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Literature of Newfoundland and Labrador

(to 1949)


[This text was published in 1949. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]


Literature of Newfoundland


The Icelandic sagas may be the first Newfoundland literature; nobody is sure of the exact location of Helluland, Marklan, and Vinland, and it is possible that one or two, or perhaps all three landfalls, were made on the coast of Labrador and north and east Newfoundland.


The voyages of Cabot, several centuries after those of Lief Ericsson, Thorfinn Karlsefne and others, produced another spate of romantic history. Merchants and ambassadors like Pasqualigo and Raimondo di Soncino in England wrote home to Italian courts that wonderful discoveries had been made. The Portuguese soon came on the scene, and Joao Fernandes, a husbandman (lavrador, from which the name of Labrador may have been derived), and Gaspar Cortereal returned with chronicles for the king's account books. Quickening French interest sent Jacques Cartier in 1534 to a landfall at Cape Bonavista, a partial circumnavigation of the island, and a voyage of discovery in the St. Lawrence.


In the meantime the first account of John Cabot's discovery was published (1515) in the Decades of Peter Martyr, and from the pens of adventurers came a stream of correspondence about the potentialities of the new found land and the results of expeditions along its unknown coasts. Notable among accounts of this kind were Anthony Parkhurst's voyage and description of the country in 1578, and the account of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's ill-fated expedition, as related by his chronicler Hayes, in 1583.


To this point, the literature of the island amounted only to the observations of transients. The dawn of the new century, the seventeenth, lit the pages of the first creative literature in Newfoundland , as patentees and colonizers became their own press-agents in an effort to attract investors and settlers. Thus appeared the Golden fleeceof William Vaughan, an idealized tourist brochure (1626), and Sir Richard Whitbourne's Discourse of Newfoundland(1620), a more hard-headed approach to the subject, though it is celebrated for a description of an encounter with a mermaid! In 1628, Robert Hayman, who succeeded Mason as governor of the colony which included Harbour Grace where Hayman resided, published the first poetry composed in the island, Quodlibets, lately come over from New Britaniola, Old Newfoundland.


This rather happy state of letters and colonies soon ended. After 1650 the literature to encourage settlement was replaced by its very opposite.


Literary production during a long period, 1650 to 1800, consisted of a series of documents by naval officers who agreed with the view, held in higher circles, that Newfoundland should exist not as a colony, but only as a summer fishing-station. Still, the colony survived and grew, restrictions on settlement were gradually removed, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the era of the political pamphleteer and the scholarly churchman had arrived.


In 1807 the first newspaper, the Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, was issued. From 1800 to 1830 agitation grew and demands were increased for representative government which had been enjoyed by other colonies for a half-century; chief amongst agitators were Dr. William Carson, a Scot, and Patrick Morris, an Irishman, whose pamphlets were classics of their kind.


Bishops, priests, and ministers made their own contributions to Newfoundland letters: personal diaries, narratives of visitations, histories, sermons, poems. Archdeacon Wix, Bishop Fleming, Bishop Field, and Bishop Mullock, left records of early missionary endeavours on the island. The Rev. Charles Pedley, Rev. Moses Harvey , Rev. Louis Anspach, Rev. Philip Tocque, and Archbishop Howley, delved into the history and folklore of Newfoundland. Tocque's Wandering thoughts and Howley's Newfoundland namelore ( Newfoundland Quarterly, 1901-14), are repositories of Newfoundlandiana. Archbishop Howley, poet and historian, the first native prelate of any denomination in Newfoundland, ranks high on the roster of Newfoundland authors; his Poems and other verses (New York, 1903) and Ecclesiastical history (Boston, 1888) are literary landmarks.


In 1822 W. E. Cormack, anxious to explore the interior and to locate the remnants of the Beothuks, the aboriginal Indian tribe of Newfoundland , walked from the east coast to the west, and the narrative of his journey is a monument to the man's vigour, determination, and scholarship. Its sequel and complement came about twenty years later, written by J. B. Jukes, first geological surveyor for the government. Jukes's two-volume Excursions in Newfoundlanddoes for the coast what Cormack's narrative did for the interior, and the chapters on his trip to the seal-fishery in 1840 are the earliest eye-witness account of that industry set down with erudition and discernment. Successors to Cormack and Jukes were geologists Alexander Murray and James P. Howley who performed the greatest labour of love in Newfoundland literary history and after forty years published, in 1914, his definitive work on the hapless Beothuks.



Outside interest in Newfoundland was quickened when the laying of the Atlantic cable focused world attention on the western terminus of the celebrated attempts of 1858 and 1866. Newspaper correspondents and officials of the venture published volumes on the accomplishment, amongst them History of the Atlantic telegraph, 1866 by H. M. Field; and early telegraph and cable history in the island even resulted in a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes.


The dean of Newfoundland historians, judge D. W. Prowse, published his History of Newfoundland in 1895. It was more than history: it was a compendium of fact, anecdote, document, legend, and strong opinion, with voluminous appendices which included bibliographies and census returns. The second edition was considerably trimmed, but still, despite its obvious defects as a history, Prowse's work remains the definitive history. One of the most concise and sympathetic surveys is Newfoundland (1911) by J. D. Rogers, in the fifth volume of the Historical geography of the British colonies. More recent histories of the island are mostly text-books for junior grades. An exception is Newfoundland : economic, diplomatic, and strategic studies (Toronto, 1946), edited by R. A. MacKay. Other volumes dealing with special periods or aspects of special note are The cod fisheries (1940) by H. A. Innis , and The establishment of constitutional government in Newfoundland, 1783-I832 (1941), by A. H. McLintock.


Beginning about 1870, there grew up a body of literature in which Newfoundland was presented as a sportsman's playground. A few names and titles will give the necessary clues to those who wish to investigate further: A. Radclyffe Dugmore, J. C. Millais, and H. H. Pritchard were hunters, artists, and explorers whose books, sketches, and photographs could have been used to advantage by the colonizers of the early seventeenth century. Dugmore's Romance of the Newfoundland caribou (1913), and Newfoundland and its untrodden ways (1907), by Millais, are books of distinction, hills amongst an almost unbroken series of literary knolls.


In the meantime, newspapers had increased in number and size, and a succession of short-lived periodicals began to stimulate the literary talents of citizens who had a literary flair. These periodicals were as numerous as the leaves of summer and faded as quickly; more often than not their existence paralleled the seasonal cycle: they blossomed forth in spring and withered in the autumn or the winter. However, extant copies show what impetus they gave to writing generally, and the connoiseur and the researcher find them a veritable treasure-house. Hardiest of this fragile family is the Newfoundland Quarterly, now in its forty-ninth year; anyone interested in Newfoundland literature cannot ignore its almost two hundred numbers.


Archbishop Howley was the first native Newfoundland poet, and Dr. E. J. Pratt is certainly the greatest. His work and his career are now a part of the Canadian scene, and with the exception of Newfoundland verse , his work is not related specifically to his native province. Several volumes of poetry by other Newfoundland writers have been published. Authors who deserve more than a passing share of attention are Florence Miller, Jack Turner, R. G. MacDonald, and Dan Carroll, though the poems of Dan Carroll have never been published outside of the little magazines. The only literary award offered in Newfoundland , the "O'Leary Newfoundland Poetry Award", now in its sixth year, has generated much interest and a great amount of writing, and is serving to introduce the work of younger poets.


Fiction is only in its birth-pangs, as far as the native writers are concerned, and the short story has barely been conceived as a form for Newfoundland expression. Until quite recently, the only fiction produced came from the pens of outsiders such as Norman Duncan, Dillon Wallace, and Theodore Roberts. Roberts' The harbour master is as good a portrayal as there has been of the elemental life of Newfoundland fisherman of a century ago. For a study in erudition, poorly mingled with a tale of adventure, Ogygia, by Arthur English, a native, may be singled out. The most successful native writer of fiction is the contemporary Margaret Duley whose Cold pastoral and Highway to valour are first-class examples of what can be done and are a portent of greater heights yet to be scaled.


Besides those anecdotes and bits of folklore which are basic ingredients of poetry and fiction, are some which have been published in collections: P. K. Devine's Ye olde St. John 's; Old King's Cove, and his collections of Newfoundland words and phrases are priceless deposits of a contemporary nonagenerian's recollections. Students of folk-songs and music are indebted to two American women, Elizabeth Greenleaf and Grace Mansfield, whose Ballads and sea-songs of Newfoundland (1933) is a result of their painstaking and sympathetic recording of old Newfoundland airs and lyrics sung for them during their travels.


The Gosling Memorial Library in St. John's has, in one section, nearly 500 volumes dealing with Newfoundland and Labrador, many of them out of print, some of them centuries old. There are perhaps 100 more that the librarian would like to have.


Labrador literature


Inevitably this followed the general pattern of Newfoundland literature: first came the explorers, then the missionaries; then the sportsmen, and finally the professional writers. The early explorers who wrote of Newfoundland wrote also of Labrador , which they could not help visiting. The first missionaries were the Moravians in the mid-eighteenth century, and The fall of Yorngak (1905) by J. W. Davy, and the History of the Moravian Church (London, 1901) by J. T. Hamilton, include something of what these pioneers had to say of the "land that God gave Cain". Then, in 1770, came Capt. George Cartwright, an English army officer, whose name is perpetuated in the settlement of Cartwright and whose Journal of transactions and events during a residence of nearly sixteen years on the coast of Labrador was published in 1792 .


Some keen explorers followed the missionaries of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches in the early part of the last century; literature was not produced by them, but by their biographers and successors, half a century later. Thus we have Father Browne's Where the fishers go (1909), and Through trackless Labrador, by H. H. Prichard, (1911). About this time, Americans seeking new worlds to discover went "down North", and Elbert Hubbard and others added to the store of Labradoriana.


Norman Duncan and Dillon Wallace found plenty of exciting action here for their books for boys, and "Doctor Luke" and "Billy Topsail" and the "Ragged Inlet Guards" became household characters. On the scene too was the real-life "Doctor Luke", Sir Wilfred T. Grenfell, who in addition to performing his ministrations, found time to add a dozen or more volumes to the growing brary on the Labrador peninsula . The most recent addition to the list is V. Tanner's Outlines of the geography, life and customs of Newfoundland-Labrador (1947), which contains an extensive bibliography.

Back to Newfoundland Culture

Source:  Michael F. HARRINGTON, "Literature", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada. Newfoundland Supplement , Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1949, 104p., pp. 69-72.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College