The Future of Canadian Literature
The Future of Canadian Literature is a lecture delivered in Montreal on 4 june 1914 by Arthur Conan Doyle and published by The Canadian Club in 1915 in Addresses Delivered Before the Canadian Club of Montreal: Season 1914-1915.
The Future of Canadian Literature
I have often heard friends from this side speak about the interest and veneration they felt when they approached the great historical centres of Europe; but I can assure you that I, who am soaked in Canadian history, felt that same feeling when yesterday we came along the old line of invasions, when we examined the site of that Fort William Henry around which so many hostile scenes have centred; when we saw the partly destroyed Fort Ticonderoga, and when we come down the line of the old Iroquois war trail, down the Richelieu River, where every yard of advance seemed to have the glamour of history. As I approached this great city I recollected the time when only a line of frail palisades lay between its population and utter barbarism, and when a sudden wild rush of savages might have driven Europe entirely from these parts. I assure you that I felt as much veneration as I know you feel when you approach the historical centres of Europe.
I might say that I have fallen under the spell of Francis Parkman, the historian — not so much under his spell as under the spell of the heroes and martyrs who he commemorated, and if there is any part of the world that is steeped in the glamour of history it is just this part upon which we stand. I talk of the glamour of history — the moment that history has left the land it seems to me that the very spirit has gone out of it — it has become mere rock and material, soil and water. It is the spirit of the land and the spirit of history that makes the land and it is just that that makes this comer of America the most interesting in the whole of the vast continent.
I had some difficulty in choosing a subject on which to address you because my interests are somewhat wide; but I recollected that if you were good enough to ask me here to speak to you it is probably because some of you have been kind enough to read my books, and it is as a literary man that I am here to-day. If I had not been a writer I should probably still have been sending up the death rate in some obscure corner of the world. Therefore it is on the subject of Literature and of a Literary career that I venture to say a few words; and, when I speak of literature I allude more to the imaginative style of literature, fiction, poetry and the drama with which I myself am best acquainted.
People often ask me what our literary crop in Great Britain is likely to produce. I think that is a question which can only be answered twenty-five years after the event. I can remember very well when I was a young man beginning to write, how all the critics were bewailing the fact that all the great men had passed away. Now when I look back and remember that among the men of that time were such dramatists like as Bernard Shaw, such novelists as Kipling and such humorists as Barrie when I consider all these and how they have come to fruition, I think the critics at the time were a little hard. And so it may be at the present time — many great trees may grow up — mere saplings may in time become great oaks. We have such men as Masefield, who I think will develop into a great poet, Galsworthy, with his broad humanitarianism and Arnold Bennett, who will worthily uphold the traditions of British literature. The very closest connection exists now between writers of fiction and the practical affairs of life. A very great impetus is given to public causes by the interest which is taken in them by these Men who can put them in the proper form. Who has developed Imperialism more than any man? It is surely the novelist Kipling. Who is to the ordinary public the mouthpiece of socialism? It is Wells. Who makes men think more than any one else, although he makes them angry? It is Bernard Shaw. Who stands for Zionism? It is Zangwill. Hardly a man who takes a mere money-making view — who does not venture out into life and employ his talents for the public good.
People sometimes ask me whether a man can learn to write. I am afraid one must be born a writer. I can remember as a boy a class in school which was called a poetry class, and in this class everyone whether they had the talent or not, had to turn out a poem, although it might be difficult to recognise it as such. I remember on one occasion we were given the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes to write a poem on, and one of our young fellows boiled it all down into two short lines:—
She looked to heaven, her sword she drew,
And she cut Holofernes head in two.
Well, the master could not pass that and said that he really must come back and make another effort. The second time he appeared he wrote:—
Her sword she drew, she looked on high,
And she cut his throat from eye to eye.
These are shocking examples of making literature where no literature exists. One must surely have that in-born instinct, one must thrill to the music of the words.
Great literature cannot be taught. It is entirely beyond the reach of all man-fashioned laws. But what can be taught is style, and the vocabulary call be extended. Given the in-born instinct we can improve it by studying the great masters and adding constantly to our vocabulary — which is really, after all, our box of tools. In the matter of style nobody can do better than to follow Stevenson, who has helped many a lame dog into a style.
One must understand the use of words. When a new word is found, keep it, hold it and use it discreetly. I think the Elizabethans and Stevenson had extraordinary power over large vocabularies — an instinct for using the unlikely word, which word, when used expressed the thought exactly. One such on record was the Scottish Ambassador's description of Queen Elizabeth's dancing; he said:— "She danced high and disposedly." Then an author, apart from these things, must cultivate his general stock of knowledge. A small-minded man is going to do no good in literature. One must have wide sympathies, a readiness to throw out tendrils in every direction, know the relation of one set of facts to another. After all this is accomplished, he must have an immense amount of good humoured patience during all those years in which he is playing ping pong with the editors. You ping out literature, he pongs it back and you must be patient. I know I wrote for ten years and pinged my literature to the editors while they ponged it back to me. I can recollect pictures being sent to me with a request to write a story to correspond to the pictures. They were pretty bad pictures, and my story certainly did correspond to them.
Another thing is his attitude towards criticism. One should not fear criticism — it is much better than flattery which makes you believe you have nothing else to learn Over-praise is apt to bring ruin upon a man — he does not try to do any better — and that is an awful thing for a young man in any profession but worst of all to anyone in the literary profession. Many a promising man has been ruined by over-praise. The safest maxim is:-
"Do your best. Having done it, think no more of it, push on to some other task and let the world decide whether you have done well or ill."
I used to have a card hung up over my desk which I sometimes found to be a source of comfort. It had on it these lines:—
Critics flatter, no matter,
Critics curse, none the worse
Critics kind, never mind
Do your best, hang the rest.
Another thing which one needs very much in literature also, and of which, perhaps, we do not always in the rush give ourselves sufficient, is quiet detachment. You cannot put a good cargo out if you do not take a good cargo in. You have not got an endless stock of ideas, an endless stock of knowledge; the wise man is the one who remembers that, and who from time to time leaves everything and goes out into the quiet places with his books, and there takes weeks and months to build himself up, improving his own education; and then, I think, when he comes back he may possibly give the public something worthy of them and of himself. If ever a young author is dissatisfied with his reception, if he feels he has not had proper recognition, he must remember how long the great men have waited for any recognition. He must remember George Meredith who published the first edition of his Richard Feverel in 1859; the second edition was not called for till 1881, yet he knew well the value of his own work. That book is packed with beautiful passages, I was in his presence once when a young man praised one of those passages — it was the aphorism:— "Who rises from prayer a better man his prayer is answered." Meredith remarked:— "I wrote that twenty-five years ago and you are the first man who has ever spoken to me about it."
I feel gentlemen here in Canada that I am standing at a place which must in the process of time produce a very great literature. When I put it in the future I do not mean that it has not yet done so, but what I mean is that it will be a great volume of literature which in time to come may well influence the literature of the world. But I should be sorry to see Canada turning her whole thoughts towards such matters. It seems to me that for a strong young country with enormous practical work lying in front of it there are better things to do than dream. There is such a call for the virile upbuilding of the country that it will be unwise of it to go back to dreaming. Great deeds are better than great sonnets and Canada's call to her sons is a stirring one to action; for the poetry of action exists just as does the poetry of words and the great deed that is accomplished is more glorious than the great sonnet. The nations that have been building themselves up have never at any time produced literature while they have been doing it. In Rome it was five hundred years after the birth of Rome before Roman literature made its appearance. They spent their energies in the great struggles against surrounding countries. In your case it is against the vast forces of nature which have got to be subdued. Always there is a long seed time before the real harvest can arrive. I might cite as an example the State of New England. So long as New England was the great seat of activities there was no new literature; but when the seat of activities of America flowed Westward, New England became the back water, and you had your Longfellows in that little corner of the world. And so I prophesy that it will be here.