Lowbrow Lit

Stephen Osborne

One day in Vancouver in the late seventies, Pierre Berton and John Diefenbaker appeared at the same time in the book department at Eaton’s department store to sign copies of their new books, which had just been released by rival publishers. Berton was a famous TV personality as well as a journalist and best-selling author of thick books, and Diefenbaker was a famous ex-prime minister and a Grand Old Man at work on a seemingly endless series of windy memoirs. Both of them were also, in the eyes of the generation that I belonged to, relics of another age, as was Eaton’s itself, a department store that sold books on the fourth or the fifth floor, next to the furniture department, or kitchenware, or maybe it was towels and bedding. Hundreds of people showed up, and when you got to the fourth or the fifth floor you had to squeeze off the escalator into the arms of clerks in blue jackets who were marshalling the crowd into an enormous queue that snaked toward a corner in the distance where the heads of the two celebrity authors could be glimpsed bent over a couple of tables. Vast heaps of their books lay everywhere, and cash registers were ringing continuously. I had never seen so many people buying the same books at one time; indeed, I had never seen a book signing that resembled so closely a clearance sale or the lineup at the liquor store on New Year’s Eve. Everyone in the crowd looked like a normal citizen; many carried shopping bags and a few had briefcases; they were peaceful and talked in low voices as they shuffled patiently toward their goal; none of them were the book readers that I knew. I broke out of the crowd and fled down the down escalator and went over to the Marble Arch beer parlour, where my literary friends were meeting, and when I described to them what I had seen in the Eaton’s book department I felt like the Ancient Mariner reporting from a strange fantastic land.

Pierre Berton and John Diefenbaker were fixtures in a firmament that included Pauline Johnson, Robert Service, Farley Mowat, Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson, the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and other fogey-like figures of great earnestness, all of them unashamedly Canadian and profoundly un-hip. Berton wore bow ties and had bushy sideburns and appeared every week on TV on a ridiculous quiz show; he had a wooden manner and a wooden laugh (as did everyone on TV during that epoch). His books were unsubtle and unironic, not so much narrated as they were shouted out loud, and they marched off the presses in orderly procession, trailing their appointed adjectives: The Golden Trail, The Mysterious North, The Last Spike, The National Dream, The Promised Land; they seemed all to belong to the same Big Canadian Book, the early chapters of which had been written by Pauline Johnson (Canadian Born, White Wampum, Flint and Feather) and Robert Service (Songs of a Sourdough, Ballads of a Cheechako, Lyrics of a Lowbrow).

To the generation of writers and publishers who came of age during the counterculture; that is, to me and my friends in the Marble Arch beer parlour, these writers and their works were as goofy as Sergeant Preston of the Royal Mounted. We were readers of Howl and On the Road, by Ginsberg and Kerouac, and La Nausée, by Sartre. Our professors had been British academics who detested Canadian writing, and Americans brought in to replace them who had never heard of Canadian writing; during that period of the sixties and seventies a caste system came into Canadian intellectual life as the expanding universities grew to become the primary site of literary criticism and “creative” writing, with the result that the journalists, the homemade poets, the homegrown novelists who had presumed to rough out a literature, were pushed into the echelons of the lowbrow, the overlooked, the un-Literary (which became also the world of Stan Rogers, whose profoundly un-hip music and lyrics address the same lowbrow mythos, and whose continuing exclusion from the Canadian Music Hall of Fame is another example of the caste system at work).

In the cosmopolitan view that we learned in university, the works of Berton, Service, Johnson and Mowat, as well as Stephen Leacock and Bob Edwards, belong to an inferior past associated with colonialism and fuddy-duddyism. These writers are easily read; that is, anyone can read them; their work bears few signs of “artistry,” they seem almost to be projections of the culture, they are “natural” before they are “artistic”; we recognize in them the contents of a dream or a hallucination: a cry from an Indian wife, a glimpse of riders of the plains, Sam McGee warming himself in hell, plucky militiamen fighting off Yankee invaders, Farley Mowat howling at wolves. These are reflections of large elements of the Canadian psyche: the Northwest Passage, the War with the Americans, Klondike fever, the Railway, Vimy Ridge, First Contact, and forever in the background soft is the song my paddle sings.

These mythic contents, unironic, simple, ready to hand, embarrass intellectuals, who, trained as we had been in traditions of cosmopolitanism and internationalism (now globalism), mistake them for clichés. The cool postures of the modern and the postmodern cannot address the mythic structures of a local culture and must perforce ignore them as they would ignore a dream (and we ignore our dreams at our peril). Hence a postmodern Literature has grown up around us unaware that the most popular poet in the world during the last century was Robert Service, a Canadian whose poems were beloved even by the Queen of Romania, or that Pauline Johnson’s funeral procession was the largest in the history of Vancouver (or even that she passed her dying years there, in a two-storey walkup on Howe Street), or that Bob Edwards’s witty and wonderful weekly paper The Eye Opener was selling 3, copies a week to a vast reading audience that we have been taught to think of as unlettered and benighted.

The Bertonian world offers a challenge that our highbrow writing, our Literature with a capital L, refuses to take up: it reminds us that we have origins in myth, and that we have forgotten them. He and his fellow lowbrows represent a voice, a cultural demiurge that does not reappear in the universities, in the creative writing departments or the English and history departments, where the gaze is turned resolutely away from the mythic: “fiction” departs from the people and approaches the global perfection of a literature without readers, a literature designed for consumers of a commodity (i.e., a narrow spectrum of “Literature experts”) and defined by university-trained arbiters of culture.

When Pierre Berton died on the last day of November, he entered the popular, that is say the real, imagination of the country; he had been a conduit for the collective unconscious and now he was part of it. His encounter with John Diefenbaker in the overcrowded book department at Eaton’s department store becomes a moment in the dreamtime of the nation. These days I walk the streets of Vancouver aware (somewhat ludicrously, yes, but that is what myth does) that where I walk Pauline Johnson walked; in Whitehorse last year I walked the riverbank where Robert Service walked. Pierre Berton was born in 192 in Whitehorse, where he took up the inheritance of the rhymester poet who a dozen years earlier on a Saturday night heard for the first time in rolling iambics that a bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon.

Click here to watch Pierre Berton rolling a joint.

Click here to sign the petition for the induction of Stan Rogers into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

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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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