Canadian periodical, 1883–1896
Issued from the Toronto offices of C.Blackett Robinson on 6 December 1883, the first weekly number of the Week included a masthead announcing it as an independent “Canadian Journal of Politics, Society, and Literature” and a prospectus promising to “endeavor faithfully to summarize the intellectual, social and political movements of the day.” Edited in its inaugural year by Canadian writer and critic Charles G.D. Roberts, The Week established itself as one of the most successful and influential periodicals published in Victorian Canada. Taking seriously the terms of its mission statement, it accepted contributions of varying intellectual rigor and quality from writers representing a broad spectrum of taste and political opinion. Although many contributions may be considered essays in only the most general sense, they marked the first appearance of many feature and shorter articles which were later collected as “essays” and which continue to be cited as important early examples of Canadian essay writing.
The Week gained much of its formative energy from the presence and pen of Goldwin Smith, a one-time Regius Professor of History at Oxford who emigrated in 1871. Already well known as a political commentator to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, he was also known to Canadian readers through his involvement in establishing two other popular journals: the Canadian Monthly and National Review (1872–78) and the Bystander (1880–83, 1889–90). A prolific and sharp-tongued writer whose contributions often appeared under the familiar and somewhat ironic journalistic pseudonym “A Bystander,” Smith was anything but a chance spectator of world affairs. In terms of international affairs, he used his regular “Current Events and Opinions” columns to comment on such controversial issues as Irish Home Rule (he was against it), the prohibitionist movement (which he equated with “compulsory teetotalism”), and the emancipation of women (of which he was intolerant). Closer to home, Smith wrote passionately on many of the early questions of nationhood, including immigration policies, coeducation at Canadian universities, government grants for railway construction, and the proposed changes to the international copyright laws.
Two other essayists who figured prominently in the pages of the Week had close personal, political, and professional ties with Smith: Graeme Mercer Adam and Theodore Arnold Haultain had been involved in Smith’s other publishing ventures and shared many of his ideas; Haultain, in fact, went on to become Smith’s private secretary and literary executor. Whereas Smith wrote primarily about political and social issues, Adam and Haultain turned their pens to topics of a cultural and literary nature. If diversity and the ideal of nonpartisanship were founding principles of the Week, cosmopolitanism was the order of the day in cultural commentaries. Dedicated to the wholesome edification of their literate, largely middle-class readership and to “stimulating our national sentiment, guarding our national morality, and strengthening our national growth,” writers in the Week set out to cultivate a distinctly Old World standard of literary and cultural criticism.
Accordingly, laudatory essays on such “model” writers and thinkers as Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and Sir Walter Scott become commonplace, providing readers with a guide to the best that was being thought and said in the world as well as a kind of Old World datum against which to judge their burgeoning national literature. Indeed, this sense of broad moral purpose underpinned the contents and the tone of The Week. As Brandon Conron (1965) suggests: “Though differing widely in interests and style, the writers of these pieces had one quality in common; the assumption, whether tacit or expressed, that their work had literary value, even when their purposes were dictated by politics or religion, and their methods by the editorial, the feature article, or the regular column.”
Although Smith’s input and critical standards had a lasting influence on the
periodical’s own standards, his contributions decreased in number and regularity after its first few years. The Week continued to flourish, attracting a coterie of important writers from throughout central Canada, including William Dawson LeSueur, who wrote on a variety of cultural and scientific topics; William Douw Lighthall, who contributed to a series of “Views of Canadian Literature” (1894); Archibald MacMechan, whose contributions are perhaps closest to the formal essay; and Roberts, who continued to contribute following his tenure as editor. The latter’s “Notes on Some of the Younger American Poets” (1884), a harsh denunciation of experimentalist poetry in general and Walt Whitman in particular, set the tone for subsequent discussions of contemporary poetry.
Another important contribution of the Week to the development of the essay in Canada was its role as a forum for a number of important Canadian women writers. Among these were Agnes Maule Machar, a moderate social reformer who wrote under the pseudonym “Fidelis,” who contributed literary review essays as well as nature sketches (“Our Woods in Spring,” 1886) and essays on issues of particular import to women, including education (“The Higher Education of Women,” 1889) and the National Council of Women of Canada; Susie Frances Harrison (“Seranus”), who sought to promote Canada and Canadian culture in her essays and regular music column in the 1880s; and Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald, whose four-part series on “Some Canadian Literary Women” (1888) is of particular interest to modern scholars.
Of the women who found an outlet for their writing in the Week, it is Sara Jeannette Duncan who has been called the periodical’s “liveliest and most urbane writer” (Claude Bissell, 1950). Besides offering her opinions on such diverse subjects as the ubiquitous issue of “International Copyright” (1886) and contemporary tastes in fiction (“Literary Pabulum,” 1887), Duncan wrote regular reviews and commentaries on all aspects of culture and society, including art and Canadian literature. Structured most commonly as causeries and gathered under such varied titles as “Saunterings,” “Afternoon Tea,” and “Ottawa Letter,” her contributions are impressive for their breadth and variety. An articulate crusader against what she saw as the potentially stultifying conservatism and provincialism of her readers, Duncan was, in retrospect, an especially important bellwether of the future of literary and cultural criticism in Canada.
When the Week ceased publication in November 1896, Canada lost a publication that had played a seminal role in shaping the country’s intellectual and literary environment.
Bentley, D.M.R., A Checklist of Literary Materials in “The Week” (Toronto, 1883– 1896), Ottawa: Golden Dog Press, 1978
Bissell, Claude T., “Literary Taste in Central Canada During the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Twentieth Century Essays on Confederation Literature, edited by Lorraine McMullen, Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1976 (article originally published, 1950)
Conron, Brandon, “Essays 1880–1920,” in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, 2nd edition, edited by Carl F.Klinck and others, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976:354–60 (original edition, 1965)
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