Editing Modernism in Canada


May 28, 2011

Proto-Modernism in The Canadian Magazine

Over the past month I have spent a great deal of time, both online and in the library, reading through old issues of The Canadian Magazine (AKA: The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature) as part of my research into war short stories for my book-in-progress, Shattered Lines: The First World War in Canadian Fiction. Some of what I’ve discovered in the magazine (beyond the war theme itself) may be of interest to scholars of Canadian modernism, especially those focused on its early development, so I thought I would provide a few observations to the EMiC blog.

The Canadian Magazine is probably not the first periodical scholars think of when they think “modernism”; the more quintessential modernist magazines like The Canadian Forum and The McGill Fortnightly Review tended to work in opposition to it. The CM‘s foundations were decidedly in the imperialist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Founded in 1893 as a successor to earlier periodicals like The Canadian Monthly and National Review (1872-78) and The Week (1883-96), its early contributors included George Taylor Denison, George Parkin Grant, Gilbert Parker, and other old reliables of the imperialist era. It was also a major forum for the work of the Confederation poets, and both E. Pauline Johnson and L.M. Montgomery were contributors.

Where the magazine gets interesting for modernism is from around 1914-15 onwards, when the First World War appeared to shatter some of the more conservative precepts of its editorial policy. Between May and November 1916, for example, it serialized the harrowing trench narratives of the Irish author and ex-infantryman Patrick MacGill. MacGill wrote of Allied soldiers “wiped out like flies” in horrific combat, a year before Wilfrid Owen described men “who die as cattle” in his landmark antiwar poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” MacGill has no claim to being a Canadian author (he fought in the Irish Guards until being invalided out of action). Yet the fact that the CM would print his visceral war stories (quite possibly in contravention of the strict censorship rules of Canadian Chief Censor Ernest J. Chambers) is a sign that the CM had its finger on the dying pulse of civilization long before Charles Yale Harrison, Erich Maria Remarque, and other postwar antiwar writers had their say.

In 1917, the CM published a retrospective article on the recently-deceased Tom Thomson, written by his erstwhile patron, J.M. MacCallum, giving an early boost to Canadian modernist painting — and introducing Thomson, still an obscure figure at that point, to a mainstream Canadian readership.

Some interesting things happen in the 1920s as well. One finds in the issue for February 1928 a short story by Marjorie Pickthall, best known as a key proto-modernist poet; Raymond Knister, another seminal figure, contributed to the magazine before his tragic death in 1932. Also of interest to scholars of war and Atlantic Canadian writing are the many stories by Will R. Bird (best known for his war memoirs and his novels and stories of maritime life) published between the late twenties and late thirties.

I’ve found little in the CM to support a notion that it gave full-blown endorsement of modernism (though I admit not having done a systematic study of every issue since I was looking specifically for war stories). Much of what the CM published was sentimental and neo-romantic in mode, and its articles on current affairs were occasionally quite reactionary. But as a periodical on the cusp of the imperialist/ post-Conferation era and the modernist period, I’d consider it worthy of consideration for anyone interested in that transition.

– Peter Webb

POSTSCRIPT Re. ACCESSING THE CANADIAN MAGAZINE: Some angel or sage to whom I am infinitely grateful has digitized the ENTIRE run of The Canadian Magazine between 1893 and 1922 and posted it on The Internet Archive, where you can read full-text facsimiles online or download them to your desktop as PDFs. At this point the remaining issues between 1923 and 1939 (when the magazine shut down) are not digitized, but a number of good academic libraries hold them in folio format.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.