Stephen Osborne

History brushed against the grain

Last month an intrepid interviewer from an online journal put a direct question to the new editor of the Walrus: “Why is the Walrus so boring?” he asked. In reply the new editor of the Walrus spoke intermittently for nearly an hour without pausing to deny the implied charge, which would have been to acknowledge it, and would perhaps have wounded his dignity. I felt grateful (with a certain schadenfreude) never to have had the question put to me during the years that Geist has been publishing and that I have been its publisher. Geist will be twenty-five years old in September and already a new publisher is taking over the slot on the masthead occupied until just before now by my name. Geist came into the world in 1990 in contradiction to orthodoxies expressed in the humourless pages of Saturday Night, at the time a respectful and respectable journal of politics and literature (now defunct), and the equally orthodox and humourless pages of Quill & Quire (still a publishing success); our intention has been to provide a bulwark or perhaps a redoubt against the encroachment of the boring, always a creeping menace in the literary world. The new editor of the Walrus suggested in his “long form” reply to the online interviewer that one needs to know “what people want to read” and that he was planning to find out what people want to read by consulting the internet. I who have less faith in the internet prefer to show people what I want to read, and what the editors at Geist want to read, and let the readers decide as they read Geist whether they want to keep on reading what Geist offers them to read. The internet is by now an integral part of publishing and cannot be ignored, but its oracular qualities in my experience are not to be trusted. Today the Walrus occupies the niche once held by Saturday Night in the national publishing ecology: let it not sink into boredom and ennui!

One of the pleasures of the internet is in looking things up, and then looking up more things from those things and so on, so that relationships appear that were once obscure, and orthodoxies loosen their grasp on one’s ability to perceive. In several places on the internet, for example, Walter Benjamin posits the street insurgence of the anecdote as a corrective to the usual constructions of history: “the anecdote brings the world near, allows it to enter life. It represents a strict antithesis to the sort of history that makes things abstract.”

Pauline Johnson was twenty-four years old when the first of her “Indian” poems appeared in print on the 18th of June, 1885, in a magazine called The Week, on page 9, as recorded in a footnote in one of her biographies. The poem was “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” a dramatic monologue of sixty lines cast in the voice of an Aboriginal woman whose husband is leaving to join the war against Canada. Her words seem (even today) surprisingly bloody-minded: “Here is your knife!” she says; “’Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host. Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost,” but otherwise, rather typically of its time, Victorian in both tone and diction (“I thought ’twas sheathed for aye”)—and yet although its subject matter can seem in 2015 to be exotic or even corny, the image of the Noble Savage so often found in Romantic poetry is here inverted or erased. For the Indian Wife who urges her husband on to slaughter in the next breath calls him back, not to save his life, but to spare the lives of his enemies, the “stripling pack of white-faced warriors, marching West to quell our fallen tribe that rises to rebel… Curse to the war that drinks their harmless blood. Curse to the fate that brought them from the East.” And then in a final, painful reversal, having considered the lives of the young white men and the prayers their mothers make to their white God, the Indian Wife arrives at the salient question: “What white-robed priest prays for your safety here, as prayer is said for every volunteer that swells the ranks that Canada sends out?” she asks. “Who prays for our poor nation lying low? None—therefore take your tomahawk and go.”

Pauline Johnson was raised at Chiefswood on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, as a Mohawk member of an English-speaking middle class; by the time she was fourteen, she was steeped in the verse of Milton, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Longfellow, Tennyson and Browning. Her father was a Mohawk Chief and Speaker of the Council of the Six Nations for forty years; he died after several beatings at the hands of white whiskey traders; her mother was a Quaker with connections to the literary world: her mother’s cousin was William Dean Howells, the novelist, critic and editor of Harper’s magazine (who some months later rejected, with an unkind remark, a poem written by his great-niece Pauline Johnson). Her great-grandfather Tekahionwake, whose name (which translates as “double life”) she adopted as a second pen name, fought at the battle of Lundy’s Lane against the invading American army of 1812. Her biographers narrate the life of Pauline Johnson as a “dual” life and in this way “solve” the problem of her life story. (Historians use the same procedure to solve the problem of Canada as “two solitudes” or a “cultural mosaic” or, more recently, a peace-loving and at the same time a war-making nation.)

When “A Cry from an Indian Wife” appeared in The Week on page 9, on June 18, 1885, most of the facts required to make a biography of Pauline Johnson were not yet available, for the simple reason that the future from that point had not occurred. This was the quasi-insight that came to me when, with a few keystrokes, I discovered a copy of The Week of June 18, 1885, in a digital archive online, and the poem itself, as it appeared, and continues to appear, on page 9 (numbered 457 in the continuous run of the magazine), in a plain Roman font, surrounded by the miscellaneous stories and articles that make up the issue (Vol. 2, no. 29): the poem looks quite at home in its proper context, and as I read the first few lines, “A Cry from an Indian Wife” felt new rather than old, and not at all outmoded. I had noticed a reference to “Big Bear” on the front page of The Week, and now having found the poem I went back to the front page and read the sentence that had caught my eye, which begins in media res: “For the present, Big Bear has found safety in flight…” and in a moment I was immersed in events: the Battle of Batoche has been fought and Riel defeated; he and Poundmaker are awaiting trial; and now, in “the present,” General Middleton is in pursuit of Big Bear, whose surrender is a matter of conjecture. The appearance of “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” a poem in support of the enemy, appears in the same “present” as the pursuit of Big Bear, while further news is awaited: the ensuing trials, the hangings, the myriad jail sentences have not yet hardened into a future that includes the clearing of the prairies of its human inhabitants through officially sanctioned disease and starvation; the rescue of the CPR, as reward for carrying the army speedily to the battlefield, from the bankruptcy threatening to destroy it (the so-called Last Spike is driven later the same year). When, seven years later, Pauline Johnson recites “A Cry from an Indian Wife” at a poetry reading in Toronto, her biographers report, the audience responds with “wild applause” and shouts of “Encore!”; her career as a performing poet is launched.

In this issue of the The Week, we feel history “brushed against the grain”; the past is given to us (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin) to seize as an image that flashes up at the instant of its recognition: a young woman writing in an age when women had no rights, in the midst of battle; an Aboriginal daughter calling Aboriginals to the war against her country that is already lost.

The Week calls itself “A Canadian Journal of Politics, Society and Literature”; it is the forerunner of Saturday Night, Canadian Forum, the Walrus, and, in certain distillations, This Magazine, CNQ, Maisonneuve, Geist. The Week in its time had to struggle in a “global” marketplace controlled by the large American publishers, among them Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. The issue of June 18, 1885, is an example of cultural publishing at its best: sixteen pages long, self-covered, set in small type, with four pages of advertising at the back. Short essays on the front page treat of current affairs such as the proposal that Canada annex Jamaica; and the state of war on the Prairies: “For the present, Big Bear has found safety in flight.” Elsewhere in the issue are reviews and cultural news: a new law in Connecticut prohibits “flash” literature; that is, any “publication of criminal news, or pictures and stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime.” Its editorial procedures are open to chance; humour and clear thinking are evident everywhere in its pages: The Week sets an example for new publishers, such as the new publisher at Geist, and—if I may say—for the new editor at the Walrus—and would be forgotten but for the memory work of the archivists who preserve it, and the internet that allows its pages to be opened in the present, so to speak, both then and now.

The interview with the editor of the Walrus can be found at canadalandshow.com. The Week can be found in the digital archive at eco.canadiana.ca. The full text of “A Cry from an Indian Wife” can be found easily through Google.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.



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