American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CANADIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA. As with the majority of its literature, Canada’s works about the sea can be divided geographically into three major categories: the Atlantic/Maritimes, the Arctic*/Northwest Territories, and the Pacific. What unites all three areas in the literature is the recurrent theme of exploration on both a national and an individual scale.

A great deal of Canada’s best writing about the sea is either autobiography or nonfiction. This has set the tone for many of its creative works, as noted by critic Northrop Frye. To Frye, beginning with tales of the early French and English sailors, these stories establish what he describes as his nation’s particular documentary style of narrative. Among the major influences are the exploits of such Arctic explorers as Samuel Hearne, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and Captain John Franklin from the 1770s to the 1820s. The narrative style was still evident in stories of World War II North Atlantic convoys, such as William Howard Pugsley’s Saints, Devils, and Ordinary Seamen (1945). From the 1950s through the 1970s, Farley Mowat* reissued many of the explorers’ journals, including Hearne’s. He followed them with a study of the easternmost province in the northern Atlantic Ocean, New Founde Land (1989).

The Atlantic Maritime Provinces are the oldest of the European-speaking settlements and speak in the most diverse literary voices. The first storytellers were the aboriginal people of Canada, often referred to as the First Nations, who met and joined voices in print with the French. New France stretched from present-day New Brunswick westward down the St. Lawrence River; this colony was also known as Acadia and was the initial setting for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s* Evangeline (1847). The stories of the Acadians’ battles with the English, including colonists from New England, appear in recent historical fiction such as Victor Suthren’s The Black Cockade: Paul Gallant’s Louisbourg Command (1977), which focuses on attacks on the French settlement in Nova Scotia during the 1740s. Many contemporary Francophone writers of Acadian literature continue to explore the relationship between French Canadians and the sea, including poet Ronald Despres in Paysages en contrebande (1979) and fiction writer Louis Hache in Toubes jersiaises (1980). Toronto-based poet Robert Finch, who died in 1995, was an avid sailor whose evocative collection of sea poems, Sailboat and Lake (1988), was introduced by Robertson Davies.

A whimsical work from Nova Scotia in the mid-nineteenth century, The Letterbag of the Great Western (1840) is by legendary humorist T. C. Hal- iburton, who uses letters of fictional passengers to poke fun at American, British, and Canadian travelers on the famous ship. A more adventurous style belongs to Norman Duncan and his stories of life in Newfoundland and Labrador, The Way of the Sea (1903). Poet E. J. Pratt in his first collection, Newfoundland Verse (1923), established his strength in narrative verse. He followed with other books, including The Roosevelt and the Antinoe (1930) about the heroic rescue of a ship’s crew in the mid-Atlantic. Pratt used irony in his epic poem The Titanic* (1935), often called a classic of Canadian literature, on the tragic pride of people who believed that they could conquer the sea.

Sir Charles Roberts, sometimes called the father of Canadian literature, also took up the power of the sea late in his career with The Iceberg and Other Poems (1934). Following Pratt’s example of the epic, historically based narrative poem is Frederick Watt’s sixty-page documentary poem of the North Atlantic convoys, Who Dare to Live (1943). Many of the convoys, as had many luxury liners before the war, used Halifax as a main port. Fred Gogswell, Alden Nowlan, Robert Gibbs, and other so-called Fiddlehead Poets explore life in an environment dominated by the sea, as exemplified in Gibbs’ poems “The Manes P. Aground off Fort Dufferin” (1971) and “Travels: Eastbound/Westbound” (1985).

Canadian sea drama is marked by two high points: the performance of the masque Le Theatre de Neptune on the water facing Port Royal in Acadia, arguably the first dramatic work performed in North America (1606), and Michael Cook’s Newfoundland Plays, a cycle that includes Quiller (1975), about a provincial outpost; On the Rim of the Curve (1977), showing the demise of the Beothuk, Newfoundland’s aboriginal people; and The Gayden Chronicles (1979), telling the story of a Royal Navy rebel hanged in 1812. Newfoundland’s conflict over accepting confederation into the rest of Canada, which lasted from the late nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth, is told in Tom Cahill’s As Loved Our Fathers (1974).

As for more contemporary Maritime prose, there are Mowat’s entertaining tales for juvenile* readers, among them The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float (1968) and The Black Joke (1974). Alistar MacLeod’s collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) tells of life on and off the coast of Cape Breton in such pieces as “The Boat” and the title story. These narrative explorations continue with works such as Jane Urquhart’s* Away: A Novel (1993), with settings reaching out to the Irish Sea, with her short story “The Boat” (1996), and with Howard Norman’s historical novel The Bird Artist (1994), which has a Nova Scotia location and features a lighthouse.*

The St. Lawrence River and its modern incarnation as the St. Lawrence Seaway have always been important in politics, society, and economics. A popular novel of its time, Altham: A tale of the Sea (1848) follows the main character, paralleling author John Swete Cummins’ own life, from Great Britain, to the ocean, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The War of 1812, much of which was fought along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes,* appears in the works of well-known writer and commentator Pierre Berton. A multiple winner of the prestigious Governor General’s Award, Berton wrote The Invasion of Canada (1980) and Flames across the Border (1981), colorful histories of the people and the geography. The waterways are central in Charles Sangster’s collection The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other Poems (1856), especially the title piece. Sangster is sometimes referred to as the poet laureate of colonial Canada. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is the setting for a popular novel of a later time, The Sacrifice of the Shannon (1903) by W. Albert Hickman, about an icebreaker and her crew.

There are some stories handed down by the First Nations’ peoples about the coast and Vancouver Island, including the stories and poems of E. Pauline Johnson, who took the name Tekahionwake in 1886. Her “Deep Water” appears in Suthren’s Canadian Stories of the Sea (1993). Because of the many nearly mythic, real-life adventures that occurred in connecting the Pacific coast region to the rest of Canada, many writers use it as a metaphoric location that can represent ideas such as hope, perseverance, or salvation. This happens in Jack Hodgins’ Spit Delaney’s Island (1977), a book of parables, many redemptive, set on Vancouver Island. In his novels about the Barclay family, particularly The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1980), in which a tidal wave brings both a lost ship and a magical woman to the island, Hodgins promotes a world in which the characters can create and re-create their lives. A more recent work of fiction is William Gaston’s Deep Cove Stories (1989), also set along the Pacific coast. Sharon Pollock’s play The Komagata Maru Incident (1978) is based on a 1914 clash, when Sikh immigrants were not allowed to disembark in Vancouver. Highly imaginative, Gothic poems constitute Susan Musgrave’s Songs of the Sea-Witch (1970) and The Impstone (1976).

Among fanciful works of children’s literature on sea themes are George H. Griffin’s At the Court of King Neptune: A Romance of Canada’s Fisheries (1932) and Legends of the Evergreen Coast (1934). The Boatman (1957; revised 1968) by Jay Macpherson is a collection of poetic recastings of classic and religious parables, often compared to the work of William Blake. Pratt’s humorous fantasy The Witch’s Brew (1925) is a Prohibition satire about a drunken fish and other creatures of the deep. [See also GAFF TOPSAILS; KENT, ROCKWELL; SNIDER, CHARLES HENRY; VOLLMANN, WILLIAM T.; THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL]

FURTHER READING: Gair, Reavley, ed. A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry and Goose Lane, 1985; New, W. H. A History of Canadian Literature. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1989; Suthren, Victor, ed. Canadian Stories of the Sea. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1993; Toye, William, ed. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1983.

Michael W. Young