When I was in university studying English for the first time, they had what I found to be an annoying breadth requirement that forced students to take at least one course from all of these various categories: Canadian literature, American literature, 17-18th Century literature, British literature, that sort of thing. And so I ended up in a half year class that was studying Early Canadian Literature. Great, I thought. This is going to be a real riveting semester.
To my surprise, this CanLit, and another CanLit class, became some of my favourite courses I took while in undergrad. The other one I could see how it happened a bit more: the syllabus was chalk full of the classic Canadian lineup (Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Stephen Leacock, Mordecai Richler). But with this Early CanLit class, I’d never even heard of half the writers on the syllabus. To my 20 year old self, this suggested it was because they ‘weren’t as good’ as all the other writers I did know.
Well, that turned out to be wrong. In fact, I found a lot of the texts on the syllabus to be very good, as well as fascinating, informative, and full of surprises. In general, I also found the general thematic concerns of the course interesting: the idea of contact zones, the intermingling of cultures, surviving harsh and unyielding landscapes, imperialism. Along with being literature, it was also historical, and it felt like I learned a lot about where Canadian literature came from.
Canada’s earliest literature was written by explorers, with a few of the most well-known works coming from Samuel Hearne, David Thompson and John Franklin. It was expected that these early explorers would keep extensive journals and notes on their journeys for their companies, but a great deal of them went on to publish their work back home in England. Hearne, Thompson and Franklin all did so, and I think knowing this changes how we should read their work. It’s easy to take them just as they are: as the truth, as accurate, as simple recordings of what they experienced. But the fact is, they’re not. These are works of ‘literature’, pieces that have been extensively edited and modified from their original field notes, intended for a particular audience.
As Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss discuss in their overview of ‘Narratives of Encounter’ in Canadian Literature in English: ‘Publishers were keenly aware of the need to cater to the interests and demands of the European reading audience, which led to a similarity of themes, tropes and stereotypes in narratives.’ There was an emphasis on excitement, of exotic natives, and also the idea of possession, the idea that this was land ready to be taken.
The truth is that the discovery of the New World wasn’t just about exploration. Instead, it always had an ‘economic imperative’. There was a lot of money involved for some people, and so they needed support among the general population back home for their projects. As Sugars and Moss describe, exploration narratives ‘determined the ways readers would imagine and assess the places and people they described’, and so they held a lot of sway. Politically and imperially, they could be used to help justify the European conquest of the New World, and particularly, the conquest of land that was not empty, as often assumed, but firmly inhabited by aboriginals. If you could portray Natives as ‘barbaric and in need of civilization, it became a lot easier to justify the British Imperialist cause.
To find an example of this, we don’t need to look any further than the writing of Samuel Hearne. Samuel Hearne is known as the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean by land and the founder of Canada’s infamous fur traders, the Hudson Bay Company’s first inland post, Cumberland House. Hearne’s writing became well known back home, and he’s even said to have inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge with one of his recitations, and been a model for the infamous sailor in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
Hearne’s writing is vivid and detailed, full of excitement, but as I said above, you need to take it with a bit of a grain of salt. His narratives were substantially revised for publication, and as Sugars and Moss note, ‘many of the more detailed, meditative and retrospective passages were added long after the journeys took place.’ They’re written to serve a certain purpose, and I think this is evident in the section of his description of the ‘Massacre of the Esquimax’ in A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean.
In it, Hearne describes how the group of natives he is travelling with choose ‘without cause’ to massacre the Esquimax. Although Hearne describes himself as reluctant and trying to dissuade their ‘inhuman design’, he ends up accompanying them and witnessing the gory scene of the ‘bloody massacre’. One of the most striking images of the passage is Hearne’s account of a young woman being wounded:
‘my horror was much increased at seeing a young girl … killed so near me, that when the first spear was stuck in her side she fell down at my feet, and twisted round my legs, so that it was with difficulty that I could disengage myself from her dying grasps.’
Although Hearne ‘solicited very hard for her life’, the ‘murderers’ stick their spears through her, with ‘not the smallest regard to the shrieks and agony of the poor wretch, who was twining round their spears like an eel!’ Ultimately, Hearne asks that they put her out of her misery, which they concede to do, and the account has him conclude, ‘My situation and the terror of my mind at beholding this butchery, cannot easily be conceived!’
Reading it, you can’t help but think it’s pretty brutal: these natives, without cause, going to massacre the Esquimax, killing this poor young girl in such a cold-blooded manner, who would do such a thing? I’m sure if you were a member of the reading audience back home in England during the late 1700s you would have thought these aboriginals Hearne had encountered were complete barbarians.
Except when you find out more about what actually happened, things change a little. First off, there were maybe some causes for the violence: it seems there actually was a history of feuding between groups, and raids that had taken place. Furthermore, as Sugars and Moss describe, when you go back and look at Hearne’s original field notes, the account of the young girl is ‘entirely absent,’ as is his own account of his ‘emotionally distraught response’. So, you’re left with another dilemma entirely. Is this account accurate? Is the whole thing exaggerated and embellished? Is it just a prime example of the British Imperialist project, with the goal being to paint the Natives in a light that justified the taking of their land and subjecting them to their control?
Well, I don’t think we can entirely know, although it’s pretty safe to say that the account can’t be seen as simply the truth. I think, however, in a lot of ways, this passage of Hearne’s is the reason I found studying early Canadian literature interesting. It’s a lot more exciting and thrilling than you’d expect: instead of trudging through a forest it’s full of more action than a horror movie. Yet, also, the act of studying it, and its context, leads to an altogether new and revised interpretation. There are moral, political, and ethical concerns that arise in regards to Imperialism and the exploration of the ‘New World’. There are questions in regards to writing itself, and publishing something as ‘true’ when it might, in fact, be much more of a fiction.
In sum, there’s a lot going on here. There’s much more to the surface than meets the eye, and this is why, for me, literature never seems to get old.