1867 Letter on Our Literature by Octave Crémazie (1827-79) Jan. 29, 1867 to Rev. Henri-Raymond Casgrain (1891-1904)

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This is the way it has to be for the Canadian writer. After renouncing without regrets his beautiful dreams of resounding glory, he must then consider himself amply rewarded for his efforts if he can instruct and charm his compatriots, if he can assist in maintaining the old French nationality on the young soil of America... It must be said that when it comes to poetry in our country our taste is not very subtle. Rhyme gloire with victoire a few times, and then dieux with glorieux, and France with espérance, and mix these rhymes with a few sonorous words like notre religion, notre patrie, notre langue, nos lois, le sang de nos pères, simmer all these on the flames of patriotism, and serve them up hot. Everybody will say it is magnificent...

One does not base poems and certainly not legends on everyday events...

We have too many pagan authors forced down our throats when we are in college. Why do they only teach Greek mythology? The Scandinavian gods, and the dreaded Hindu trinity are, it seems to me, much more poetic and above all less immoral than this Olympus populated by thieves and harlots...

In my works I have never talked about myself, about my own joys and sorrows, and perhaps the little success I have achieved is due to this impersonal treatment...

I believe that literary taste in Canada would soon become more refined if readers could be nourished at those sources from which contemporary genius has found such inspiration. The novel, even as it aspires to be religious, is always a secondary genre. It is like the sugar word to coat pills, that is, it helps to get down a certain number of ideas, be they good or bad. But if ideas can endure the scrutiny of people of education and taste, why cover them with tinsel and affectation? It is in the nature of great artists to give their ideas a clarity and charm that enlightens a whole era, and genius does not need that gaudy outward appearance commonly produced by mediocre minds at any period of time. Do you not think that it would be better to withhold novels from your readers (I am talking about continental France because our own literature will by necessity impose the novel on you) and thus accustom them to accept ideas without the admixture of theatrics? I may be wrong, but I am convinced that the sooner we get rid of novels, even religious ones, the better it will be for everyone. But I realize that I am chattering on and on and that you are going to answer me: "What you are saying there is all well and good. but to take such a course in contemporary literature, one would first have to buy a number of works and then pay an editor to pick over the best of the harvest; but you know that we scarcely have enough money to pay a printer. Therefore please do not burden me with your lofty enterprises!"

Instead let us pretend that I did not say a word, and talk about other things.

The more I dwell on the future of Canadian literature the less I am inclined to believe that it will leave its mark in history. What is lacking in Canada is a language of its own. If we spoke Iroquois and Huron our literature would be alive. Unfortunately we speak and write the language of Bossuet and Racine, and really quite pitifully at that. Whatever we say and do, as far as literature is concerned we will always be a simple colony, and even if Canada were to become an independent nation and fly its flag among those of other nations, we would still remain simple literary colonials. Look at Belgium where the same language is spoken. Is there a Belgian literature? Unable to compete with France in beauty of style, Canada could have found its place in the literature of the Old World if it had counted among its children a writer who, in advance of Fenimore Cooper, had conveyed to Europe the grandeur of our forests and the legendary exploits of our trappers and voyageurs. If today there were to be found amongst us a talent as powerful as the author of The Last of the Mohicans, his work would not produce any reaction in Europe because he would have committed the unforgivable sin of being second, that is of being too late. I repeat: if we spoke Huron or Iroquois, the labour of our writers would attract the attention of the Old World.

These sensitive and yet masculine languages, born in the American forest, would have the naive poetic quality that so delights the foreigner. People would swoon before a novel or a poem translated from the Iroquois but they would not take the trouble to read a text written in French by a colonial from Quebec or Montreal.

For twenty years translations of Russian, Scandinavian, and Romanian novels have been published annually in France. Suppose these same books were written in French by their authors; they would not even find fifty readers. Translations have this advantage: if a work does not live up to its reputation, the reader always has the consolation of telling himself that it must be magnificent in the original language. But how important is it anyhow that works by Canadian authors are not destined to cross the Atlantic? Are we not a million Frenchmen on the banks of the St. Lawrence forgotten by the mother country? Is this not enough to encourage all those who hold a pen to know that this small population will grow and that it will always remember the name and memory of those who helped to preserve intact that most valuable of all treasures: the language of our ancestors?

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Source: translated by Ernest DeWald from Cremazie's Oeuvres: II Prose (1976), edited by Odette Condemine.

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