*Canadian Essay (English)
Canadian Essay (English)
The great majority of English Canadian essayists of literary quality have preferred the informal, personal approach of the familiar essay, and a discussion of the essay in Canada is therefore essentially a discussion of the familiar essay. The familiar essay became a serious literary art form in Canada only around the turn of the present century.
There were of course a great many essays published in Canadian periodicals during the 1800s, and a even few undistinguished collections, but these early essays were written by individuals for whom writing, let alone writing essays, was very much a sideline. Making a living by writing alone was out of the question in 19th-century Canada, and those few who managed to derive significant supplementary income from their pens found themselves better served by other forms than the essay. This general lack of commitment to the genre inhibited its development and often had a detrimental effect on individual essays.
Albeit more distinguished than those of his contemporaries who dabbled with the essay, the career of Joseph Howe (1804–73), who is commonly credited with being the first Canadian essayist of note, serves well to represent the diversity of interests typical of essay writers of his day. In addition to editing and managing newspapers, Howe was a politician and a locally celebrated orator. He served both as premier of Nova Scotia and, after Confederation, briefly as lieutenantgovernor. What Howe wrote served practical concerns—promoting his political views and career, encouraging cultural improvement in his province, and, not least, selling newspapers. While the purposes for which other writers adapted the essay varied considerably, all had to be mindful of the demands of life in what amounted to a frontier, encouraging a focus on practical, immediate concerns; rarely, then, were their ambitions purely literary. Howe’s flexible understanding of the genre is also typical. If his style often seems heavily rhetorical by comparison with that of British and American essayists of the same period, this is to some extent a result of his practice of recycling his speeches as essays. Though less rhetorically pretentious and generally more interesting than his essays, the anecdotes and observations that Howe published in his newspaper the Novascotian as “Rambles” are less essays than travel sketches.
The success of Howe’s sketches suggests a characteristic of popular taste in his time. Particularly in 19th-century Canada, the popularity of sketches both limited and influenced the development of the familiar essay, leading writers away from abstract reflection toward detailed recording of local color. Tending more toward narration and description than most essays, the sketch proved more attractive than conventional essays in a new land in which most readers were inclined to accept the authority of writers in established cultural centers where general ideas were concerned, and in which the diversity and novelty of experience invested observations on local life and the local setting with special interest. As was the case with Howe’s rambles, there was often a good deal of overlap between familiar essays and sketches, and an extended discussion of the essay in Canada might well consider the elements of the essay present in (to suggest only a few of the most notable) the autobiographical sketches of Susanna Moodie (1803– 85) and Catharine Parr Traill (1802–99), and Anna Jameson’s (1794–1860) Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838). In this century, the sketch has often been blended with the essay for humorous purposes, notably by Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies in many of his Samuel Marchbanks columns, and in personal recollections, such as those of Emily Carr (1871–1945), most notably in Klee Wyck (1941), Ernest Buckler (1908–84) in Ox Bells and Fireflies (1968), and Kildare Dobbs (1923–) in Running to Paradise (1962).
Individual essayists being unremarkable, a useful source of insight into 19th-century Canadian essays is provided by the periodicals for which they were written. While dozens of periodicals willing to publish original Canadian essays followed the first, the Nova- Scotia Magazine (1789–92), most were short-lived, tenuous operations capable of paying little if anything for the material they published. Particularly in the first half of the century, most relied heavily on reprinted material from British and American publications, where the interest of most readers was still focused, and even as locally written material gradually became more common, it consisted more of journalistic reporting, political commentary and polemics, sketches, tales, and poetry, depending on the focus of individual periodicals, than of familiar essays. Colonial Canada lacked anything like the large, intellectually sophisticated audience that encouraged the British familiar essay tradition, and the scattering of the population further limited the potential circulation of early periodicals.
Notwithstanding the obstacles facing them as business ventures, newspapers and periodicals kept springing up, and, in reaching the political and social leaders of the time, they exerted more influence than their numerical readership or the brevity of their individual periods of publication would suggest. Interestingly, more periodicals mainly concerned with literature were initiated between 1820 and 1840 than between 1840 and 1860. The reason was less a decreasing interest in literature than an increase in political excitement. Toward the middle of the century political debates, particularly those related to Confederation, were beginning to overshadow belleslettres in periodicals, and the topicality of most mid-century essays gives them more historical than literary interest.
Among the more literary periodicals, Montreal’s Literary Garland (1838–51) stands out as a singular success story. The Garland was distinguished by its comparatively long survival and its willingness to encourage local writers to the almost unheardof extent of paying them for their contributions. Patterned on the successful Godey’s Lady’s Book in the United States, the Garland assumed as its primary mission the improvement of literary culture. The essay played a relatively small part in this scheme, however, and while the Garland did publish essays on cultural and literary subjects, those on literature were generally no more than reviews, mainly of foreign fiction. Locally written fiction, sometimes long enough to run in serial form, and sketches were far more common than familiar essays.
Following Confederation in 1867, increasing readership and a growing understanding that nationhood depended on cultural as well as political maturity encouraged the founding of several periodicals intended to promote Canadian writing. Although the Canadian Monthly and National Review (1872–78) (which became Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Review [1878–82]), deserves honorable mention, the best and most influential of the post-Confederation periodicals was the Week (1883–96).
Both were published in Toronto, a reflection of a general movement of the publishing industry to the center where it remains focused today. In addition to publishing most of the good young poets of the time, the Week published essays by many of the most interesting Canadian thinkers. Few of these could be thought of as being primarily essayists, however. Sir Charles G.D.Roberts (1860–1943), the Week’s first editor, became much better known later for his poetry and animal stories, as did Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861–1922) for her fiction and travel writing. More of an essayist was Goldwin Smith (1823–1910), one of the founders of the magazine, who stated his opinions on a wide range of social issues. Less topical and combative in his stance than Smith was his associate Theodore Arnold Haultain (1857–1941), who later moved on from his social and cultural comment in the Week to write pieces concerned with humans’ relationship with nature in Two Country Walks in Canada (1903) and other collections. Of recurrent contributors to the Week, the one most consciously writing in the familiar essay tradition was Archibald MacMechan (1862–1933).
MacMechan is one of three writers, the others being Andrew Macphail and Bliss Carman, whose collections of often estimable essays, published in the first decade of this century, signal the maturing of the essay in Canada as literature. Writing with a confident sense that he was well suited to his assumed purpose of improving society, MacMechan’s thinking was guided by Christian ethics, Victorian morality, and a response to the natural world influenced by Romanticism. In addition to literary criticism, including Headwaters of Canadian Literature (1924), verse, and various books concerned with the history and geography of his adopted province, Nova Scotia, MacMechan collected many of his best familiar essays in The Porter of Bagdad and Other Fantasies (1901) and The Life of a Little College (1914).
A medical doctor and eventually a professor of the history of medicine at McGill University, Andrew Macphail (1864–1938) took writing as seriously as he did his profession. After editing medical journals and trying his hand at fiction and drama, he took on the editorship of McGill’s University Magazine (1907–20) (formerly McGill University Magazine [1901–06]), during its final 13 years of publication. Many of his collected essays were first published here. Essays in Puritanism (1905), perhaps the best of Macphail’s collections, works from biography to celebrate his conception of puritan ideals of independent moral thinking and his belief in social progress based on puritan self-reliance. Essays in Politics (1909) and Essays in Fallacy (1910) demonstrate Macphail’s ability to write with authority on a wide range of subjects.
Better known for his poetry, Bliss Carman (1861–1929) was also a prolific writer of essays. Carman contributed essays to a wide range of periodicals, mainly American, throughout the 1890s and brought out his first collection, The Kinship of Nature, in 1903.
The Friendship of Art (1904), The Poetry of Life (1905), The Making of Personality (1908), and Talks on Poetry and Life (1926) tend to be similar in their strengths and weaknesses. Carman was too fond of making vaguely Emersonian pronouncements and overly zealous in his advocacy of a variety of self-development activities, but he could also express complex ideas clearly and forcefully, and his prose, like his poetry, benefited from his creative imagery and sensitivity to the rhythms of language.
Although their collections appeared in the 20th century, these three writers tended to echo 19th-century values and ideas. Other Canadian essayists writing only slightly later were much less influenced by the Victorian past. The primary factor contributing to this change in perspective was the growth of journalism—in ever larger daily newspapers and in magazines reaching a much wider audience than was the case with even the most successful 19th-century periodicals. The audience for these publications was growing not only in size; it was also becoming less genteel and more down-to-earth in its interests. A second important factor leading Canadian essayists away from Victorian gentility and Romantic ideas of nature was the inadequacy of the Romantic-Victorian perspective to accommodate genuine responses to Canadian nature and the realities of rural Canadian living. It is significant that these were the focal subjects of several of Canada’s more modern essayists early in the century.
Though born in the same year as Bliss Carman, William Hume Blake (1861–1924) took a much more prosaic approach to Canadian nature. A lawyer by profession, Blake was also an avid outdoorsman whose essays express his sensible appreciation of nature and rural life, particularly as he found it in his fishing trips in the Quebec woods, and the satisfactions of outdoor recreation. Blake’s essays are collected in Brown Waters and Other Sketches (1915) and In a Fishing Country (1922). Like Blake, Peter McArthur (1866–1924) took a realistic approach to his primary subject—humans’ relationship with nature. McArthur’s nature, however, was that of farm life rather than the wilderness, and his approach was often humorous. After working for two decades as a journalist, mainly in New York, McArthur retired in 1909 to his family farm in the village of Ekfrid, Ontario, from which he wrote a popular column on rural life for the Toronto Globe (1909–24) and contributed regularly to the Farmer’s Advocate. His columns were revised for In Pastures Green (1915), The Red Cow and Her Friends (1919), The Affable Stranger (1920), and various posthumously published collections. Although McArthur also had a good deal to say about political and economic subjects, his primary strengths were his ability to convey the satisfactions of farming and his own deep appreciation of the vitality of nature. McArthur retained the journalist’s habit of writing quickly and tended to be careless about structure and style, but his prose is readable and appropriate for his chosen role of farmer-philosopher.
Rural living has provided the subject matter and the inspiration for a number of minor Canadian essayists who to some extent resemble McArthur in approach. Showing most clearly the influence of McArthur’s writing, Kenneth McNeill Wells (1905–) concentrated on the lighter side of rural life, but his essays and sketches about farm life, animals, and country people are nonetheless believable. Wells’ contributions to the Toronto Evening Telegram were collected in The Owl Pen (1947), By Moonstone Creek (1949), Up Medonte Way (1951), and By Jumping Cat Bridge (1956). His essays benefit from keenly observed descriptive details as well as common sense. Carrying on this rural theme in a mood which by the 1960s had become nostalgic, H.Gordon Greene (1912–) and Harry Boyle (1915–) each produced several collections recalling their youths in small places and simpler times, and Ernest Buckler’s Ox Bells and Fireflies stands out for both its subtle perceptions and Buckler’s deft handling of language.
Foremost among those essayists who take a more naturalistic approach to Canadian nature are Frederick Philip Grove (1879–1948) and Roderick Haig-Brown (1908–76).
Though better known for his novels, Grove was also an accomplished essayist who, notwithstanding his strongly held opinions on social issues, wrote his most memorable essays about nature and pioneer life. Over Prairie Trails (1922), based on weekend journeys he made while teaching in rural Manitoba, and The Turn of the Year (1923), which follows the changing seasons on the prairie, are grounded in keen, almost scientific observation. In powerful prose, they capture both the beauty and the harshness of the prairie environment and pioneer life. While the individual pieces in these collections resemble sketches in consisting largely of description and narration, Grove’s continuing search for meaning in what he relates brings them closer to the essay. Grove also wrote more conventional essays for periodical publication, and one collection, It Needs to Be Said (1929), mainly concerned with writing. Haig-Brown is arguably the most accomplished Canadian essayist primarily concerned with nature. After concentrating on fiction, often for young readers, for more than a decade, Haig-Brown discovered his natural medium in the familiar essay. Although he wrote well on a wide range of subjects, his best essays are about nature and fishing. Most were written for such integrated collections as A River Never Sleeps (1946), Fisherman’s Spring (1951), which explores the essential meaning fishing holds for him, and Fisherman’s Summer (1959), which shows a growing concern with conservation. Haig-Brown’s success rests not only on his descriptive power but on his extensive firsthand knowledge of game fish, Canadian waters, and the techniques of fishing, as well as an ability to convey his enthusiasm about nature and fishing that remained undiminished throughout his long career.
Like Grove and Haig-Brown, many of the best Canadian essayists of this century have been novelists as well. Hugh MacLennan (1907–90) concentrated on novels for several years before taking up the essay. MacLennan began by writing comparatively formal essays on topics of public concern in order to support himself between novels, but he gradually developed a deep affection for the familiar essay. His first two collections, Cross Country (1949) and Thirty and Three (1954) won him Governor-General’s Awards for nonfiction, and Seven Rivers of Canada (1961), which, in revised form, was the basis of The Rivers of Canada (1974), includes some of the best familiar essays on Canadian regions yet written. MacLennan excelled at explaining complex subjects lucidly and memorably, and his essays reflect the wide range of his enthusiasms. His central concern, however, is personal and national identity, and his explorations of what it meant to be a Canadian in his time played a central role in shaping national self-perception.
Unlike MacLennan and Haig-Brown, who took up the essay only after writing several novels, Robertson Davies (1913–95) began by writing essays and developed his talent for fiction later. Initially, Davies worked through the irascible but perceptive persona of Samuel Marchbanks. As often as not his Marchbanks columns amounted to little more than humorous sketches, but this eccentric, intolerant persona provided Davies with an excellent medium for criticizing Canadian society. Davies published selections from his Marchbanks columns in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947) and The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and revived the character in Marchbanks’ Almanack (1967) and The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1985). Writing in his own voice (which was not unlike that of Marchbanks) Davies wrote numerous periodical essays on a remarkable variety of subjects. These appeared in several collections, such as A Voice from the Attic (1960), The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979), and The WellTempered Critic (1981), which is devoted mainly to literature and Canadian theater. Davies’ essays reflect his wide-ranging literary interests, his distaste for intellectual narrowness, and his impressive knowledge of arcane subjects.
Perhaps because Davies drew heavily on his sense of humor in building a following, he took a special interest in the work of another essayist whose intelligence and extensive learning were often overshadowed by his success as a humorist. While Stephen Leacock (1869–1944) is best known for many amusing sketches and essays, he also wrote more serious essays in such general areas as history, politics, education, popular entertainment, and the media, as well as economics, his primary academic interest. Leacock was without rival the foremost Canadian humorist of his day, but his success encouraged others.
Canadian journalists especially have relied on humor to build readership for their columns. In addition to Davies, McArthur, and Wells, Greg Clark (1892–1977) and later Eric Nicol (1919–) stand out among the many capable newspaper columnists who owed their popularity largely to their ability to amuse readers. In addition to winning awards for straight reportage, Clark reached a wide audience in the Toronto Star Weekly and later in Weekend Magazine with humorous sketches and essays in which hunting and fishing figure prominently. Before turning to drama in the mid-1970s, Nicol wrote a popular column for the Vancouver Province, in which he specialized in making fun of himself and the trials of middleclass family living, and saw his essays and sketches collected in numerous books. The work of these two writers is typical of humorous columns in Canada through mid-century in that it is amusing rather than pointedly satirical. These columnists often make fun of themselves, partly because establishing themselves as personalities whose foibles, failings, and insights readers can understand easily and quickly saves space in individual essays, and partly because the approach allows them to poke fun at weaknesses often shared by their readers without giving offense. Written under deadline pressure for an audience more concerned with being entertained than enlightened, humorous columns tend to be somewhat repetitive and to rely on formulaic humor.
Journalism has, of course, affected more serious essay writing as well as humor, and there can be no doubt that the continuing growth of newspapers and general interest magazines in this century has made journalism, along with the related focus on a mass audience of average readers, the primary factor shaping the development of the familiar essay in Canada. There is, however, another secondary but still important outlet for publication that has run counter to the leveling effects of popular journalism. University based journals, which began to appear around the turn of the century, have encouraged a more intellectual, somewhat more formal approach to the familiar essay than that of newspapers and large magazines. While the circulation of journals such as the Queen’s Quarterly (1893–), the Dalhousie Review (1921–), and the University of Toronto Quarterly (1895–) has remained relatively small, the essays they publish have reached a more thoughtful and better informed audience; in so doing, they have—as was the case with the early 19th-century periodicals—exerted influence out of proportion to their numerical readership. With the expansion of the university system starting in the mid- 1960s came a related increase in the number of more specialized academic journals and little magazines dedicated mainly to poetry and short fiction. A few journals in both these categories publish informal essays along with their usual fare, but the established university journals continue to offer the main outlet for academic essayists seeking to reach an intellectual audience with essays on general topics.
While most essays published in the university-based journals differ in tone and focus from those in the popular press, the distinction between academic and journalistic writers is less clear in that many Canadian academics have also written for popular magazines.
Goldwin Smith was a professor at Oxford and Cornell before becoming a driving force behind Canadian periodical publishing in the 1870s and 1880s. Macphail, MacMechan, and Leacock—all professors—were able to appeal to both academic and general audiences. Although primarily creative writers, MacLennan and Davies worked as both journalists and academics. Moreover, Canada has produced a good number of academic writers who, while keeping mainly within their areas of expertise, have managed to capture the interest of a wider, nonspecialist audience. Outstanding in this group were E.K.Brown (1905–51) and Northrop Frye (1912–91). Brown was an accomplished stylist and a prolific writer on literary topics. He edited the University of Toronto Quarterly from 1932 to 1941 and, in addition to his many well-written articles in academic journals, published numerous essays on literature accessible to nonspecialists in better magazines such as Harper’s and Canadian Forum. Frye’s reputation as one of the foremost literary theorists of the 20th century rests mainly on his highly original and persuasive books, such as Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957) and The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971), but Frye’s books are generally made up of sections constructed with the tradition of the familiar essay in mind. In addition to practical and theoretical criticism, Frye also wrote essays on more general cultural and historical topics for nonspecialized periodicals such as the University of Toronto Quarterly and Canadian Forum, which he edited from 1948 to 1952.
Canadian Forum (1920–) is an interesting instance of a Canadian magazine that bridges the gap between the university-based journals and the popular press. Though eventually expanded, the Forum was started by faculty and students at the University of Toronto. Reaching a wider audience than the university periodicals, the Forum provided a more searching, intellectual alternative to mass-circulation magazines like Maclean’s (1896–) and Chatelaine (1928–). More journalistic than the Forum yet still intended for a readership more culturally and socially aware than average, Saturday Night (1887–) stands out, particularly in the 30 or so years after World War I, as the leading outlet for thoughtful Canadian essays. Under the editorial guidance of such accomplished essayists as William Arthur Deacon (1890–1977) and B.K.Sandwell (1876–1954), Saturday Night set the standard for serious essays on Canadian political, cultural, and literary topics.
Deacon collected his own essays in Pens and Pirates (1923) and Poteen (1926), Sandwell his in The Privacity Agent and Other Modest Proposals (1928) and The Diversions of Duchesstown and Other Essays (1955). Robertson Davies worked as literary editor for Saturday Night during World War II and continued to contribute later on. Though certainly not without humor, these magazines were devoted to promoting serious consideration of Canada’s cultural and literary achievements and failings.
After mid-century the critical temper characteristic of Canadian Forum and Saturday Night intensified and gradually became the norm. Out of the social ferment of the 1960s came a loss of confidence in the traditional values that underlay the writing of most earlier Canadian essayists, even those critical of many aspects of Canadian life. Many writers moved from social criticism toward social activism, and this impatience with things as they are is reflected in stylistic experimentation. The questioning mood of the times has done nothing to slow the production of good essays, however, and the number of essayists writing well on a wide variety of subjects—sports, Canadian politics, world affairs, business, lifestyles, entertainment, literature, to mention a few—has grown with the population and an increasing tendency among educated readers to become involved in social and political movements. Many recent essays are so closely tied to the news of the day that they tend to become dated quickly; this, along with the volume of good writing, makes it difficult to estimate which writers will achieve continuing recognition. A few of the older generation of contemporary essayists—those born before World War II—who transcend topicality and who have seen their work collected in book form seem likely to continue to be read.
Robert Fulford (1932–) began his career in journalism in the early 1950s when still a teenager and worked his way up to become editor of Saturday Night in 1968. In the same year, he published Crisis at the Victory Burlesk, a collection of previously published essays on a variety of mainly cultural topics. Fulford continues to write prolifically on an impressive range of subjects, both cultural and, more recently, political. Poetnovelist Alden Nowlan (1933–83) brought shrewd wisdom and a characteristically old-fashioned East Coast perspective to contemporary Canadian subjects in Double Exposure (1978).
Another accomplished essayist with roots in the Atlantic provinces is Harry Bruce (1934–). Writing through the persona of Max MacPherson for the Toronto Daily Star, Bruce produced a readable column using the Toronto scene as a starting point. The best of these essays are available in The Short Happy Walks of Max MacPherson (1968). Continuing his practice of using places as a starting point for his reflections, Bruce later moved to his family home in Nova Scotia and based several books of essays, including the exceptionally perceptive collection Down Home (1988), on his explorations of his East Coast cultural roots.
Nature writing since the 1960s reflects the concern with promoting social action common in many recent essays. After a distinguished career as an academic and journalist, David Suzuki (1936–) has turned increasingly to the familiar essay to educate Canadians about nature and promote conservation. In Inventing the Future: Reflections on Science, Technology, and Nature (1989) and Time to Change (1994) Suzuki expresses his personal views on a range of cultural, political, and economic topics, always with a sense of our relationships with the natural environment in the background.
Many prominent Canadian novelists have taken up the informal essay and published excellent collections in recent decades—Hugh Hood (1928–) in The Governor’s Bridge Is Closed (1973), Margaret Laurence (1926–87) in Heart of a Stranger (1976), Margaret Atwood (1939–) in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982), a collection of informal essays on literature—but by far the most dedicated and prolific familiar essayist among these has been Mordecai Richler (1931–). Richler has published widely in magazines in Canada and abroad and has collected only a fraction of his periodical publications in such books as Hunting Tigers Under Glass (1968), Shovelling Trouble (1972), Notes on an Endangered Species and Others (1974), and The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays (1978). Richler’s essays are more personal than those of most of his contemporaries in that he is characteristically outspoken about his likes and dislikes and writes in a colloquial style that creates a strong impression of his speaking voice. Although Richler owes much of his wide appeal to his well-developed sense of the ridiculous and the satirical cast of his mind, he is a serious critic of society, culture, and, increasingly, in Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (1984) and Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (1992), of political trends, particularly in his native province of Quebec.
Dozens of promising younger essayists are writing in Canada today, many as full-time journalists and many more freelancing, often supported through connection in some capacity with colleges or universities. The latter group are more typically experimental, but both groups are tending to take the familiar essay toward persuasion rather than detached observation and reflection. It might be argued that personal journalism and essays clearly aimed at changing the attitudes of readers stand somewhat apart from the traditional model of the familiar essay, but the essay has at many points in its history been an agent for social change, and the frankness of Canadian writers today about where they stand in relation to controversial subjects reflects the openness of the time. Whatever developments the new century may bring in the familiar essay, the current interest in this flexible but distinctive genre suggests that it will become more central in Canadian
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