Lately, I’ve been wondering about the personal essay in Canada: its history, its presence, and — dare I say — its influence.
Over the past few years, I’ve read several iterations of the Best American Essays series, an anthology which has re-published the year’s finest essays from American periodicals since 1986. I’ve read contemporary essays, mainly from American magazines, and have read large sections from Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay (1994), a survey of the essay from its beginnings to the present, which includes an “American Scene” section, as well as one for “Other Cultures, Other Continents.”
But where, I wondered, was Canada in all of this?
You could say, of course, that my question was indicative of the supposed cultural anxiety that Canadians tend to feel in relation to the US. But for me, I think it was more than that. As a Canadian, who studied Canadian literature (Canlit) at two Canadian universities before doing an MFA in creative nonfiction at a US university — where Canadian literature was completely absent from discussion and references to Canada were limited to how I pronounced my vowels — this was a legitimate question.
And while it has been looming for quite some time, it’s only been recently that this question has become urgent to me.
Living again in Canada, I was at the local public library not long ago, browsing for books on a rainy day, when I found in the Canadian personal essay section — gasp! (yes, there is such a thing, tucked in at 819.408) — a curious volume with a yellow spine that said, Best Canadian Essays 1989. I slipped it out of its place and looked at its front cover. On it was a photo of a blond woman sitting outside with part of her head shaved, wearing a frilly blue dress that almost came to her knees, and black nylons with a rip in one knee and tall black boots, with one knee almost crossed over the rip, her hands raised, holding what appears to be a periodical, which she is intently reading, her eyes squinting in the strong light. The only decipherable words on the back are an advertisement: “Heavy metal.” I had no idea what that strange combination of components meant, but judging the weirdness of it all, I thought there was a chance the book might contain some real personal essays.
It struck me that personal essays are like that picture — unlikely elements juxtaposed with each other, their arrangement somehow creating something surprisingly unified and, unsuspectingly, pleasing. At the very least, this picture was intriguing, which an essay ought to be.
The essay topics, posted down the left side, were less so. Or rather, they were unauthentically intriguing: clickbate before the internet. “Margaret Atwood Under Suspicion.” Yes, put the Canlit heavy hitter first. But under suspicion for what? “Robert Fulford . . .” — whoever he was — “. . . and His Main Squeeze.” Do I really want to read that? “What if Kennedy Had Lived?” Indeed (and yet, this is a Canadian imagining this?). “And Much More of Canada’s Wittiest, Wisest Non-Fiction Writing.” Of course, these read like headlines rather than introductions to essays, ostensibly mimicking the periodical / newspaper / journal feel from which they were plucked, but they seemed too newsy to be essayistic.
I considered the book dubiously, but, for the sake of educating myself on the history of Canadian nonfiction (even if they were not true essays), I decided to check it out of the library, along with a couple other books of essays I haphazardly grabbed from the same shelf . . . backup, I told myself, in case this one was a flop. Why I didn’t just open the book to have a peek inside and read a few lines before to see about its validity, I don’t know. But I’m sort of glad I just went with it.
What I found was a treasure trove of delightful essayistic essays . . . of the same kind and caliber that I might have read during my MFA.
I feel that I have read a truly good essay when an essayist can make me feel interested in a topic which I had absolutely no prior interest in (and perhaps apathy, or maybe even contempt for). I think, as an example from my MFA, of reading William Hazlitt’s “The Fight” (I despise violence in all its forms). And yet, I somehow got caught up in the essay of his on boxing. A similar thing happened in Best Canadian Essays 1989 when I read an essay called “Return of the Battle of the Monster Trucks” by Tom Hawthorn. Perhaps it was in part how he treated the subject — as a cultural commentary, viewing the spectacle of this “sport,” exposing its underbelly, and the inherent risks for the drivers and the unsuspecting crowd. Somehow, the treatment of the entire thing captivated me.
But not as much as Robert Fulford’s “The Soul of an Old Machine” in which, as a newspaper editor, he lovingly writes an apology for the typewriter against the rush of “the word-processor people” (this was 1989, after all). “What they don’t understand,” he writes, “is that my 40-year-old relationship with the typewriter has emotional overtones I can’t easily ignore.” His essay explores this relationship with this machine, yes, his “main squeeze.”
Or the thematic essays on “The Moral Status of Pity” by Eamonn Callan (thought provoking read, that!), and Robert Stewart’s “The Creative Approach.” In the latter, Stewart reveals, interestingly, that “The notation of creativity is so new in the historical scheme of things that it was not until well into the present [that is, 20th] century that the word began to show up in dictionaries.”
And in “Sundial Renaissance,” Michael Webster, a construction worker turned managing editor, gives detailed instructions of how to create a sundial in your own backyard garden, complete with the science of degrees and latitudes and time zones and the problem that the elliptical orbit of the sun poses on the dial’s accuracy, despite all that. (He also gives expert advice on materials to use — especially in Canadian winters — so that the structure of the dial in frozen ground does not shift once spring arrives.)
These essays, I found, were much after the same manner of The Best American Essays series in the USA, which would have started three years before these, in 1986. In fact, I would be very much surprised if this series did not start because of the American one.
But these essays were Canadian.
It pleased me to be reading essays which I could culturally relate to – that I’d lived in some of the regions which were being spoken about. For instance, in Harry Bruce’s “Roar from the Sea” he examines the bad blood which Maritimers (known for their friendliness) are wont to feel towards “Upper Canadians,” a historical riff that dates back to Confederation. I could understand my own prior experience in these places better because of this essay’s historical explorations.
Several other essays dealt with distinctly Canadian concerns; yet others were of more international importance, not even set in Canada or espousing Canadian concerns, but written by Canadians.
The anthology, as a whole, made me feel proud, once again, to be Canadian.
And indeed, two of the essays touched on Canadian literature outright. Both, incidentally, cited Canlit’s relationship with the USA in angst, mostly because of a then recent free-trade deal with the States which threatened — at least in these writers’ minds — to dissolve the distinctive culture that Canada had from the USA.
“It seems to me,” Rick Salutin writes in “The Future of Our Past,” “the existence of a historical project may be even more important for the literature of a country than for its actual history.” As an example, he states, “The project of the United States is independence. Or perhaps even revolution.” But without a national “project” of its own, Canadian culture was liable to be swallowed up.
Ultimately, he asks, “Is there any trait that characterizes and unifies . . . literary interrogations of the Canadian past?” He rejects the idea of “survival” for Canada as a project (“survival is no project at all”). And though he comes to the same conclusion that I’ve heard expressed in a thousand different ways, his take on it seems to me fresh, interesting: “Perhaps a national project has been there after all, and only now, in the light of our potential disappearance [!], can we see it: the illogical, unlikely project of existing on this continent in the face of and separate from the United States.” It’s not his conclusion, but how he gets there — the essayistic journey of it — that is intriguing to me.
As it is — ironically — the Best Canadian Essays series did not continue, at least as far as I can tell. There is very little written about it online (not even an article on Wikipedia!), so my initial research has been elementary.
I did find a used copy of a 1990 iteration for sale, with the same editor of the 1989 anthology: Douglas Fethering. His editorship is perhaps the most valuable aspects of the Canadian anthology, yet a largely invisible one: the selection. Douglas Fetherling, who chose the essays, is (or at least was at the time) “the literary editor of Canada’s oldest daily newspaper, the Kingston Whig-Standard.” It’s on the strength of his reputation, acquired solely from the 1989 anthology, that I went searching for the potential similar anthologies from later years. The 1990 version is the only other one I found.
Yet, someone else seems to have taken up the series (or at least, they’ve started another one with the same name), this time with a different editor and a different publisher, in the late 2000s. It looks like currently, there is a Best Canadian Essays anthology that is published annually. But even this falls under only a subsection of the publisher’s page on Wikipedia — the source of all knowledge, right? –, Tightrope Books, and has not been updated in over seven years. (The entry for The Best American Essays series already has 2017 listed.)
Though almost 30 years old, the Canadian essays in Best Canadian Essays 1989 touched me in a way that many contemporary American ones fail to do in quite the same, intimate way. In many ways, I had felt that, in reading this anthology, I had come home.
I’ve found, also, an area that seems to me needs to be explored more fully: the absence — and presence — of the essay in Canadian literature.
I think I’ve found myself a project.
Question: What does your personal (literary) project look like?