CANADA FINDS HER VOICE
AN ADDRESS BY ARTHUR STRINGER
Chairman: The President, Mr. Thos. H. Howse
Thursday, April 14th, 1949
HONOURED GUESTS AND GENTLEMEN
To day we welcome as our guest of honour a famous author in the person of Mr. Arthur Stringer, a native-born Canadian who first saw the light of day in Chatham, Ontario.
Mr. Stringer now lives at Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, and when I read that I could not help wondering why he left this fair Canada of ours. I found the answer to this question when I glanced through Mr. Stringer's address to this Club on April 7th, 1932, when he said in his opening remarks, I quote, "and having been in this fair city of Toronto for a couple of days brings home to me what was really troubling Robert Barr when he complained that Canadians were willing to spend more money on their whiskey than they did on their authors." We do hope, sir, you now find this condition much improved.
Mr. Stringer attended Toronto University and later went to Oxford. His literary ability was established at an early age, his first book "Watchers of Twilight" was published when he was only 20 and he seems to have written one or more books nearly every year since that time. Mr. Stringer has travelled very extensively. He has visited South America, Africa, Europe and spent considerable time in what we might describe as the hinterland of the North American Continent, including Labrador, Alaska and the Hudson Bay Country of the North. I have no doubt that much background material for his many writings originated from these travels.
In 1940 he accurately predicted the discovery of atomic energy and its initial use in an atomic bomb in his book "The Ghost Plane." This prophecy resulted from his intimate knowledge of pitchblende found at Great Bear Lake.
I now have pleasure in introducing a man who while legally an American citizen, has shown through his persistent choice of Canadian subject matter for his many novels that spiritually he still belongs to Canada. Mr. Arthur Stringer, who has chosen as the subject for his address
"CANADA FINDS HER VOICE"
At the annual dinner of the Poetry Society of America a few weeks ago I sat next to a mysterious lady who didn't seem much attracted by either me or the menu. She merely toyed with her fruit cocktail and disdained her terrapin soup and scarcely touched her chicken a-la-king. When she pushed away her peach melba I not unnaturally asked her if she was on a diet. "Diet my eye!" she answered. "I'm on the speakers' list!"
I can only too well appreciate that lady's mental perturbation. I know just how she felt. For as the slave of the ink-pot and the typewriter I share with Thack eray an embarrassing forgetfulness when facing an audience. It was Thackeray, you may recall, who said it was only on the way home in a cab that he remembered all the bright things he had intended to say. So, to make sure I won't get lost in unfamiliar territory, I've a road-map here in the form of a script. For I have to watch my step in this city. As a member of those melancholy expatriates who have been dubbed the League of Fallen Maple-Leaves I have learned to tread lightly when I venture back to the land of my birth. The need for that came home to me at a Convention of the Canadian Authors' Association here when a large wholesome-looking stranger shook hands with me with unexpected warmth and said this was a red-letter day in his life. He explained that he liked everything I'd ever written, that he had a scrap-book full of my little things, and that I ought to be the Poet Laureate of Canada. "Why, my wife over there," he protested, "would walk ten miles to get her hands on one of your poems." And while I was trying not to feel like a flapjack being inundated with maple-syrup he turned and called across the room: "Dearie, come over and shake hands with Wilson Macdonald!"
You know, I'm at last beginning to understand why the beaver is our national emblem. I thought, once, it was due to the industriousness of what had been designated as merely an amplified rat. But I was wrong there. For outside its industry the beaver has one peculiar and distinguishing trait. That peculiarity stems from the conviction that its home isn't-habitable until it has been well clammed. And recent events in this fair land of ours persuade me the Canadian isn't happy in his home until he sees it well damned, It seems to be done mostly by our authors, authors who ought to be the mouthpiece of a magnificent young country but turn out to be merely exponents of its misery.
For only a couple of months ago, I find, Robertson Davies described Canada as a dull, dry desert and Canadians as dull and stodgy people. He hissed through his whiskers that they were spiritually constipated and the only Serutan that could save them, apparently, would be a cathartic infusion of the Fine Arts. They were so crass and insensitive in their daily activities, he contended, and life in the Dominion was so desperately dull that is was speeding up our rate of insanity, filling our asylums, and driving our young geniuses abroad. And the only way to keep the country from turning into a demi-continental Snake Pit, the only way to keep everybody from going nuts, would be to paint more pictures and act in more Little Theatres and lilt more lyrics. We must wipe out that deadly conservatism of ours, and get more abandoned. And regeneration may come, apparently, when we all get busy dancing in the streets.
Then not so long ago Hugh McLennan--and this hurts because Hugh is accepted as an astute interpreter of Canadian life-told us how dull we Canadians are. We were not only living in a reign of dullness but in art and literature we were doing mighty little that interested the outside world. And due to that dullness, he claimed, thousands of young Canadians were becoming so fed up with the emotional caution of their elders that they were leaving Canada in droves. He was, of course, only repeating what he had said earlier in the American Saturday Review of Literature, where he contended Canada had no literature of its own and that if we all perished tomorrow our neolithic tribe would be of less interest to future historians than are the people who lived in the ancient GraecoEgyptian colonies of the Upper Nile. Why, he sorrowfully asks, has the gift of tongues passed Canadians by?
Then there's Chancellor Gilmour of McMaster who only two or three months ago took pains to point out how Canada had failed to produce so many of the finer things of life, how as yet she had no distinctive Canadian culture and no independent intellectual identity, and how she faced the double-barreled peril of losing distinctiveness through emigration to other countries and the nefarious influences brought in from the United States.
But that's not all. Last month you had Merrill benison here telling you how apathetic Canada was towards fine arts and how you overlooked your authors and ought to make yourselves into a reception committee for emerging masterpieces. Then a few days later Will Bird proclaimed in Ottawa that Canadians were afraid to be themselves. He accused them of deferring pathetically to foreign opinion and showing a preference for magazines and books not made in Canada. We were turning, he claimed, into a nation of copy cats. And just about the same time James O'Connor intimated in the Victoria "Colonist" that the trouble with our native book-market would end when the Canadian author woke up and wrote: books worth buying.
It's a sad state of affairs. And the therapeutic value of verdicts like that is about as energizing as having your doctor put away his stethoscope and telling you you'd be a. dead man before the end of the week. It's a sad state of affairs. I can't understand, as I glance around me, how you all look so happy. It leaves me wondering why you don't all emulate the lemmings of Norway and swarm down to the Bay and jump in. It leaves me puzzled that so poor a place as Canada could produce an Osler and a Banting and a Graham Bell and a Vincent Massey, could give birth to a Roberts and a Carman and a Lampman, and a half a hundred others who are today giving voice to our national aspirations and making us known both to ourselves and the outer world. And it's about time our homemade Jeremiahs lost a little of their gloom and gave up their job of selling Canada short.
We Canadians, of course, have had to get used to being told we don't amount to much. The late lamented Kaiser, when he concocted his cultural map of the world, marked Canada off as a blank. Sara Bernhardt, when last in this country on one of her repetitious farewells, complained that we had no poets and no poetry. Robert Barr said we spent more money on our booze than on our books. When a group from the Canadian Authors' Association journeyed to England and visited George Bernard Shaw that Chesterfieldian Irishman announced that he was under the impression Canada had no authors. Much of Shaw's eminence, of course, has been achieved through his rudeness and his tendency to stand Truth on her head. For when this same Association of authors invited him to Canada his gracious response was that he had no intention of visiting an outlandish country of savages where a man of Shavian alertness would promptly die of intellectual starvation. That shrinking violet (who got his first recognition on this side of the Atlantic), could today be told that Canada has so many dramatic groups performing his plays and such frantic drama festivals that the village butchers talk about audience reaction and our city plumbers are hankering to play Hamlet. He might also be told that two Canadian books last year dominated the best-seller list in the United States, and that during the last decade Canadian books have equalled American books in merit, if not in numbers.
And right here I'd like to interpolate a word or two about Canadian poetry, our native poetry as you will find it, for example, in that precious but often impoverished quarterly known as the Canadian Poetry Magazine. I've been comparing that Quarterly with the Poetry Magazine of Chicago, with its millionaire backers and its claim that it incorporates the best the States can produce. Perhaps it does. But if our Canadian poetry isn't better than what's coming out of Chicago today I'll eat my hat. The sad fact that our Canadian Poetry Magazine keeps alive only by the skin of its teeth makes me wish every man in this room would take time off to get acquainted with that Quarterly (it's only two dollars a year) and help the world to understand there are new voices in this new country of ours that are worth listening to. But to revert to our elders, it's not easy for a country old in time and tears to discern the spirit that makes this new world of ours what it is. Outsiders don't always understand us. Even Rupert Brooke, when he crossed Canada from sea to sea, was ready to proclaim it was a godless place where the maple and the birch conceal no dryads. This Dominion, he protested, had no background and no ghosts, whereas the soil of England was heavy with the decaying stuff of past generations.
That last charge I'd like to answer with a brief poem, a poem written by a native of this denuded country that never had any poets. It is called "A Westerner in England" and voices the New World preference for foresight rather than hind-sight, for the forward and not the backward look
They showed us their ivied towers, Their walls so grey with time, Their tombs of kings whose bones turn dust Where the moss and lichen climb.
They showed us their stately halls And their gardens soft with rain Where the regal roses seemed to make Their scarred land glad again.
But under their roses lay
The graves that backward led,
And under the gardens bright with bloom Slept deep their storied dead.
Yet I longed for my New World home Where few dead warriors rest
And vouth rides free in the foothill dawn Where the glad trails greet the west.
And the care-free heart outspans Where the camp-fires star the slopes, And time and tears and the troubled past Seem lost in tomorrow's hopes.
In other words, we're still a young country. Heaven knows, we've had that said to us often enough. We're still at the awkward age, they tell us, and too much mustn't be expected of raw youth, especially of delinquent youth that plays hookey from the Sunday-School of civilization. But if we're so young and so bad it strikes me as a mighty poor way to fight this juvenile delinquency, with all this monotonous harping on our sins and the nagging haven't been and ought to be.
It's time for a change. And the change is taking place. It has, in fact, already taken place, only here at home we're too deep in the forest of that alteration to see the trees of accomplishment. We are no longer a blank on the map of culture. We have found our voice. Just how much we have done so was brought home to me when I heard a war-worn New York editor size up Canada's new literary activity by claiming that today you can't go trout-fishing in Ontario without snagging an author and you can't throw a snowball in Montreal without hitting a poet. It explains why those Yankee editors and publishers now send talent scouts into this Dominion of ink-slingers to round up authors of promise before they're tied up with Toronto publishing-houses. Half a century ago those authors had to migrate or go hungry, standing as they did between the devil of impecuniosity and the deep sea of emigration. But the tide has turned. The Canadian writer no longer needs to join that League of Fallen Maple Leaves whose members had to struggle along by what the circus people call "Riding Roman", with one foot planted on the Canadian beaver and his other foot on the American eagle. He can give up that sort of straddling. For today he finds himself face to face with a literary renascence, or, rather, a literary flowering, in many ways as stirring and as vital as Ireland knew half a century ago with its Celtic Revival. His country has emerged from that pioneer state in which Earl Grey said it was too busy with the plow and the axe to give much time to the pen. We may not yet have a national flag, and we may still be in need of a national anthem that can be sung without hesitating gloom. But those things will come. For we have acquired a national spirit, and a knowledge of our northland vigor, and a pride in the strength of our Dominion that stretches from sea to sea. Our country has a wide beauty all its own. It has natural grandeurs that give creative impulse to the author, just as the author in turn must give those grandeurs new richness by making them recognizable. He is beginning to learn how deep the grass-roots go, how much the homeland background colors and helps to create what he craves to express. Election time in Quebec, it is true, may make him suspect that he inherits a house divided as he comprehends how a perfidious Albion of the seventeenth century didn't happen to lose out on the Plains of Abraham. And the occasional cousinly clashes of the provinces may persuade him Dr. Johnson wasn't so far wrong when he said that patriotism, in politics, is the last resort of a rogue. But in literature it stands the first inspiration of the writer. And we, who were born and cubbed in the North, know that strength comes out of hardihood, that our north-born fruit has a tang all its own, that our Northern Number-One Hard is the best wheat in the world, and that there's something vitalizing in a province that can make possible the MacIntosh Apple and something superior and inspiring in a country that can produce a Barbara Ann Scott.
This nationalism I speak of has its undoubted values. But it also has its perils, just as mere regionalism can have its pitfalls. It's fine to wake up to the appeal of our folk life. But it might be fatal to over-stress the peculiar and local and in doing so neglect the universal and fundamental. It's fit and proper to encourage the native author. But when the village poet orates his latest masterpiece it's wise not to throw perspective to the winds and cry out with clannish pride "Whar's your Wully Shakespeare noo?" For art is a flower that can't be forced, Its roots; are too involved with those deeper values that make up the soul of the artist. And the first duty of an author, if he is to rate as an artist, is to know that own soul of his, and then know the soul of his country, and finally make it known to the far-flung world.
The way we are to be known to the world must not depend on either those academic stuffed shirts who rate our poets as Custer rated Indians-it was Custer, you will remember, who said the only good Indian was a dead Indian-or those mine promoters who so eloquently enlarge on the possibilities of our Pre-Cambrian Shield. Nor should it stem entirely from those tourist folders that expatiate on the outdoor bake-ovens of Quebec and rhapsodize over the plentitude of wild-life awaiting the visitor's rifle. Our culture goes a little deeper than game preserves and fish hatcheries. It may pay, in this mechanized age, to be arrestingly picturesque. But to accentuate the medievalisms in our midst is as deluding as trying to keep our Royal Mounted an army of lyrical "RoseMaries".
Nor does the hope of the future repose in big talk about our scenery merely as scenery. The St. Lawrence is a noble river, and our Rockies are unmatched in grandeur. But big rivers and big mountains don't mean much until they have been linked up with the dreams and destinies of man, and made memorable in recorded history and the loving words that spell true literature.
Perhaps I'm wrong about those loving words. For our novelists, I find, are becoming more analytical and more realistic in their portrayal of Canadian life. They are venturing to paint even the low life of a slum parish, even daring to interpret existence on the ragged fringes of our big cities, and doing so without reverence and without warping sentimentality. We are slowly but surely groping our way into the field of the drama, the drama that was once the product and special possession of Broadway. Our poets, from Ned Pratt down, are singing happily and hopefully. But we seem still to be without the unifying note, the compelling endemic song that warms the blood and knits our scattered provinces into one cohesive dominion. We are a little afraid of the homely. We have as yet no ballads to stir the heart, no "Swanee River", "My Old Kentucky Home", no "Carry Me Back to 01' Virginny".
Perhaps a Canadian Stephen Foster will come along and fill the gap. Before he does, we must remember that by heritage we are inclined to be a reserved and unostentatious people, still suspicious of too much sentiment too openly expressed, and not yet entirely out of the shadow of a Calvinistic puritanism that put austerity before art. Besides being a dispersed people we are two races living under one roof and still nursing the delusive claim that bilingualism can be a benefit to this country or any other country.
Perhaps in time we'll learn to be more vocal about our pride in Canada. We could learn something from the Californians who, I found during my exilic year in their state, never miss a chance to glorify their particular corner of the globe. At a funeral there the parson said; "Our brother has gone to a better world-if there is a better world than California." And that attitude is confirmed by the experience of another Californian who passed away and presented himself to St. Peter. When St. Peter asked him where he was from the newcomer said from California. Whereupon St. Peter shook his head and said: "Well, come on up, but I don't think you'll like it here."
And now that I'm too old to set bad examples I can at least give some good advice. That advice would be to tell you to be more aggressively Canadian, to be more passionately proud of our great nation, and not to overlook those men who are translating its greatness into literature. For this country's future depends on what the world thinks of it, and your author is its interpreter and its ambassador of intelligence. Let him do his creative work in the country to which his heart-strings are tied, knowing that if there is fidelity in his picturing of life, how-ever localized, that portrayal will ring true to the outside world. Give him bread enough to keep him alive, and give him attention enough to keep him alert. For without him to put it into lasting words, all your work and all your wealth doesn't amount to much. And that truth was never better expressed than in the Ninth Ode of the Fourth Book of Horace as paraphrased by Pope
In vain their Chief's, their Sage's pride; They had no poet, and they died.
In vain they schemed, in vain they bled; They had no poet, and are dead.