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November 16, 2008

That vantage ground

Of the many fascinating stories within Mary Henley Rubio’s biography Lucy Maud Montgomery: A Gift of Wings, I was perhaps most interested to learn new things about Canadian literary history, and of William Arthur Deacon in particular. Henley Rubio writes of Deacon’s early ambition to establish himself as “Canada’s pre-eminent literary journalist”, at which he succeeded, as he would be book review editor of The Globe & Mail for over thirty years.

From A Gift of Wings: “Deacon was ‘infused with a sense of mission for the establishment of an entire, self-contained, dynamic Canadian cultural milieu– a Canadian authorship, a Canadian readership, a Canadian literature– and sometimes he called himself its prophet.'” “Deacon wanted to develop the literary consciousness of Canadian readers, educating the Canadian public into more ‘sophisticated tastes'”. “Deacon regarded hopelessly old-fashioned the readers who appealed only to ‘low-brow’ unsophisticates… He described these readers as a national embarrassment. In particular, he regarded [Montgomery’s] books as shallow sentimentalism and the ‘nadir’ of Canadian writing.”

Of course it struck me that literary arguments have gone much unchanged in the last eighty years. This point not unknown and particularly vexing to critics who still echo Deacon’s opinions today. One could be asking why Canadian literature refuses to evolve, to unfold, and yet to me, as a reader, it is also particularly telling about the ephemeral nature of criticism itself.

Deacon’s attacks on Montgomery (which were extensive, and went on for the latter part of her career) were intensely personal. On both accounts– that a writer whose work is so decidedly targeted becomes a target herself, and that Deacon’s approach was just as much about himself, his provocations an attempt to be noticed at the beginning of his career. And here I get as sentimental as they come– it was really mean. It was sexist, petty, small-minded, narcissistic, and self-serving, wreaking tremendous havoc on Montgomery’s mental health. One could argue that such is the way this literary game works, but nearly a century later– as the writers touted by Deacon are as unknown as he is, and Montgomery is still internationally read, now regarded as a writer whose work is worthy of serious academic pursuit– Deacon is scarcely a player. So what on earth was the point of him?

We need critics, of course, however wrong they might turn out to be. We need the kind of critics Virginia Woolf wrote about in her essay “How It Strikes a Contemporary”, “the Dryden, the Johnson, the Coleridge, the Arnold… [whose] mere fact of their existence had a centralizing influence.” But what kind of centralizing force would someone like Deacon have had, someone who made his career out of iconoclasm, out of destruction for its own sake? History shows now what a centralizing force was that.

There is a stupid confidence necessary to appoint oneself iconoclast– how can anyone be so sure? Seems to me the wisest critic would bear in mind the lesson Woolf put to writers in her essay “Modern Fiction”:

“We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving… but with a circular tendency, should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle. It need scarcely be said that we make no claim to stand, even momentarily, upon that vantage ground. On the flat in the crowd, half-blind with dust… It is for the historian of literature to decide; for him to say if we are now beginning or ending or standing in the middle of a great period of prose fiction, for down in the plain little is visible. We only know that certain hostilities inspire us; that certain paths seem to lead to fertile land, others to the dust and the desert…”

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