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ariel: a review of international english literature





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Canadianism, Canadian literary culture

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In a letter to William Douw Lighthall on November 18, 1888, Charles G.D. Roberts describes the activities at the Haliburton Society at King’s College in Windsor, Nova Scotia. “I talk Canadianism all the time to the members,” he writes. “We have a literary programme, of Canadian color each night, & we smoke, & drink lime juice & raspberry vinegar, all thro[ugh] the meeting. I am sort of permanent Pres[iden]t, as it were” (Collected Letters 96; italics in original). In the letter’s postscript, Roberts asks Lighthall if he would like to join the society and names Bliss Carman as one of its members. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “Canadianism” first entered into the English language in 1875, and Roberts’ letter to Lighthall indicates that by 1888 it was already the byword of a new literary project—a project that was openly and idealistically nationalistic,1 and, clearly, important both to the acknowledged leader of the Confederation group of poets and to the most important anthologist of Canadian literature in the post-Confederation period. Until the ascension of modernism in Canada and the rise of professionalism, anthologists/literary historians such as Lighthall were enormously influential in determining critical trends, and a nationalistic preoccupation with identifying and promulgating a literary tradition is a salient feature of Canadian literary criticism after Confederation. Roberts’ use of the word “Canadianism” here and again in his next letter to Lighthall where he informs him that at the next meeting of the Haliburton Club (where Lighthall was in fact inducted into the society) he “read a lot from [Lighthall’s] The Young Seigneur—pure Canadianism, & it took hold beautifully” (Collected Letters 98), indicates the importance that both Roberts and Lighthall placed on establishing a Canadian literary tradition immediately after Confederation.


This article was first published in ariel: a review of international english literature.