Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bill Deacon and Early Canadian Literature

Deacon's Early Literary Career

Canadian literary figure Bill Deacon had always considered himself to be a herald of Canadian talent. For Deacon, nurturing the nascent Canadian literary movement was “my self-appointed missionary work.” Of course, a larger tide of events was rolling along in Deacon's direction: The Copyright Bill (1919) and the Canadian Author's Association (1921). But if literary nationalism was the engine of a larger Canadian nationalism and concomitantly, in the further evaporation of Imperial sentiment, then Deacon would become the driving force behind literary nationalism; the need for a “new national self-consciousness.” In fact, Deacon's nationalism in many ways, did not mimic the trends of his time but rather led them. His nationalism was much more oppositional as well, always reacting to the American and British imperial overstretch.

The 1920's and thirties represented for Deacon a great flurry of activity; as author and literary critic. Throughout, he would use his position as literary critic in Saturday Night magazine (1922-1928) and Globe and Mail as well as the many books he authored, to comment on both the “inwardly nation” and the “outwardly empire”, but always forging ahead with a call for a new national identity for himself and for Canada.

An example of this can be seen in the pages of Saturday Night. Writing on October 28, 1922, as the magazines new literary critic, Deacon would send out a passionate plea to readers to remember “that the movement is primarily patriotic, and only secondarily to help the native author. Will you do your part?” Deacon had earlier emphasized, in a not-so-veiled reference to the British Imperial influence, the need for supporting Canadian talent:
“Every foreign book is written from the author's national standpoint; it carries subtle, and generally, unconscious propaganda in its very atmosphere. Foreign influences are broadening ...At present it is not only unnecessary, it is a positive danger to a healthy nationalism.”

Deacon was writing this when Saturday night had yet to shed it's own imperial romanticization of Britain. In fact, Deacon's independence or intransigence, as some consider it, would cost him his job, as we shall see later.

Being a literary critic in Saturday Night magazine in the early 1920's presented a difficult task. Certainly, the magazine was a flourishing weekly that devoted more place to Canadian literature than most of its competitors. But the magazine remained conservative. Hector Charlesworth, legendary journalist, vociferously criticized “The Group of Seven” for what he saw as their lack of talent. The pages of Saturday Night themselves reflected the imperial sympathies of Canadians. A 1920 advertisement for the Canadian National Exhibition described it as “the Empire Triumphant.” An editorial in 1924, mimicking Charleworth's earlier views, criticized the Group of Seven painters as not depicting real art. In fact, as the editorial reveals, the artists' work is being embraced by the real imperialists in Britain as “emphatic design,” while the Canadian imperialists rejected their own fellow artists for “their harsh, uncompromising style...a school of painting not of the soil, but of the rock.”

But Deacon would ultimately succeed at the magazine. Bringing an enthusiasm for native literature unmatched by most, he developed a devoted audience. Deacon featured Canadian content front and center, expanded the magazine by creating a new standalone literary section and congratulated the Quebec government for the support it gave to its native writers. But Deacon's driving independence and enthusiasm cost him his job in 1928: he was forced to quit after failing to abide by length restrictions and the general editorial policies of his publisher.

The decade of the 1920's also saw Deacon publish numerous books, revealing his attitudes on both nationalism and imperialism. In his biography on the life and times of Peter Mcarthur (1923) Deacon lauded the poet for his “cleverness and literary skill.” In reviewing “An Ode to Empire,” Deacon applaudes McArthur's avoidance of “banal expressions of cheap patriotic sentiment” and feels the need to justify this imperial sentiment by reminding us that mcArthur was the “only one to return to live among us.” In the same year, Ryerson Press published Deacon's Pens and Pirates, a collection of essays. In “The genial Profession,” a comedic piece that some have compared to Leacock's Sunshine Sketches, Deacon's writing style creates an imagery that duly expresses his views of imperial sentiment. Through repetition - “I serve, I have served, must serve” - and by utilizing the language of Empire itself - “Your majesty, darling of the Empire, Royal family” - Deacon successfully offers a mocking a portrayal of Canadian imperial sentiment.

At other times, Deacon was more compromising . In “Heritage and Destiny,” typical of his oft romantic and passionate prose, Deacon exhorts to Canadians that “with the English tradition in our memories, and the blood of the English pirates in our veins,” there can be nothing traitorous in the suggestion that we “loot these richly-laden argosies of English literature, boldly taking what we want and leaving acknowledgments for the hereafter.” In “the National Character,” Deacon reveals, whether consciously or not, the intangible and often arbitrary basis of his nationalism, by referring to a humorous anecdote:

“Two workmen quarrelled. On had come here from England two years before, the other six months. The two-year individual sought for a final epithet, and shot his crowning insult – 'You damned Englishman!'”

Pens and Pirates, while well received by reviewers, sold abysmally25. This under lied Deacon's view of himself as a herald, one that remained both a pioneer of Canadian culture and on the outside to it. Deacon's next book, Poteen,: A Pot-Pourri of Canadian Essays,” dealt more overtly with the political issues of his time, such as the debate over American annexation, or Continentalism.

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