I'm delighted to be here and deeply grateful to the Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies, which invited me to Jerusalem. In Toronto in the 1980s I served on a committee choosing scholars to come to Jerusalem as Halbert Fellows, and at that time the program existed in my mind principally as a fascinating rumour. Now I've had a chance to experience the reality, and learn with pleasure how extensive and valuable it is.
My hope today is to outline certain aspects of Canadian culture and suggest how they fit into, or occasionally impress themselves upon, the culture of the world beyond Canada's borders. My story concerns a diverse people, mainly defined by geography and politics, trying to discover who they are as individuals and as communities within the almost unthinkably large and rich territory they have inherited or embraced. I want to visit several of these issues and also describe certain specific artists and how they have dealt with the opportunities of Canada as well as its limitations.
Canadian artists tend to be easily absorbed into the stream of international culture, so that their national origin quickly becomes obscured or forgotten. Recently an English magazine described Rohinton Mistry as an Indian novelist and an American journal called Michael Ondaatje, the celebrated author of The English Patient, a Sri Lankan novelist. In fact Mistry does come from Bombay, but he's been a Canadian and a resident of Ontario for many years. Ondaatje has been eminent in Canadian literary culture since the 1960s, and he's never lived in a country called Sri Lanka; when he spent his boyhood there it was still Ceylon.
In Canada, Mistry and Ondaatje and many like them are enthusiastically claimed as Canadians, and their work as part of Canadian culture. We say this with confidence even though we find it hard to state precisely what makes a work of art Canadian. In English Canada particularly, we have defined ourselves mainly in relation to others. For generations it was Britain that provided the reference point, but since the 1950s Canadians have shaped their vision of themselves by reference to the Americans. To outsiders, we may appear to be near-Americans, or a modified version of Americans, or perhaps a marginalized form of Americans; but we see the distinction more clearly. We may resemble the Americans, we may share a great deal with them, but we are different.
We believe, with only a little evidence to support it, that we are more open and more international in our ideas and connections. After all, most of us exist imaginatively in at least two countries, Canada and the United States, absorbing the culture, politics, and social issues of both. To be a Canadian is to live a two-tiered life. At the same time we are more conservative than the Americans in our hopes, more conscious of our limited powers. Canadians often point out that while the American constitution promises "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the constitution of Canada--written in the 1860s in England--sets a more modest goal: "Peace, order, and good government." This difference reaches into every corner of the two nations.
My favourite example is a book of medical advice. It was written by a Canadian, Judylaine Fine, and published in Toronto under an extremely modest title, Your Guide to Coping with Back Pain. Later, American rights were acquired by New York publishers; they brought out precisely the same book under a new title, Conquering Back Pain.
And there, in a grain of sand, to borrow from William Blake, we can see a world of differing attitudes. Our language reveals how we think, and what we are capable of thinking. Canadians cope. Americans conquer. Canadian readers of that book will assume that back pain will always be with them. Americans will assume that it can be destroyed, annihilated, abolished, conquered. Americans expect life, liberty, happiness, and total freedom from back pain. Canadians can only imagine peace, order, good government, and moderate back pain.
To understand where this attitude is born, imagine Canada, first of all, as in itself an art object, an abstraction--a piece of fiction, perhaps. As a nation Canada was not inevitable. In the Renaissance, at the moment when Europe began to understand the existence of an unknown continent within sailing distance to the West, there was no logical reason to imagine that the northern reaches of it would be one country. Had certain historic events occurred differently, Canada could be three or four or five countries today, each of them probably more populous than many current members of the United Nations. An island republic, Newfoundland, might well exist as its own state off the Atlantic coast, as some Newfoundlanders still believe it should. If we brush away two hundred years of history, the province of British Columbia, between the Pacific ocean and the Rocky mountains, appears perfectly designed for a separate national existence. The results of the 1993 and 1997 federal elections illustrate the persistence of regionalism in Canada. If there is a national vision in Canada, it is increasingly obscured by the forces of decentralization and fragmentation.
The greatest of these, of course, is Quebec separatism, which has been advocating a separate state for many years and in the process has traumatized Canadian politics and called into question the very existence of this historical artefact, "Canada." Separatism is an attempt to re-think and re-write the work of imagination by which Canada was created. In the 19th century, when politicians and surveyors imposed a grid of European rationalism on our wilderness, they were sketching the outlines of a narrative of aspiration that was summed up by a historian of this century, Arthur Lower, in the title of his best-known book, Colony to Nation. Today many Quebeckers want to tear up that narrative and write their own--a vibrant and heroic story, as they see it, of a French-speaking people who survived both the military defeat of France in the New World and the imposition of British and then Canadian imperialism, eventually emerging triumphant as owners of their own state and their own destiny in the 21st century. I am among those who hope this will not come to pass; I believe that speakers of French, speakers of English, natives, and the many people who have come to Canada from elsewhere can all live freely together within the capacious civilization outlined by Confederation. For generations our academics and occasionally our politicians liked to say that Canadians had learned the arts of compromise and could serve as an example to a fractious world. Perhaps we can reach that happy condition again, but in the meantime the creation of a new state within Canada remains a lively possibility.
This fact demonstrates something essential about Canada, something that those born there and those who immigrate find equally hard to understand and deal with. Canada remains a place without final definition, a place whose inhabitants have not all made a total commitment to its existence, a country that is forever reshaping itself. Even the most passionate beliefs of its citizens change with the generations. When I grew up in Toronto, half a century ago, it was common to say, "This is a British country." People said it with confidence, pride, even sometimes anger. Today we remain a part of the British Commonwealth, and of course the Queen of England is also our queen, but I can't imagine anyone calling us a "British country" now. For the most part, British symbols as well as British power have disappeared, and the way we think about Canada has changed fundamentally. Today we speak not of overseas ties to Britain and of a culture dominated by Europe but of discovering, asserting, celebrating, and reconciling the many cultural forces existing among us. But there is no obvious way to organize our society so that every group can feel at home. This means that devising imaginative ways that we can live together, through our constitution or otherwise, is the abiding preoccupation of Canadians involved in public policy.
The feeling of being always on unsound political and constitutional foundations is the direct result of our beginnings. We have no "foundation myth," as the anthropologists say. Canadians did not emerge slowly from the mists of time, far back in unwritten history; nor did we, like the Americans, found our state on Enlightenment principles inscribed in a sacred constitution; nor can we, like the Israelis, look for national legitimation through either ethnic history or a covenant with God. We lack ethnic, religious, and ideological identity. We came slowly together, gathering in sparse settlements on the Atlantic coast and later the Pacific coast, and along the way slowly filling the arable land between. Even today, when Canada is one of the oldest nation-states on earth, it is not "settled" in the way many countries are. A geographer has called western Canada a kind of archipelago of settlements, little islands of people scattered across vast open spaces. You can see this as you fly across the West at night--the towns and cities are bright little dots, isolated in the blackness. Experiencing that, even from far in the air, you can imagine why Canadian literature, more than most, is preoccupied with loneliness.
Geography has always been the central fact of Canadian culture as it is the central fact of Canadian politics. For most of the artists of Canada, geography is inescapable. The pianist Glenn Gould, for instance, begins his musical life as a student of the German musical tradition, absorbs it brilliantly, and becomes a leading artist of his time, within European musical thinking; and yet at the same time, though he lives most of his life in Toronto, he finds himself constantly preoccupied by the Canadian North. He studies the North, writes about it, makes radio documentaries about it.
His involvement with it was beautifully depicted in the biographical film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which began with a long shot of Colm Feore, as Gould, walking across a vast lake of snow toward the camera. In his notes to a 1967 radio program, The Idea of North, Gould wrote: "Something really does happen to most people who go into the north--they become at least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents and--quite often, I think--come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility: they become, in effect, philosophers." Gould says that despite himself he was affected by the North, even in his thinking about music. He says, "I found myself writing musical critiques...in which the north--the idea of the north--began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban oriented and spiritually limited...." For him, the North became a point of reference and remembrance, a kind of alternate truth to which his life as a Canadian gave him access.
A fundamentally different artist of the same generation, Mordecai Richler, has had a similar experience, equally surprising to him. Richler begins his life in the Montreal Jewish ghetto, and he identifies with urban literary culture, the culture of New York and London as well as Montreal. He seems to be, in his early works, an entirely urban man. And yet at some point Richler finds himself going to the North, first as a journalist, then as an avid student. In the 1970s he begins a book about the North that takes him at least a decade to write. This novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here, places the Jews in the North; that is, it imaginatively moves the Jewish people toward the frontier of Canada. Richler rewrites the chronicles of the North, including the story of the tragic Franklin expedition to the Arctic, in terms that connect it to Jewish history. In this gigantic and ambitious book we can see Richler uniting two major strains of his own history and Canada's, the urban life most Canadians live and the power of geography. Gould and Richler are two entirely different Canadian artists whose work--despite their own early intentions--has gone out to the world bearing the marks of its specifically Canadian origin.
Both Gould and Richler exhibit what one Canadian literary critic, John Moss, calls "the geophysical imagination." Both of them attach their work to a myth of distance and purity that has been growing ever since the earliest explorers of Canada.
It was Marshall McLuhan who said that in this era, increasingly, humans live mythically. McLuhan, whose thinking influenced his fellow Torontonian Gould, and vice versa, said the speed of information dissemination "makes inevitable the handling of vast quantities of information in a highly structured and, indeed, 'mythic' way. Under electronic technology today man lives mythically...."
McLuhan predicted that in the media age the world would become more tribal and regional rather than less, a prediction certainly confirmed by the history of Canada (as well as the history of many other places) since his death in 1980. His term "global village" has become part of global language, but he did not mean by it that everyone in this global village would necessarily think alike, or live by the same myths. In his view, each region, each tribe, would continue to carve out its own mythology while eavesdropping on (and sometimes borrowing) the mythology of others.
Within Canada it is the landscape to which the myth-seeking artist eternally returns. In each generation Canadian painting goes back obsessively to the wilderness. The Group of Seven, who flourished from around 1915 to 1940, were self-proclaimed nationalist landscape artists, their stated mission being to convey an understanding of the northern wilderness to the Canadian people. In their time they were the only artists of any kind who reached beyond the usual limitations of art audiences and caught the imagination of the Canadian public as a whole. Each generation of Canadian painters since then has consciously set out to reject them, to reject the landscape as well, and to devote itself to the more sophisticated and more urban concerns of international art. Yet each generation has returned not only to the landscape but often to the Group of Seven itself as a subject.
Canada's destiny in this sense is inescapable: geography is our real teacher, the one to which we listen with the greatest care, the force that sets the tone of our lives.
Inside the unconscious of even the most citified Canadian sits the vast and almost unimaginable empire that we govern. Its presence colours all that we do and feel. In 1946 the English novelist and painter Wyndham Lewis wrote, "Canada will always be so infinitely bigger physically than the small nation that lives in it...that this monstrous, empty habitat must continue to dominate the nation psychologically, and so culturally."
Half of what Lewis calls a monstrous, empty habitat is empty in part because it is rock, the Precambrian Shield, either bare rock or rock that has acquired a thin covering of soil since the last Ice Age scraped it clean seven or eight thousand years ago. This rock and its outcroppings are the major subject of Group of Seven paintings. This is what the explorer Jacques Cartier saw when he came up the St. Lawrence River from the Atlantic in the 16th century--grey towering bluffs of rock. He called it "the land God gave to Cain," and he did not imagine for a moment that anyone would be happy living there. Barbara Moon, in her book The Canadian Shield, said this about Canadians and our relationship with all that rock: "Canadians are a shield race...they live with this permanent reminder of elemental process. They live with bedrock and bush and a million hidden lakes always at their backs. They live with a greedy secret of riches. They live with a vast waste space. They live with terrifying Boreal, god of the cold void." Or, as Margaret Atwood put it:
So, understandably, a large part of our culture--literary, visual, musical--deals with the slow, fearful recognition that this piece of real estate is far larger than we can begin to encompass imaginatively, much less subdue physically.
"When we face south, as we often do, our conscious mind may be directed down there, towards crowds, bright lights, some Hollywood version of fame and fortune, but the north is at the back of our minds, always. There's something, not someone, looking over our shoulders; there's a chill at the nape of the neck...The north focuses our anxieties...Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of dream."
In culture as in economics, the United States remains the most potent external influence. The Americans have created a mass culture so powerful that it envelops not only much of Canada but much of the world; and no matter how much resistance it encounters, this gigantic cultural engine shows no sign of slowing down. In English-speaking Canada, we watch American TV and movies and read American magazines, far more then we attend to equivalent Canadian work.
Given this fact, Canadian artists have developed over the years two quite different strategies.
One is to be willingly absorbed by the Americans, move toward the centre of that culture, and take part in it, perhaps rising to its heights. The other is to create centres or clusters of talent and production within Canada and try to appeal first to fellow Canadians with distinctive forms of expression, then perhaps move out to the larger world. In general, French Canada has succeeded much better than English Canada at the creation of its own cultural centre, Montreal: beneath the sheltering umbrella of the French language, it has been able to make its own radio, television, popular songs, magazines, and, during the last thirty years or so, movies. U.S. culture plays a large part within Quebec, but beside it there exists a vibrant Quebec culture.
In English-speaking Canada for a long time, most of our artists took it for granted they would be absorbed somehow into America--if they were lucky. And the U.S. has indeed found places, sometimes places of prominence, for Canadian artists. What's interesting is the role the Americans have assigned to immigrants from the north, in particular the actors. First, the actors are instantly transformed into Americans. Because they speak English with generic North American accents, they are almost never regarded as foreigners. If anyone remarks on their place of birth it is considered a barely relevant biographical detail, even if they received all their training in Canada and spent their first thirty years there. The British actor Michael Caine, no matter how long he works in Hollywood films, will always be marked by his accent as an Englishman. But Michael J. Fox of Vancouver was regarded as an American actor ten minutes after he got off the plane in Los Angeles.
Canada has also produced a generation, or a generation and a half, of comedians who have flourished within the United States--Dan Ackroyd, Martin Short, the late John Candy, Eugene Levy, Mike Myers. They grew up immersed in American culture yet separate from it, uncommitted to it, and they turned this personal history to good effect by making American culture itself, and in particular television, the main subject of their comedy. In an odd way, their talent is deceptive, perhaps even marginally subversive: they are outsiders who satirize America from the inside, while cleverly disguised as Americans.
This easy acceptance of Canadians in the U.S. is not hard to understand. What is more surprising is the particular role Canadian actors play.
Before describing that role, I want to go back to the Group of Seven and its most articulate member, Lawren Harris, whose stylized and eloquent paintings of the Canadian Rockies are among the great achievements of his generation. In 1928, Harris published in a McGill University magazine some thoughts about the North that probably sounded to many of his readers like wishful thinking. They may seem that way even now. This is what he said:
Lawren Harris, like Glenn Gould, was in love with the idea of the North, and those remarks may sound like a lover's delirious ambitions for his beloved. But the Americans who run mass culture have actually played out Harris's fantasy of Northern purity--in fact, American silent movies were beginning to follow Harris's script even before he wrote it. American producers have again and again chosen Canadian stars who project a certain purity, sometimes a degree of innocence and occasionally even nobility. Americans tend to make their Canadian-born stars into super-Americans, improved versions of the real thing. Consider D.W. Griffith, the film director from Kentucky, who did as much as any other human being to create the mass imagination of our century. He grew up dreaming Old South dreams about the purity and innocence of young womanhood. Those dreams, through Griffith or his imitators, ended up influencing the 20th century's ideas about women; certainly they affected everyone on the planet who entered a movie theatre. To embody those fantasies Griffith chose a young woman from Toronto named Gladys Smith, who under the name Mary Pickford became known as "America's Sweetheart" and established herself as the first movie star of the world. This Canadian woman fleshed out a cherished American dream.
"We [Canadians] live on the fringe of the great North...its spiritual flow, its clarity, its replenishing power passes through us to the teeming people south of us. It may be that the very glory of our life is in giving expression to this that comes to us pure in ideas, thoughts, characters and attitude ... Indeed the continuous movement of Canadians to the States--teachers, doctors, nurses, writers and the like--may ... be one means of the infiltration of a certain clarity and unpretentious devotion, certain intangible elements in the ... Canadian character ... born of the spirit of the North ..."
Her national origin would have been only a footnote if Mary Pickford had not been followed by so many other fresh-faced, open, innocent-looking Canadians, all impersonating Americans: Deanna Durbin and Glenn Ford in one generation, William Shatner as Captain Kirk on the starship Enterprise in another, then the singer Anne Murray and later the comic actor Michael J. Fox. Perhaps the case of Raymond Massey is most instructive, because he embodied for his time not an American but the American, Abraham Lincoln.
Massey was born to a famous Canadian industrial family and was the brother of a future governor general of Canada. In the 1930s he played the main role in Robert Sherwood's play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois--first in New York, then on a trans-continental tour, and then in the Hollywood film--in which, as someone wrote, he "took the face off the penny and put it into the hearts of millions of Americans."
He was almost perfect for the part, and was brought still closer to perfection with the help of the most popular of American artists, Norman Rockwell. Before the play opened, the producers commissioned Rockwell to make a drawing combining elements from photographs of Lincoln and Massey. Massey then used the drawing as the basis of his make-up: hollowed-out cheeks, built-up nose. Soon Massey and Lincoln were interchangeable.
Aside from his weathered, craggy, Precambrian looks, Massey had a gravity of manner that had been created in Edwardian Methodist Toronto, honed at Upper Canada College and Oxford, and refined in the London theatre. He spoke a precise stage English that the frontiersman Lincoln might have had trouble understanding, much less speaking. His mid-Atlantic Canadian English style was perfect, not for impersonating Lincoln but for establishing the persona of Lincoln, solemn and straightforward. Massey spoke as Lincoln should have spoken. He was more Lincolnesque than Lincoln.
Toward the end of his career, Raymond Massey played a wise old physician in a TV series, Dr. Kildare. About the time that program ended, another series, Bonanza, was starting, a western that in the mid-1960s became by far the most popular drama in America. The star of Bonanza, Lorne Greene, was another easily absorbed Canadian and another super-American. His stolid honesty and fatherly wisdom dominated the Ponderosa ranch, where the stories were set. Greene's movement across two cultures illustrated the difference between the two. In the Second World War he had been the announcer behind National Film Board propaganda documentaries, in effect the official voice of the government speaking to the people. The patrician manner he developed in that role apparently made him an ideal father figure in America.
These Canadians, while they helped define American mythology, were also swallowed up by it--and when their images re-appeared in Canada they were part of the American mass culture that has swept over the country for most of this century. There has always been a degree of resistance to this tidal wave, sometimes modest, sometimes impressive. The late 1960s created in English-speaking Canada a highly organized and self-conscious form of cultural nationalism--book publishing subsidized by government, broadcasting controlled by government in the hope of maintaining Canadian culture, movies subsidized by government. Much of this activity has been reduced as a result of budget reductions in recent years, but the arts in Canada are still subsidized by governments.
The purpose of these policies is to provide the people of Canada with a cultural choice, to make available cultural expression created in our country and reflecting our reality. We remain heavily Americanized, but we insist on providing space in which Canadian culture can flourish as well.
Canadians have been a fortunate people in most ways, but we have often thought ourselves culturally short-changed by history. We've looked with envy at traditional cultures elsewhere, cultures whose sense of identity stretches back for centuries or millennia. We have been internationalists, ready to appreciate American movies, English plays, French painting, German music. But this has often been a one-way internationalism--everything coming in, little going out. The most important change for Canadian artists in the present generation is that internationalism has become a two-way street. Writers such as Ondaatje and Atwood are translated into a dozen or more languages; Robert LePage's Quebec City theatre company has proven itself one of the greatest in the world; Le Cirque du Soleil of Montreal has shown that it's possible to re-invent an ancient art form, the circus, and show it around the world to appreciative audiences. And a few of our filmmakers, notably David Cronenberg, have demonstrated that they can make movies as repulsive as those produced in Hollywood.
These issues are part of everyday discourse in Canada; I myself have been writing about them since 1955. In this context, when I consider how Canadian artists reach out to world culture, I think about two quite dissimilar artists. Both have affected me personally--one as a close friend, and one as a writer I've read over and over. The first is Glenn Gould, the second L.M. Montgomery,
One day in my class at an elementary school in Toronto, fifty-six years ago, the little boy in front of me turned around and told me his name, Glenn Gould. We discovered we were about to become neighbours: my family had just rented the house next door to the Goulds. Soon I learned that Glenn was an exceptional nine-year-old, a pianist of prodigious abilities.
From the beginning no one in Toronto doubted Glenn's genius. Right up to the conductor of the symphony, musical Toronto swiftly understood the size of the talent that had arrived in their midst.
By the time Glenn and I entered high school, we were occasionally arguing, in a friendly way, about music. I liked listening to him play (I still do), but by 14 or so I was a jazz fan--and he was not. To Glenn, jazz was a minor and transitory offshoot of the romantic movement. If he listened to the works of people I regarded as geniuses, such as Duke Ellington, he did so only out of tolerance. We were heading toward radically different views of music--and of culture in general. I was beginning to understand music as an almost physical form of expression, charged with sexuality. Here I think I caught an early glimpse of the form his genius was to take. In Glenn's mind, music was refined, bodiless, separated from the physical world. He seemed to resent the necessity, in music, of fingers and wood and mouths and catgut, the physical limitations placed on an ethereal art. His decision to stop playing concerts and give all his time to records sprang from this view. He knew there were always imperfections in a public appearance, whereas recordings could be edited to eliminate them. More important, recordings circumvented the charisma of personality. Glenn hated the idea of showy, old-fashioned concert-hall stardom, which only got in the way of the music.
His great project was to re-invent musical performance for the electronic age. In his view this approach, though modern, would pay the ultimate tribute to the great composers of history by delivering a clarified, nearly perfect account of their intentions. In doing this he became, as a French critic put it, "the theoretician of a purified humanity."
Glenn once wrote: "The purpose of art is...the gradual life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity....." The serenity part sounds impossible to me. I can just barely imagine existing in such a state. I've never managed it, and I believe Glenn never did either. But my sense of wonder remains exuberantly healthy, having been nourished by proximity to this amazing figure. Before I was old enough to vote, I had already observed the making of a great artist, who eventually became known through his recordings in every corner of the world. Those recordings, incidentally, gave him a posthumous victory over everyone who said that deserting the concert hall would destroy his career. In fact, his reputation today is larger than it was in 1982 when he died of a stroke, because he put all his energy into recordings rather than spending it on public performances.
The spring after Glenn and I met as little boys, the spring of 1942, L. M. Montgomery died, sixty-seven years old, in a house at the other end of Toronto. I don't believe we heard about this event at the time. Maud Montgomery was no celebrity, then or earlier in her life, and--as I've learned since--the articles about her death were respectful but restrained. Glenn and I knew about Anne of Green Gables, however. It would have been hard to find an English-speaking Canadian child who had not heard of Anne Shirley--and already, the book was beginning its long and apparently endless multilingual journey around the world. Anne was a presence in my house before I could read, since I had two older sisters; and I later read her story myself. As a young adult, I imagined retrospectively that the book was slight and sentimental, like many of the books of childhood. I was wrong. When I read it to the first of my children, I discovered there was far more to it than my faulty memory had told me. Since then I have read it to three more children; I can't imagine getting sick of it.
Anne Shirley, unlike any other character made in Canada, is larger than her author, larger than the book she was born in, larger than her time and place. Long ago, Anne rose from the printed page and changed from literary character into phenomenon, joining that exclusive circle of imagined people whose lives become lodged in common memory. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice and Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, she's known even to people who haven't read the books about her. She keeps coming back, decade after decade, in movies, TV shows, and a long-running musical that has been performed everywhere from Atlantic Canada to Tokyo.
The original book marvellously evokes Prince Edward Island at the start of the 20th century. It establishes this tiniest of the provinces as an intimate Canadian version of Eden, the reverse image of the North--reassuring where the North is threatening, comfortably predictable where the North is unknowable and vast. But there are many idyllic, pre-industrial settings to be found in books, yet few characters like Anne. Clearly, she has something special. She's innocent, but the bookstores are full of innocent, plucky heroines. The tourists who visit Maud Montgomery's home in Prince Edward Island every year, many of them coming from Japan for that purpose, are celebrating something more than an innocent girl in a bucolic setting.
The reason is L.M. Montgomery's treatment of the human imagination, her main subject. Everyone has an imagination, and everyone is encouraged to deny it--or at least fence it in. The world teaches us early that our imaginations are dangerous or frivolous. The world tells us to stop dreaming and be serious. That's the advice Marilla Cuthbert gives Anne, and the advice Anne adamantly rejects.
Dropped into the Cuthbert household by accident, deposited in a narrow, provincial environment, she becomes in her way a revolutionary force. She speaks for the power of dreams. The Cuthberts, who have been boring themselves to death for years, are converted. So are Anne's schoolmates. She offers this tiny world the gift of her imagination, and courageously insists on its value. Her victory retains its freshness after 90 years because it's a victory for everyone who ever dreamed of a large, grander life. This is a book about the saving power of the imagination, and in particular the literary imagination. Anne's unique ability to invest her surroundings with world-shaking, heaven-storming possibilities--this is what gives her story the power of enduring myth. That's also what makes her such a peculiarly Canadian heroine--like the best Canadian artists, she turns an unpromising landscape into a proper home for the imagination.
In Canada, national culture is not taken for granted. Constantly it is examined and analysed by academics, journalists, and government bureaucrats. It was once a matter of almost marginal concern, but in recent times has become the focus for our very idea of nationhood. Like Canadian culture itself, Canadian nationhood remains elusive and shaky. Gould and Montgomery, two artists who were worlds apart in outlook and aspiration, nevertheless both demonstrated a central fact about Canadian culture--that it succeeds and flourishes, at home or abroad, only as it reflects the struggle to come to terms with Canada itself.
(Robert Fulford was a Halbert Visitor in the Canadian Studies Program at the Hebrew University, May-June, 1997.)