- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Nov 1923, p. 330-342
- Gibbon, John Murray, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- What is suggested by the word “literature.” The as-yet comparatively small output of Canadian books. The phrase “New Canadian” and what it means. A discussion of the part new Canadians are likely to play in the Canadian letters of today or the Canadian literature of the future. A question not so much whether the immigrant is worthy of the heritage of Shakespeare, but whether we ourselves are the worthy heirs. A consideration of “Who are the British?” British people today as a composite of original Britons, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Dane and Normans, into which has been thrown a considerable seasoning of Flemish, Dutch, French, Huguenots, Germans and Jews. The Anglo-Saxon ideal of simplified Self-Government and Individual Freedom as the element that has given stability and coherence to this composite people. Enrichment from each new element. Anticipating some of the results of an influx of races into Canada by studying the parallel situation in the United States. Illustrative examples of the influence on American literature by immigrant races. Specific works and particular Canadian authors, and their origins. The possibility of flowers in the Canadian literary garden from the immigrant races.
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- 22 Nov 1923
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CANADIAN LETTERS AND THE NEW CANADIAN
AN ADDRESS BY MR. JOHN MURRAY GIBBON
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
November 22, 1923
PRESIDENT WILKINSON, in his introductory remarks, briefly and happily referred to Mr. Gibbon's education at Oxford, his contributions to literature and history, his work on behalf of the Society of Canadian Authors, and his deep interest in the welfare of the new Canadians in the Dominion.
MR. J. MURRAY GIBBON
Mr. President and Gentlemen,--The original title for this address was "European Seeds in the Canadian Garden." Some one, however, suggested that the printer would probably mis-print it as "European Weeds in the Canadian Garden," and thus make the subject more than ever controversial. Fortunately, your Secretary is associated with a publishing house, and as those of you who are authors are aware a publisher knows much more about titles than an author, so he suggested the one announced, "Canadian Letters and the New Canadian." I rather like that phrase "Canadian Letters." It sounds quite distinguished, and yet appeases those who deny that we have as yet any Canadian literature to speak about.
The word literature does, indeed, suggest a large body of writings, and the output of Canadian books
Mr. John Murray Gibbon is a graduate of Oxford University, and was formerly editor of the English illustrated weekly, "Black and White." He is the author of a series of well-known novels and of "Scots in Canada." He is a past president of the Canadian Authors' Association, and for the last ten years has been general Publicity Agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.
has, so far, been comparatively small. Our contingent of Canadian authors is very modest compared, for instance, with the vast army of Chinese poets. During the Eighteenth Century, an Emperor of China ordered an anthology to be made of the Tang Dynasty from 618-960 A.D. This anthologya mere selection of the best-amounted to 48,900 poems, written by 2,300 authors. Of course, I don't think it is really necessary for Canada to have 2,300 poets before it can claim to have a literature. Indeed, when I think of these numbers, I am reminded of a retort made by Sarah Bernhardt. Some interviewer asked Sarah what she thought of the Ten Commandments, to which she replied, "I think there are too many." Canada has not so many authors suitable for an anthology, but she has made a beginning.
Last Saturday, the Montreal "Gazette" published a symposium of opinions by -seventeen well-known Canadians, either authors themselves, or librarians or University Professors, in which they specified books by Canadians, or about Canada, that for some reason or other had particularly interested them. In this symposium a great variety of books was mentioned, written by fifty-seven (57) different authors. As soon as I saw that number fifty-seven, I felt reassured. I remembered that a certain other business had been built up on fifty-seven varieties, and if there are fifty-seven varieties of Canadian authors, there ought surely to be as great a hope for the future of Canadian literature or letters as there is for the business of Mr. Augustus Heinz.
So much for Canadian letters. What about the New Canadian? The New Canadian is a phrase associated particularly with the name of Dr. J. T. M. Anderson, an Educationalist of Saskatchewan, who is doing a notable work among the foreign-born immigrants of the Prairie Provinces, and with that of Dr. G. Elmore Reaman, Educational Director of the Y.M.C.A., Toronto, and author of "English for New Canada." These are helping to improve educational facilities, so that the second generation, at any rate, of these foreign-born settlers shall speak English and understand the significance of Canadian citizenship. There are, of course, many recent settlers of Old Country stock who are as new to Canadian conditions as the so-called foreign-born, but the term New Canadian has come to be applied more to immigrants and their families of Continental European stock.
The subject of my address is the discussion of the part these New Canadians are likely to play in the Canadian letters of today or the Canadian literature of the future. The subject seems to me particularly appropriate for discussion in a Club such as the Empire Club, the very name of which suggests that its members consider Canada as being part of the British Empire. There are some who contend that the influx of these Continental Europeans into Canada is not a desirable thing, but threatens to weaken the bonds which unite the British Empire, as they know nothing of and would not properly value the great heritage of English literary tradition associated with the name of Shakespeare.
Viewed in this light, the question resolves itself into whether these New Canadians are worthy of receiving or capable of appreciating this heritage of English literature. As we are so frequently informed that there is no Canadian literature that amounts to anything, there is less anxiety among our critic-patriots as to whether the New Canadian is worthy of the heritage of Ralph Connor or Stephen Leacock or the local living literary lions who contribute to MacLean's Magazine.
Bearing on this question as to whether the Continental European is worthy of the heritage of Shakespeare, let me quote to you two short extracts from a book by Stephen Graham entitled, "Europe--Whither Bound." Stephen Graham made a trip through the Continent after the conclusion of the War to see and report on what was happening and likely to happen.
HE GOES TO PRAG:
The other evening was at the Czech National Theatre to see a performance of "Coriolanus." What struck me about the Czech performance of "Coriolanus" was the dignity of personality and height of conception which the Slavs bring to the conception of Shakespeare. It was the same in Moscow in the old days. "Hamlet" was more interestingly conceived and better performed than anywhere else in the world.
HE GOES TO BERLIN
"Richard III" at the State Opera House was a strange performance. It was about the time of the Shakespeare Day Celebration which Germany keeps once a year. All the newspapers devoted articles to Shakespeare, and one felt truly that a great master of words and of men was more honored in ex-enemy Germany than in the land of his birth.
I would also remind you that one of the greatest interpreters of Shakespeare in our day was a Polish immigrant who learned English for the first time in California at the age of 29--I refer to Madame Modjeska.
The question is not so much whether the immigrant is worthy of the heritage of Shakespeare, but whether we ourselves are the worthy heirs. The plays that fill the Canadian theatres are not the literary plays-but plays such as "Up in Mabel's Room," or "Getting Gertie's Garter."
Now you cannot dissociate English literature from the history of the British people, and it seems, therefore, wise first to analyze the history and decide the question "Who are the British?" Tennyson partly answered that question in an Ode of Welcome to the Princess Alexandra when she arrived in England in 1863. I don't propose to quote the whole of that Ode, because I think it one of the worst poems ever written by apoet laureate--and that is the ultimate depths. But I will quote the two lines
"For Saxon or Dane or Norman we
Teuton or Celt or whatever we be."
The words "whatever we be" in the second line covers the possibility of quite a number of nationalities in the British makeup. In Shakespeare's own day, after the sack of Antwerp, in 1585, thousands of Flemish and Dutch immigrants, mostly weavers, settled at Norwich, Colchester, Canterbury, and along the East Coast from Yarmouth south, considerably modifying the British-Roman-Anglo-Saxon-Danish-Norman character of that section of the British people. A hundred years later, another flood of French Huguenots came to England and greatly increased the industrial population.
Of deep importance also was the permission granted to the Jews to return to England in 1650. In the year before the Great War of 1914, there were 240,000 confessing Jews in England, and at least as many who professed Christianity. Five years after Tennyson's poem to Alexandra, a Jew had become Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was Benjamin Disraeli, the author and statesman, who conceived the idea of adding "Empress" to Queen Victoria's titles, thus visualizing in a word what the true born Englishman had vaguely dreamed.
Did it ever occur to you that there would probably have never been a Club called the Empire Club in Toronto had it not been possible in the 18th Century for a family of Spanish Jews, the Disraelis, to emigrate from Venice into England?
The fact is that the British people of today are a composite of original Britons, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Dane and Normans, into which has been thrown a considerable seasoning of Flemish, Dutch, French, Huguenots, Germans and Jews. The so-called upper classes of England are not all of Norman or Saxon descent. The Duke of Athol is descended from a Fleming named Freskin. The Duke of Portland from a Dutchman Bentinck. The well-known family of Labouchere is of Huguenot extraction.
The element that has given stability and coherence to this composite people is the Anglo-Saxon ideal of simplified Self-Government and Individual Freedom. The composite character of the people has not hindered its literary development. In fact each new element has enriched the language with capacity for still greater and more flexible expressions, and in certain cases has added new instincts of creative imagination.
In keeping the gates open for the foreign-born victim of political or economic circumstances, Canada is simply continuing the traditional policy of the Motherland. There is this difference, however, that England has never known an immigration of foreign-born so varied in racial origin as Canada has experienced in this Twentieth Century, or so large in proportion to its previous population. In 1901, when the total population of Canada was 5,370,000, there were eight Canadians of British stock to one Canadian of Continental European stock, whereas in 1921 the proportion of British Canadians to Continental European Canadians had been reduced to four to one. These figures are exclusive of the FrenchCanadians. According to the census of 1921, we now have as fellow-Canadians about a million and a quarter men and women of Continental European stock. These include: 340,000 Germans, 167,000 Scandinavians, 126,000 Jews, 106,000 Ukrainians, 100,000 Russians, 53,000 Poles.
We may be able to anticipate some of the results of this influx of races into Canada by studying the parallel situation in the United States. The Continental European immigration commenced to flow in volume into the United States about thirty years before the flood widened into Canada. In such a period of years we can expect to discover whether the immigrant races show any influence on American literature or not. As a matter of fact, they most emphatically do.
Take for instance the short story. In the metier of the short story our American neighbours claim emphatically that they are supreme. They certainly take the short story very seriously. You can see this particularly in the women's magazines. One woman's magazine, "The Delineator," has built up an immense circulation on its cut-out patterns. Another, "The Pictorial Review," has built up another equally immense circulation on its short stories. Now, when you find the women of the United States paying as much attention to short stories as they do to cutout patterns, you realize that in American culture the short story is, to use an American expression, "some pumpkins."
I therefore turned to the latest volume (1922) of the wellknown Annual of American Short Stories, edited by Edward O'Brien, to investigate the racial origin of the authors of the best stories of the year. Twenty stories are printed, and of these four (or 20%) are by European immigrants, to whom English was originally a foreign tongue. These four are:--
Konrad Bercovici: born in Dubrudgea, Rumania; educated there and in the streets of Paris.
David Freedman: a Roumanian Jew.
Benjamin Rosenblatt: also a Jew, born in Resoska, Russia, who came to New York at the age of 10 and sold newspapers; twenty-five years later (in 1915) he wrote a story called "Zelig" which was judged by Mr. O'Brien the best short story written in 1915.
Rose Gallup Cohen: also Hebrew; born in Russia; came to America at the age of 12. Worked in sweatshop and factory 14 hours a day. Health broke down when she was 17. She learned to read English from the Bible in hospital. Wrote a book called "Out of the Shadow" twenty years later.
Of the remaining sixteen, five are of Continental European ancestry, though born in the United States, leaving eleven of the twenty as of originally British stock. These figures are surely evidence of the influence on American letters of the New Americans, and are indicative of what may happen in Canada.
In the case of Canada, there is this difference perhaps that a large proportion of the immigrants were peasant farmers in their own country, whereas the four American short-story writers evidently came from a city life to New York. Out on the Canadian prairies the homesteader has the handicap of few books and no access to libraries, and to the budding author the absence of books means mental starvation.
Yet the success of many of these immigrants, or their children, in other branches of life-as lawyers, for instance, or politicians, has been such that it seems worth while considering briefly the cultural background of some of these Continental Europeans who are becoming New Canadians, so that we can discover whether they have any predisposition to literary effort.
I don't propose to claim that these immigrants are likely to write books more accurately depicting Canadian life than the native-born Canadian. If we are to judge from a recent advertisement which I read in the Toronto "Globe," there are heights of realistic imagination to which the immigrant or New Canadian cannot yet reach. This advertisement was headed: "Books that Picture Canada and Bring Canada Home to Friends Abroad" and in the list of books that followed were four by a nativeborn Canadian from this Province of Ontario. The titles of these four books were:
"The City of Peril" (presumably Montreal) "The Gun Runners"
"The Wire Tappers."
(Laughter) As a matter of fact, the author of these four has written admirable books depicting Canadian life such as "The Prairie Wife," and as I said before, it is not the author who writes the titles--nor, of course, the advertisements. In the list that follows these four titles, there is one book to which I direct your attention, because it is by one of these New Canadians, "The Viking Heart," by Laura Goodman Salverson. The author of this belongs to the Colony of Icelanders who came to Manitoba in 1873, and after which an initial period of considerable hardship eventually achieved considerable prosperity. "The Viking Heart" is the story of those settlers told with a sincerity and power which makes this, to my mind, a notable addition to Canadian letters.
It is a rather remarkable fact that in the case of two of the outstanding Canadian books in the English language, published this Fall, neither of the authors spoke English as their mother tongue. The mother tongue of Laura Goodman Salverson was Icelandic, while that of Marius Barbeau, author of "Indian Days in the Canadian Rockies," a book of very distinctive style and charm, was French.
Another Canadian writer springing from this Icelandic Colony is Vilhjalmar Stefansson, whose efforts to develop and indeed enlarge the British Empire are no doubt known to the members of this Club.
Florence Deacon Black, in the November issue of the "Canadian Magazine," describes a visit she paid the other day to the Icelandic village of Elfros, in Manitoba. "The little village of Elfros is full of intellectuality." She says, "Johann Magnus Bjarnason, the author of several novels and volumes of poems in Icelandic, lives there, and Laura Goodman Salverson, whose realistic story of the Icelanders in Canada, "The Viking Heart" (McClelland & Stewart), has just been published, frequently visits her sister there. Even the blacksmith of the village lets his irons grow cold if any of his customers are so rash as to quote poetry to him. He himself can recite Shakespeare and Burns by the hour. The Icelanders are great readers, and they choose to read only the best literature. In their conversation, too, they neglect the trivial. They are interested in philosophy, poetry-ideas. The average Canadian does not realize what a wealth of splendid brains the Icelandic people have given to Canada."
Denmark, another of the Scandinavian nations, has given us at least one Canadian author--C. W. Peterson, Editor of the "Farm and Ranch Review" of Calgary, and author of "Wake Up, Canada." Describing the social life of Denmark, Shaw Desmond says, "You fall over a new writer in every newspaper column, a new singer in every concert hall, a fresh painter at every street corner. The number of men who can write, whether journalists or novelists, or both, is bewildering. Here is a country with so high an artistic standard that the working classes sometimes actually take over the finest theatre in Copenhagen for an evening, where they see Ibsen, or Shakespeare, or Strinberg, or hear an opera by Tchaikowsky or Wagner--pieces which in Great Britain would not draw five hundred people from the working classes-not a hundred."
As to Norway, this at least can be said of the Norwegian immigrant that he is never illiterate. Norway has had compulsory education for over 100 years. Bjornson said: "In no other country have so many eminent poets, artists, men of science and statesmen risen directly from the peasantry." The two great Norwegian novelists of today, Knut Hamsun and Johann Bojer, were both of lowly origin. Knut Hamsun was in his day a shoemaker's apprentice, a coal heaver, a roadmaker, a farm hand and a street car conductor. He emigrated to the United States but found that country lacking in artistic culture and so went home again.
The German element is the most numerous and the oldest of the Continental European stocks trans, planted into Canada, for German immigration commenced as far back as 1750 and continued steadily till towards the end of last century. In Archibald MacMurchy's history of Canadian Literature up to 1906, I find three authors mentioned who are of German stock. German culture, both in Europe and on this Continent, has tended more towards book-learning and book-keeping than to creative literature. Germans in Canada have taken more interest in practical science and business than in poetry or fiction. The nearest approach to fiction that I can find among Canadians of German extraction is in the Hydro-Electric prosperity-prospects of Sir Adam Beck.
Of the Slavic immigrants who have become New Canadians in the last thirty years, the Ukrainians claim that they number 250,000, although the census of 1921 gives them only 106,000. These before the war came to Canada under the names of Ruthenians or Galicians. Florence Randall Livesay, an author now resident in Toronto, obtained many of the original poems for her book of translations, "Songs of Ukrainia," from the Russalka, her charwoman, in Winnipeg. Dr. J. T. M. Anderson in his book, "The New Canadian," tells of the remarkable progress of the Ukrainians in Canada under the influence of education.
Evidence that the Ukrainians take an interest in something else than dollars was given by the Ukrainian Colony in Calgary (numbering about one thousand souls) which put on a Ukranian play last winter. The Scots claim to be the most intellectual of the British races, and there are more than one thousand Scots in Calgary, but I find no record of any Scots play being produced in that city.
The cultural background of the 100,000 Russians who have settled in Canada is so varied that one cannot summarize it in a few words. Most of the Canadian-Russians came here before the war as economic or religious refugees. Their reading was circumscribed by their priests and by their police spies. Yet they came from a country which, under vast handicaps, produced the most notable literature of the Nineteenth Century.
Who knows whether we have not imported another Maxim Gorki among our own Russian immigrants? Working as a cabin boy on a Volga River steamboat, Gorki was taught to read by the ship's cook. Before he had published his first short story and so became qualified to class as an author, he had been a baker's boy, a longshoreman, a hand in a sawmill and a hobo.
The eagerness of the Jew for education when he can get it, and his ability to make use of it is notorious. In the Province of Quebec, according to the last census, the population of British origin was 357,000, while that of Jewish origin was 48,000, a proportion of 7 to 1. Compare this with the number of those desiring higher education. In the McGill 1924 Class, for instance, in the Schools of Arts and Law, the number of Jews exactly equals that of the native-born Canadians of British stock--25 of each. Among those of Jewish stock in Canada who have distinguished themselves by their writings may be mentioned Dr. E. Sapir, of Ottawa, author of a remarkable book on Language, an anthropologist of note and an accomplished poet. Another poet is Hyman Edelstein, of Montreal. During last winter, a regular Stock Company produced Yiddish plays at the Monument National in Montreal, with occasional "guest" players, such as Ben Ami from New York. The Yiddish theatre in New York has had an important influence on the American drama in the English language, and may very well have a similar influence some day on the Canadian drama.
As I said before, the original title of my remarks was "European Seeds in the Canadian Garden." I thought of that title when this summer I found in a hitherto neglected corner of my garden a beautiful cluster of hollyhocks. Where they came from I do not know--I did not plant them--their seeds may indeed have been dumped into that corner in the most unromantic way, hidden in a load of manure. But there they were, and by pruning off superfluous leaves and giving a little attention, they grew to be the most beautiful flowers in that garden. Now in the immigrant races we have the possibility of just such flowers in the Canadian literary garden-people who in their own country even though they were illiterate peasants enjoyed the possession of rich treasures of folk-lore and folk-song, peasants who in their arts and crafts show a deep feeling for harmonious form and colour, men and women and children eager to learn the language of the country that has given them refuge from the tragic circumstances of Europe, and surely ready some day to express their thoughts and aspirations in language which shall not perish. (Loud applause)
PROF. G. M. WRONG expressed the thanks of the Club for the address.