Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye, noted literary scholar, was once silently swallowed by an alien continent

There is, I must admit, something a little soporific about this title. Those even remotely aware of the history of Canadian literature will know that “place” is, supposedly, our great literary obsession—the focus of many tedious monographs and book-length studies and seminars that talk about the vastness of the Canadian landscape, the existential anxieties facing vulnerable humans in an indifferent wilderness, and so on and so forth. Several quite lively drinking games could, I suspect, be played with terms like “stark,” “savage,” “inhospitable,” and “sublime” in the context of such monographs and studies and seminars.

But place does seem to be an ongoing obsession among Canadian writers: consider, for example, Sue Goyette’s Ocean, a collection of poems about the relationship between humans and the sea that was short listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize last year, or Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle, winner of the 2014 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, and its portrayal of the complicated relationships colonized indigenous people have with their land.  Martha Baillie’s latest novel, The Search For Heinrich Schlogel, is a well-researched and serious engagement with the troubles facing the arctic, and Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, published last year, is perspicacious in its portrayal of existential confusion in a globalizing Newfoundland. The list could easily go on.

Clearly, place remains one of the primary muses in the Canadian literary imagination—or at least in the Canadian literary imagination as represented by the prize-awarding establishment. In this sense, Canadians are staying true to their critical roots.

Perhaps no one contributed as much to the creation of “Canadian literature” as a field of study, and perhaps no one was as fascinated by the role that place played in Canadian literature as Northrop Frye. In one of the most famous pronouncements on Canadian literature, his 1965 “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada,” Northrop Frye suggested that Canadian writing and the Canadian literary imagination have been fundamentally shaped by the nation’s landscape. There is the distance between populated centres, the political and social realities of colonialism, the fact that Canada was, for a long time, viewed largely as an inconvenient expanse of trees and rocks standing between Europe and trade with the far east (consider that two of our great epic themes—the railroad and the northwest passage—are about trying to find more convenient ways of getting across the country as quickly as possible). Northrop Frye argues that all of these factors have created a “garrison mentality,” one that is neurotic, untrusting, and perennially convinced that whatever “real life” is, it must be happening elsewhere.

For Northrop Frye, the material facts of a place are paramount. In a characteristic passage of slightly bombastic eloquence, Frye suggests that “to enter the United States is a matter of crossing an ocean; to enter Canada is a matter of being silently swallowed by an alien continent.” In addition to betraying the European bias that has coloured (and, alas, continues to colour) so much of Canadian literary criticism, this sentence also perfectly captures a fundamental irony about the historical moment in which Northrop Frye was writing; even as he described the uncanny experience of travelling through the Gulf and up the St. Lawrence in 1965, the tectonic rumblings of globalization were already rendering this very experience quaintly archaic. The plane was replacing the steamship, the automobile was replacing the train, and the advent of television was opening up the garrisoned mind in ways people were only beginning to understand.

Northrop Frye

Italo Calvino, walking on a rooftop in one of Trude’s nicer neighbourhoods

Frye’s argument for the importance of place may have been incisive, thoughtful, and stylish, but it was also—in typically Canadian fashion—late to the party.

Only seven years after Northrop Frye published “Conclusion,” the Italian writer Italo Calvino had a very different take on place in his post-modern fantasy travelogue Invisible Cities. In a section (“Continuous Cities 2”) that bears quoting from at length, he writes of the imaginary Trude:

If, on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, with the same little greenish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we swung around the same flower-beds in the same square. The downtown streets displayed goods, packages, signs that had not changed at all. This was the first time I had come to Trude, but already I knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged …

Why come to Trude I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.

‘You can resume your flight whenever you like, they said to me, ‘but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.’

While Canadian literary giants like Alice Munro, Robert Kroetsch, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, and Alistair MacLeod were mapping out an intensely regional national literature, globalization was rapidly eroding the differences between those regions. From Halifax to Victoria, Trude was oozing across the country in the spread of chain restaurants, chain hotels, chain cafés, chain grocery stores, and chain book stores.

Place has perhaps never been more ambiguous than at this point in history. Not only has our urban geography become almost entirely homogeneous, but the internet has done away with most of the practical limitations that geography used to enforce. A Canadian writer might well feel greater kinship with poets coming out of Columbia than with those who hail from Calgary, and a writer born in Antigonish may have studied in Montreal, done an MFA in New York, taught English in Korea for a couple of years, and internalized all of those geographic, social, and cultural influences into their work.

So what is the contemporary relationship between writers and the places they inhabit, both corporeally and imaginatively? Do physical places still have the power to shape identity, or are we increasingly becoming citizens of that sole Trude that does not begin and does not end? What is the place of “place” in Canadian letters? Over the course of the next month, the Town Crier will be given over to explorations of place from a broad range of writers across the country. Perhaps some of them will provide answers to these questions – or perhaps (and this strikes me as being more likely) they will simply pile on more questions. Stay tuned to find out.

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