Journalist, politician, civil servant, and noted public speaker, Joseph Howe is sometimes considered the first Canadian essayist of note, with his speeches and formal orations designated and collected as essays during and since his own time. Although his work appeared in a variety of forms, including pamphlets and collections, his reputation was established primarily through his prodigious output of editorials, public letters, and transcribed speeches which appeared regularly in a number of prominent contemporary newspapers, including the Halifax Morning Chronicle and the New York Albion. The most important of these journalistic associations, though, was with the Novascotian, which Howe edited for many years and which was quickly established as the most influential newspaper in the province.
Writing in a self-assured tone that critics past and present have suggested borders on egotism, Howe appears to the modern reader as a grandiloquent stylist. Prone, at times, to moments of excessive decoration, flights of rhetorical exuberance, and forced literary allusion, he also apparently had a strong sense of his audience, for his essays were often “looked to as stylistic models” by his contemporaries (Brandon Conron, 1965). It is not as a prose stylist that modern critics commonly remember Howe, however, but rather as a writer whose essays remain centered firmly on the social and political issues that kept him in the public’s eye throughout his life: the drive for universal access to nonsectarian public education; wariness of direct taxation and excessive governmental intervention in private lives; battles for freedom of speech and of the press; advocacy of railway construction; and arguments for reciprocity with the United States. Two issues in particular define both Howe’s public life and his essays: his ongoing fight for responsible government, and later in his life his passionate opposition to Canadian Confederation.
On the first count, Howe was a proponent of open, liberal politics. In essence a conservative reformer who respected the values of the emerging middle class, he saw partisan politics as the bane of Nova Scotia’s future, a static system that bound people to party loyalties which could put them in opposition to their conscience. To Howe, governing was never a singularly partisan activity. As he reflected in a personal letter: “Parties form and reform, fuse and divide in all free Countries as opinions change, and new issues and exigencies arise” (1869). More important, the party-dominated system was rife with what Howe saw as systemic neglect, misconduct, and corruption on the part of the province’s political elite.
During his two tenures as editor of the Novascotian (1827–40; 1844–46), Howe saw his editorial “chair,” as he called it, become the rallying point for Nova Scotia’s Reform party. It was a position he accepted gladly. As he announced in his “Opening Editorial” upon return to the paper following a stint in public office: “When one sits in it, however hard the work, they are answerable for nobody’s sins or follies or shortcomings but their own; in dignity it may be somewhat less elevated, but it is second to none in…real substantial power …to influence the daily thought, to touch the hearts, to enter the dwellings of tens of thousands like an old familiar friend, and inform, excite, and guide them; power, not without its legitimate checks—for, when abused, it ceases to be power” (1844).
To his readers Howe was an old familiar “friend,” and one who always wrote, first and foremost, as a native son. A dedicated promoter of the intellectual and cultural progress of the province, he developed a popular and well-known series of travel sketches known in the aggregate as his “Rambles.” There are, in fact, two distinct sets of essays comprising these travels: a series of “Western Rambles,” which appeared in the Novascotian between 23 July and 9 October 182.8, and the “Eastern Rambles,” which appeared in the paper between 17 December 1829 and 19 October 1831. Both sets are organized as the descriptions and meditations of an inquiring traveler who sets out from the provincial capital to explore and study the natural and social history of the regions and towns of Nova Scotia. These are familiar essays, full of direct appeals to the “gentle reader,” passages of sentimental meditation upon rural life and the “philosophy of nature,” and moral instruction. Often, Howe tries to invoke a sense of the history that had shaped the “youthful” Nova Scotia: “Had I the happy faculty of Scott, and could evoke from the green sward the forms which once, in bravery and pride, trod where they now are lying, I could paint for the gentle traveller’s eye many a singular and striking scene, and carry him away from the present, to behold the deeds and partake of the spirit of the past” (October 1828).
Although modern critics generally see Howe’s “rambles” as the least political of his writings, politics and social issues are never far below the surface. Especially prominent are examples of the ubiquitous “hobgoblins” of “disaffection and bad government” (25 February 1830), the distinctions of religion which continue to divide local communities, and reflections on the sorry state of transitional economies. One of Howe’s favored strategies in these essays is to reflect on how social policies and practices have shaped the lives of various “characters” he meets on the road, including the exemplary “Ploughman” (28 August 1828) and “a Village Doctor” (11 September 1828).
This dedication to the well-being of Nova Scotia also informed Howe’s welldocumented stance against Confederation during the 1860s. The more interesting of these antiConfederation tracts include an insightful series of anonymous “Botheration letters” (The Morning Chronicle, 1865) detailing his view of the constitutional structure of post-Confederation Canada, and two pamphlets from 1866: “Confederation Considered in Relation to the Empire” and “The Organization of the Empire.” Serious in tone, intricately detailed, and articulating a controlled defense of Nova Scotia’s interests, these essays stand apart from those Howe produced in the months and years that followed royal assent of the British North America (BNA) Act, which are the most deeply personal of Howe’s writings. A lifelong anglophile who openly celebrated Nova Scotia’s links to Britain, “that great country from which we have all sprung, to which we owe allegiance” (“Speech on Elective Councils,” 1837), Howe was bitterly disappointed and disillusioned with both the British public and the British political process following Confederation. As he admits publicly in the first of a series of five letters “To the Editor of The Morning Chronicle” following the British government’s rejection of a brief anticonfederate agitation for repeal of the BNA Act, the experiences of the 1860s left their mark: “with deep sorrow, and a sense of humiliation not easily described, I [am] compelled to acknowledge that I had cherished a delusion” (1868).
An especially succinct summary of Howe’s lifelong commitment to his ideals and native province comes in a widely printed public letter “To the People of Canada” (1867): “The page of my public life of which I shall ever be most justly proud is that whereon is unfolded the earnestness and sincerity with which, against fearful odds, I defended the independence of my native Province, and endeavored to protect her people from insult and spoliation.”
Born 13 December 1804 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Little formal schooling. Apprenticed to family printing and newspaper business, from age 13. Cofounding editor, the Acadian, 1817; editor and major contributor, the Novascotian, 1827–40, 1844–46. Married Catherine McNab, 1828: ten children. Elected to the Nova Scotia legislative assembly, 1836; premier, 1860–63; led opposition forces in the Confederation debate of the mid-
1860s; elected as an Opposition candidate, 1867, but accepted that opposition to Confederation was futile, 1869; appointed secretary of state for the provinces, 1869–73; appointed lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, April 1873. Died in Halifax, 1 June 1873.
Essays and Related Prose
The Speeches and Public Letters of the Hon. Joseph Howe, edited by William Annand, 2 vols., 1858; revised edition, edited by Joseph Andrew Chisholm, 2 vols., 1909
Poems and Essays, 1874; edited by M.G.Parks, 1973
The Heart of Howe: Selections from the Letters and Speeches, edited by D.C.Harvey, 1939
Joseph Howe: Voice of Nova Scotia, edited by J.Murray Beck, 1964
Western and Eastern Rambles: Travel Sketches of Nova Scotia, edited by M.G.Parks, 1973
Other writings: poetry, addresses, pamphlets, and correspondence.
Beck, J.Murray, Joseph Howe, Kingston and Montreal: McGillQueen’s University Press, 2 vols., 1982–83
Conron, Brandon, “Essays 1880–1920,” in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, edited by Carl F.Klinck and others, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976:354–60 (original edition, 1965)
Grant, George M., “The Late Hon. Joseph Howe,” Canadian Monthly and National Review 7, no. 5 (May 1875):377–87; 7, no. 6 (June 1875):497–508; 8, no. 1 (July 1875):20–25; 8, no. 2 (August 1875):115–22
Hunt, Wayne A., editor, The Proceedings of the Joseph Howe Symposium, Sackville, New Brunswick: Mount Allison University Centre for Canadian Studies, 1984
Parks, M.G., Introduction to Poems and Essays by Howe, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973:vii–xxxi
Parks, M.G., Introduction to Western and Eastern Rambles: Travel Sketches of Nova Scotia by Howe, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973:3–44
Roy, James A., Joseph Howe: A Study in Achievement and Frustration, Toronto: Macmillan, 1935
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