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Eva Gruber and Caroline Rosenthal, editors. Gained Ground: Perspectives on Canadian and Comparative North American Studies

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1Eva Gruber and Caroline Rosenthal, editors. Gained Ground: Perspectives on Canadian and Comparative North American Studies.

2Rochester, NY: Camden House. 2018. 243 pp.

3Art Redding, York University, Toronto

4What is the current status of Canadian Studies in Europe? Welcome to Gained Ground, an original volume surveying the state of Canadian Studies in twenty European countries. Three decades and more after the publication of Gaining Ground (1985), a bracing collection of critical essays on Canadian literature edited by Robert Kroetsch and Reingard Nischik (to whom this volume pays tribute), a sequel anthology, capably edited by Eva Gruber and Caroline Rosenthal, Gained Ground aims both to assess the field and define it.

5Canada does not get nearly enough respect in the European academy. Canadian Studies, sadly, has been over this time something of a poor cousin to American Studies in Europe, while Canadian literature is often taught as an offspring of British literature (and sometimes as a postcolonial venture). The emphasis in the subtitle of Gaining Ground on “comparative North American Studies,” while responsive to a hemispheric and transnational turn in literary and cultural studies more generally, gives one some pause, however. Insofar as it wants to break the hold of national imaginaries on our understanding of cultural production, the move is laudatory. Bettina Mack’s very compelling opening chapter, “Mapping North America: Comparative North American Literature and Its Contexts,” is both an invaluable comprehensive survey and a strong defense of this critical shift. Yet, it raises the unfortunately still nagging questions of whether Canadian Studies can stand alone as a discipline within European universities or whether Canadian culture can emerge as a subject worthy of devoted critical attention in its own right. That is, it runs the risk of implicitly subsuming Canadian Studies within American Studies more broadly.

6This subsumption will no doubt infuriate Canada patriots who begrudge the myriad ways in which our cultural achievements have been overshadowed by the enormous imperial hegemon to our south. The excellent introduction by the volume’s editors, Eva Gruber and Caroline Rosenthal, judiciously surveys the strengths and drawbacks of comparative and transnational approaches, admitting that Canada risks being eclipsed (7). And, indeed, several excellent chapters in the third section of the collection, dedicated to comparative approaches, take up the question more or less reflexively. Michael and Linda Hutcheon, for example, ferret out key distinctions between Canadian opera productions and those written or mounted in the US. They excoriate the unremitting and immense self-regard of American individualism en route, in favor of works such as Louis Riel, by composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore, first performed at Expo 67 in Montreal; as the Hutcheons argue, Lois Riel more cautiously limns the fraught histories and contentiousness at work in the cultural fabrication of any national identity. So too Florian Freitag’s rather brilliant excursus into the ways in which national identities can be fabricated precisely to circulate abroad. Relishing Andre Loiselle’s observation that self-reflexive irony has become a “canonized discourse framing Canadian culture as whole” (174), Freitag shows how a stereotypical Canadianness, attuned to and inflected by its target audience, can play into the hands of tourist industries located in the US.

7But Canadian cultural production has long been pinioned between the waning of the British empire and the emergence of the American (now itself, quite probably, in decline). Silvia Morgenthau, in one of the most powerfully researched and historically alert essays in Gained Ground, “The Scottish Invention of Canadian Literature? John Buchan in Canada,” explores the ambivalence issuing from this liminal position. Buchan, a Scottish journalist, historian, and writer of thrillers, including The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935 (the same year that Alfred Hitchock released his famous adaptation of the novel). Though we tend to think of the promotion of Canadian literature as a distinct and autonomous tradition as a postwar (and, I have argued, even a Cold War) national endeavour, Morgenthau argues persuasively that Buchan, both as a writer and a cultural ambassador, championed such inchoately “Canadian” values as multiculturalism before the war. After the war, the US State Department, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies worked extensively to promote American writing and to gain footholds in European universities and cultural institutions, as did the British Council for writers from the UK (and, beginning in the sixties, Anglophone writers from around the world). But the institutional cultivation of Canadian culture, like the marketing of Canadian wine today, was limited almost entirely to the domestic market: in schools and universities, on the CBC, by such publishing houses as McClelland & Stewart, and at the National Film Board. Little was exported, and you could consume next to none in Europe.

8That began to change in the 1970s and 1980s as a consequence of two twinned developments: first, there emerged a new generation of advocates for Canadian literature, including Kroetsch and Margaret Atwood, who championed the cause internationally. It was those efforts, which were amplified by such scholars as Nischik, that originally resulted in Gained Ground. A lovingly detailed appreciation of the history by Aritha van Herk is included in a coda to Gaining Ground, describing the emergence of Canadian Studies as a discipline in Europe, largely in Germany.

9Further, Atwood’s status as a writer of international bestsellers brought increased attention to Canadian literature. Other important writers of the period such as Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, musicians including Leonard Cohen and the Band, and indeed such eminent critics as Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Linda Hutcheon, and Barbara Godard found warm critical appreciation and a surprising amount of popularity outside of Canada. To historicize Freitag’s observations noted above, one might say that it was at the time of Expo 67, with its refusal to sanction American imperialism in Vietnam, and with the emergence of Trudeau as a specifically Canadian “brand,” that Canada began to care deeply about how it appeared on the world stage.

10At the same time, Canadian writing itself was becoming more cosmopolitan and worldly, embracing immigrant and indigenous writers. Barbadian Austin Clarke, for example, arrived in Toronto for university in 1955 and launched his distinguished career as journalist, poet, fiction writer, and educator in the mid-1960s. Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje began publishing his acclaimed poetry in the late 1960s; his career as a celebrated novelist began with Coming Through Slaughter in 1976. Dionne Brand, born in Trinidad and Tobago, published her first poetry collection, Fore Day Morning: Poems, in 1978. In 1985, Okanagan author Jeannette Armstrong published Slash, thought to be the first novel published in Canada by a First Nations woman, and in 1993 the inaugural edition of An Anthology of Native Canadian Literature in English appeared, edited by Daniel David Moses and Terry Goldie. Trudeau’s commitment to multiculturalism helped garner such voices a receptive audience at home.

11Worryingly, however, very little of these latter developments are represented in the volume. The collection remains decidedly anglophone in its orientation. There is a splendid chapter by Katja Sarkowsky on the Nisei writer and visual artist Roy Kiyooka’s brilliant hybrid auto/biographical narrative, Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka (1997), which I think should be required reading. The work of Mark Anthony Jarman, whose celebrated 19 Knives (2000) is discussed in detail by Claire Omhovère, may also be new to European readers and students of Canadian literature. However, most of the essays—excellent in their own right—primarily assess the work of such familiar canonical writers as Kroetsch, Munro, Findley, the immensely popular Yann Martel, and Atwood, whose work—the subject of three chapters—tends to dominate the book. Gained Ground disregards francophone cultural production and pays attention to no indigenous authors whatsoever, a slight that, in the wake of 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report, is nothing short of scandalous. The metaphoric title of the collection, too, redolent as it is of territory that might be occupied, settled, taken, or stolen, resonates in an unfortunate way. The editors do acknowledge and claim to support the indigenization of Canadian Studies, but they do so fairly grudgingly, suggesting that it should be developed within the larger framework of comparative North American Studies, which has “problematized nation-based perspectives and have emphasized border-spanning affiliations and allegiances” (7). Fair enough, though that sort of statement does not even rise to the level of lip service. I hope indigenous writing has done more than problematize nationalist thinking. But, seemingly, we will not find out, at least not yet, from European scholars.

12And despite some attention paid to photography, opera, and tourism, the subject matter is still predominantly literary. What of Canadian television, film, dance, conceptual art? Comics get sustained attention, but only in reference to the work of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who is American. What of Canadian history, Canadian journalism? What – one would consider an obvious and essential problem in the age of Trump and right-wing populism globally – Canadian political discourse, which so many of us like to think is the sanest on earth?

13Despite these oversights, the collection is chock-full of insights and important reads. Ground has been gained, though there is still a lot to cover. Intellectually, Canadian Studies in Europe is thriving. Institutionally? In 2012 the Stephen Harper administration axed the “Understanding Canada” program, a five million dollar per year initiative that had promoted Canadian Studies at universities in 39 countries abroad and supported the work in the field of up to 7100 international scholars since the 1970s. It is no doubt churlish of me to lament the exclusion of any information about the contributors, as it is easy enough to Google people today. Even so, contributors’ biographies would be helpful; I want to know who these critics are, and, perhaps more importantly, where they are located (most are based in Canada or Germany, though France and Israel are also represented). But what is the status of Canadian Studies in southern Europe, in eastern Europe, in the UK (or at other universities around the globe) today? And what future has it? The world today might indeed be able to use a little more Canada, but, given the rightward lurch of so many governments around the globe, given the austerity agendas of the neoliberal university in Europe and everywhere, frankly, we will do well to wonder if and how we are going to get it.

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“Eva Gruber and Caroline Rosenthal, editors. Gained Ground: Perspectives on Canadian and Comparative North American StudiesEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2021-2, Online since 13 July 2021, connection on 20 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/17095

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