French Canadian, 1840–1901
Arthur Buies is without a doubt the enfant terrible of French Canadian literature. He has been accused of having no philosophical culture or direction, of being an eternal adolescent, a greedy seducer, a bored bourgeois, a cheater, narcissistic, maniacal, and inconsistent; yet he is one of the few French Canadian writers of the 19th century whose legacy still continues. It is said that he was the only writer capable of earning his living from his work at the time. During his lifetime and for many years afterwards, he was both loved and hated, either admired as a writer or totally defamed by his critics.
Buies began his writing career after returning from France where he studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis and the Sorbonne. His first major contribution to French Canadian literature came with his return to Canada in 1862 when he began to publish in the journal Pays (Country), which the then Archbishop of Montreal described as “anti-christian, anticatholic, anti-social, immoral and dangerous to the young.” Buies made himself defender of the liberal ideas he had absorbed while living in France and which were far from making their way to French Canada, still very much under the dominance of the Catholic Church. In 1864 he published the first and second of his Lettres sur le Canada (Letters on Canada); here the diversity and style of Buies is made manifest. The first letter is a description of the port of Quebec City, where Buies exercises his talent as a descriptive and geographical writer (he went on to write several other geographical monographs later in life). Here he expresses his infatuation with the beauty of the landscape surrounding Quebec City. The letter is dreamy, tender, full of enchantment, but at the same the cold, irresistible force of nature is present. Nature is savage and ferocious, majestically monotonous, stormy and aggressive. Buies, who emerges in the second letter (written in the same year) as a vehement enemy of the clergy and the Catholic Church, reveals in this first letter a strong sense of religiosity, bordering on the mystical: “In the silence of the Infinite, we were alone. The Unknowable appeared to encompass us in his mystical sphere, a Universal enveloped heaven and earth. I thought I saw the hills rise slowly, garlanded by long vapors bathing in the sun.”
The second letter contains none of this enchantment. It is an attack against the obscurantist dominance of the Catholic Church and the occult power of the clergy, who, together with the British colonialists, held the French Canadian people under their oppression and in a state of almost total ignorance. “A clerical education is the poisoning of the people,” he claims. Referring to candidates for the priesthood, he writes: “…are they not certain of the truth that great men of history have sought for a very long time, but which has cost them only five or six mea culpas a day and many genuflections?”
As polemical essayist, pamphleteer, and descriptive writer, Buies retains similar characteristics: his style in all contexts is colorful and artistic, romantic, poetical, and allegorical. His descriptive works are full of small portraits of everyday life, tender, fleeting moments which his observing eye catches and relays in language readers can identify with. Today he would be described as a cinematographic writer. This was undoubtedly the reason for his popularity, even though many were shocked by his libertine and anticlerical positions. However, while his style can be rather basic and common, he never misses the sublime. He also disliked the conventional. His descriptions are exotic, and he enjoys playing on opposites: clear and obscure, classical and romantic, realistic and artistic. His work is full of antitheses: laughter and tears, cradle and tomb. He also uses hyperbole, especially when describing moments of emotional intensity.
Buies’ first notion of the essay consisted in not harboring any notions. He “wrote to write,” as he himself said. “I wrote by imagination, by inclination, according to taste so that I would not become rusty and to fill, here and there, a few hours of existence…”
However, writing essays was also a practical and utilitarian activity with which he encouraged change in French Canadian society. He wanted to raise the cultural level of his society, believing this could come about only through a solid knowledge of the French language and of French literature. He wrote several works against the use of anglicisms and barbarisms in French Canada, and he dreamed of seeing the birth of a national, French Canadian literature. As well as denouncing the ecclesiastically-run educational system, he also wrote to bring about a separation of Church and State according to the American model, to denounce intolerance against other forms of thinking and belief, and to sound a cry of alarm to all French Canadians contemplating emigration to the United States. He was one of the first ideologists of a separate and independent French Canadian nation in North America. He spent the last 20 years of his life writing geographical surveys, attempting to convince French Canadians to populate the vast, rich, uninhabited, and unexplored expanses of the Province of Quebec.
Born 24 January 1840 in Montreal. Studied at the Collèges de Nicolet and Sainte Anne de la Pocatière, Quebec, expelled 1855; joined his father in British Guiana, 1856; studied at Trinity College, Dublin, 1856; moved to Paris, and studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis, 1857–59; joined Garibaldi’s army in Italy, 1860; returned to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and failed the baccalauréat examination three times; returned to Canada, 1862.; studied at the Institut Canadien; called to the bar, 1866. Editor, La Lanterne, 1868–69, L’Indépendant, 1870, and Le Réveil (The awakening), 1876. Married Maria Mila Catellier, 1887: five children. Died in Quebec City, 26 January 1901.
Essays and Related Prose
Lettres sur le Canada, 3 vols., 1864–67; reprinted 1968
Chroniques, 2 vols., 1873–75; edited by Francis Parmentier, 2 vols., 1986–91
Petites chroniques pour 1877, 1878
Chroniques canadiennes: Humeurs et caprices, 1884; reprinted 1978
La Lanterne (periodical), 1884; as La Lanterne d’Arthur Buies: Propos révolutionnaires et chroniques scandaleuses, confessions publiques, edited by Marcel A.Gagnon, 1964
Anglicismes et canadianismes, 1888; reprinted 1979
Arthur Buies, 1840–1901, edited by Léopold Lamontagne, 1959
Anthologie d’Arthur Buies, edited by Laurent Mailhot, 1978
Other writings: books about the Saguenay and Outaouais Rivers, Canadian flora and fauna, and other travel writing.
Tessier, Rachel, Bio-Bibliographie d’Arthur Buies, Montreal: University of Montreal, 1943
Bender, Prosper, “Arthur Buies,” in Literary Sheaves, or, La Littérature au Canada français, Montreal: Dawson, 1881:129–34
Douville, Raymond, La Vie aventureuse d’Arthur Buies, Montreal: Lévesque, 1933
Falardeau, Jean-Charles, “Arthur Buies, l’antizouave,” Canadian Literature 11, no. 27 (May 1960):25–32
Gagnon, Marcel A., Le Ciel et l’enfer d’Arthur Buies, Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1965
Genest, Jean-Guy, “La Lanterne, 1868–1869,” Recherches Sociographiques 10, nos. 2–3 (1969):389–407
Hare, John, “Arthur Buies, essayiste: Une Introduction à la lecture de son oeuvre,” in L’Essai et la prose d’idées au Québec, Montreal: Fides, 1985:295–310
Lamontagne, Léopold, Arthur Buies, homme de lettres, Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1957
Marion, Séraphin, “La Citadelle classique,” in Les Lettres canadiennes d’autrefois, vol. 7, Ottawa: L’Éclair, 1952
Roy, Pierre-Georges, “Les Ouvrages d’Arthur Buies,” Bulletin des Recherches Historiques 7, no. 5 (1901):150–53
Tusseau, J.-P., “La Fin édifiante d’Arthur Buies,” Études Françaises 9, no. 1 (February 1973):45–54
Vachon, G.-André, “Arthur Buies, écrivain,” Études Françaises 6, no. 3 (1970):283–95
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