L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
French Canadian ( Quebec ) Literature
Short stories and chronicles
[This text was written by abbé Camille Roy in 1914. For the exact citation, see the end of the text.]
French literature, to whatever climate it be transplanted, must produce its conteurs, its nouvellistes and its chroniqueurs, who express in a light form, generally humorous but sometimes dramatic, caprices of the imagination or picturesque aspects of popular life. In this varied class of literature the French genius has always found a field for the display of its sparkling wit.
The tellers of short stories have not, perhaps, sufficiently worked the fruitful vein that lies ready for their purpose. French Canada abounds in legends and tales worthy of literary preservation. In 1860 the Abbé Casgrain began the relation of his Canadian Légendes. His Jongleuse is still celebrated. Joseph Charles Taché (1821-94) continued this task, publishing Trois Légendes de mon Pays (1876) and Forestiers et Voyageurs (1884). In the latter the life of the woodmen with their merry evenings in camp is told in a style quaint and piquant - a true presentation of life in the shanties. P. J. O. Chauveau (1820-90) published in 1877 Souvenirs et Légendes. Pamphile Le May, who is an adept at discovering whatever poetry there is in the popular tale, published his Contes vrais in 1899, reissuing them in 1907.
Faucher de Saint Maurice (1844-97), a Gascon born near Quebec, took pleasure in relating the adventures of a life that he thought heroic. He was enamoured of military glory and longed to fight and travel. On leaving college at the age of twenty, he left Canada and placed his enthusiastic youth at the service of the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. He published successively - De Québec à Mexico (1866), A la brunante : contes et récits (1873), Choses et Autres (1873), De tribord à babord : trois croisières dans le golfe du Saint Laurent (1877), A la veillée (1878), Deux ans au Mexique (1878), En route : sept jours dans les provinces maritimes (1888), Joies et Tristesses de la Mer (1888) and Loin du Pays (1889).
Doctor Hubert Larue (1833-81), who wrote much in the reviews and journals of his time, left us in the department of the tale and chronicle : Voyage sentimental sur la rue Saint-Jean (1879), Voyage autour de l'Isle d'Orléans, and two volumes of Mélanges historiques, littéraires et d'économie politique (1870 and 1881).
A portion of the work of Sir Adolphe Basile Routhier may be included in this class. A travers I'Europe, 2 vols. (1881 and 1883), En Canot (1881), A travers l'Espagne (1889), and De Québec à Victoria (1893) contain impressions of travel recorded in a rapid but instructive fashion. Routhier also set himself to describe and paint Québec et Lévis (1900).
Ernest Gagnon, who in 1865 produced a valuable treatise on the Chansons populaires du Canada , also published, in 1905, his Choses d'Autrefois, in which many interesting recollections are brought together. Out of history Ernest Myrand, in Fête de Noël sous Jacques Cartier (1888), fashioned an attractive order of literature, possessing something of the novel and something of the true narrative. His Noëls anciens de la Nouvelle-France (1899) is also an entertaining monograph.
In the newspapers many chroniqueurs have written fugitive sketches - short miscellaneous articles - in which the impressions of daily life were currently recorded. In Canada the undisputed master of the chronique was Arthur Buies , who was born at the Côte des Neiges, near Montreal, in 1840. While he was still very young his parents went to settle in British Guiana, and he was left to the care of two aunts. He led a strange and most eventful life. During his youth he lived by turns in Quebec and British Guiana; he then went, against his father's wish, to study in Paris; and in 1859, to the great scandal of his aunts, he became one of Garibaldi's soldiers. He returned to Canada the same year to study law, and was admitted to the bar in 1866. The advocate immediately rushed into journalism, and committed the gravest extravagances in thought and language. Inspired by the influence of French journalists hostile to the church, he delighted in attacking the Canadian clergy in his writings. This portion of Buies' work is now forgotten, and may be ignored. Later the chroniqueur continued, in various journals that welcomed his collaboration, to write short and sprightly miscellaneous articles, which remain models of their kind in French-Canadian literature. These articles have been collected in book-form - Chyoniques, Humeurs et Caprices (1873); Chroniques, Voyages (1875); and Petites Chroniques for 1877 (1878).
On May 8, 1871, Buies began, in this half-jocular, half-serious tone, his chronicle, dated at Quebec :
He also employed his talent for observation in descriptive geographical studies. In this department he has left - L'Outaouais supérieur (1889), Le Saguenay et le Bassin du Lac Saint-Jean (1896), Récits de Voyages (1890), Les comtés de Rimouski, Matane et Témiscouata (1890), Au Portique des Laurentides (1891), and La Vallée de la Matapédiac (1895).
Buies died at Quebec in 1891. His name remains as that of a writer who well represented the Parisian spirit, ready-witted and facetious, censorious at times, but also capable of tenderness and subtle feeling. Buies particularly loved the French tongue. In Canada he wished to see it freed from the dangerous contributions of Anglicism. He wrote a pamphlet entitled Anglicismes et Canadianismes (1888), in which he indicated many new words deserving proscription. He is one of those who have most skilfully used the French language in Canada . His chroniques are composed of the impressions of each day, the reflections suggested by events, the judgments dictated by his wit and his sympathetic nature; in them are mirrored all the spectacles of daily life, and they contain some of the finest pages in the literature of French Canada.
With less vivacity, but also with wit, Napoleon Legendre (1841-1907) and Hector Fabre (1834-1910) wrote newspaper chroniques on all the subjects of the day. The former collected some of his best articles in two volumes entitled Échos de Quebec (1877), and the latter published under the title of chroniques (1877) pages in which are to be found the light and entertaining qualities of his ready talent.
Alphonse Lusignan (1843-92), who, at the outset of his career, was responsible for some very fiery journalism, left a volume of chroniques entitled Coups d'oeil et coups de plume, which was much relished by readers. Oscar Dunn (1845-85) collected his reminiscences and his principal journalistic writings in Dix ans de Journalisme (1876) and Lectures pour tous (1878). The Abbé Camille Roy collected under the title Propos canadiens (1912) stories and studies dealing with Canadian life. These are in turn rustic, moral, patriotic, scholarly and literary in their tone and colour.
The chronique is also represented among us by two women, although their work is rather superficial: 'Françoise' (Mlle Robertine Barry), author of Chroniques du lundi (1891) and Fleurs champêtres (1895), and 'Madeleine' (Mrs Gleason-Huguenin), who in 1902 published her Premier péché.
Criticism was the last branch of literature to make its appearance, although in the chronique and newspaper article it had long been in evidence. P. J. O. Chauveau, whose mind was distinguished by delicacy and good taste, encouraged letters in his Journal de l'Instruction publique, and he himself published a literary monograph on François Xavier Garneau, sa vie et ses oeuvres (1883). Edmond Lareau, in 1874, wrote a first Histoire de la Littérature canadienne, and Routhier wrote a study of Les Grands Drames (1889). But these were only isolated efforts. Of recent years French-Canadian literature is developing most abundantly, and literary criticism watches over the productions of the writers more assiduously, and especially with more method. The Abbé Camille Roy was one of the first to make a speciality of this branch of study; he published in 1907 a first series of Essais sur la Littérature canadienne, and in 1909 the history of Nos Origines littéraires. Henri d'Arles (Father Henri Beaudé), who had already entered upon art criticism in Propos d'art (1903) and Pastels (1905), applied himself in turn to literary criticism in his Essais et Conférences (1910). The Abbé Emile Chartier also devoted a portion of his Pages de Combat (1911) to literary criticism. Finally, in the Bulletin de la Société du Parler français au Canada , Adjutor Rivard, the learned general secretary of the society, assigned the writers of French Canada their meed of praise or blame, mingled with the wise counsels of his own trained mind.
Such is French-Canadian literature, viewed as a whole and in the persons of some of its best representatives. Intellectual masterpieces, it is true, are rare. We cannot demand of literatures in their infancy such works as can be the glory of old literatures alone. Nevertheless, French-Canadian writers have produced, in almost every branch except the drama, works that do honour to the spirit that conceived them, and that may still be read with profit.
The literature that we have been describing is chiefly notable for its method and clearness, and for the enthusiasm for ideas and the delicacy of feeling that are qualities of the French mind. Sometimes a little heavy, it goes on unburdening itself, freeing itself from cumbersome forms, and perfecting itself in proportion as the writers and their readers are able to devote themselves more and more to intellectual culture.
French-Canadian literature is eminently moral. It bears the stamp of the Christian spirit in which its works are conceived. In it catholic thought is expressed without timidity -with that apostolic boldness which is its characteristic. Further, it generally draws its inspiration from the abundant springs of the national life. At times it has sought unduly to imitate the artistic forms of French thought; it has often been too ready to reproduce that which is most characteristic, and least capable of assimilation, in the literature of the ancient motherland. Yet it must be acknowledged that, taken as a whole, the literature is indeed Canadian, and that in it the life of the people is reflected and perpetuated. Many of its works, the best in prose and in verse, breathe the perfume of the soil, and are the expression - original, sincere and profound - of the Canadian spirit.
(1) Chroniques canadiennes : Humeurs et Caprices , i. pp. 11-12.
Source : Abbé Camille ROY, "French Canadian Literature", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur G. DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and its Provinces, Vol. XII, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, pp. 483-489.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College