achieved at least two very good novels, Agaguk, about Eskimo life, and Ashini, about Indian life. Poussiere sur la ville is considered to be Andre Langevin's best novel.
Other novelists of distinction are Robert Charbonneau (Ils Possederont la terre), Robert Elie (La Fin des songes), Andre Giroux (Le Gouffre a toujours soif), all writers of psychological novels.
A few authors wrote successfully for the stage during this period: Gratien Gelinas (Tit-Coq and Bousille et les justes); Marcel Dube (Zone, Florence, and Un Simple soldat); Jacques Languirand (Le Gibet and Les Insolites); and Paul Toupin (Brutus and Le Mensonge).
Traditional poetry was maintained by poets such as Clement Marchand (Les Soirs rouges) and Sylvain Garneau (Objets trouves). Most of this poetry is, however, rather esoteric and shows the dominant influence of the French surrealists. Its leading poet is <IR> ALAIN GRANDBOIS </IR> (Les iles de la nuit; Rivages de l'homme). Two other major contemporaries are <IR> ANNE HEBERT </IR> (Poemes) and Rina Lasnier (Presence de l'absence).
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|Author:||Guy, Sylvestre; Hathorn, Ramon J.|
|Publication:||Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature|
|Article Type:||Reference Source|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1991|
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