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Before the Country: The Native Renaissance and Our Search for a National Mythology

With the recent reprinting of Before the Country, published over a decade ago now, we asked author Stephanie McKenzie to share how her book is still resonating with scholars interested in the study of the Native Renaissance in Canada.


I’m not sure how others might understand what I hope is the continued significance of Before the Country, a study of the literary, political, and social context of the Native Renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s and non-Indigenous mythologizing that followed on the heels of this movement. I hope my monograph has increased interest in this body of literature.

The study is still very relevant to me and has spurred on further scholarship. Building on theories surrounding the study of oral literatures, I have now immersed myself in a consideration of the aesthetic markers in written literatures that grow out of oral traditions. This focus was at the heart of Before the Country when I turned to the theories of Milman Parry and Albert Lord to help make sense of writing produced by mature Indigenous voices during this Native Renaissance.

There was little-to-no criticism during the time I was writing to help understand why the poetry of Chief Dan George, to offer one noteworthy example, carried such distinct markings of an aesthetic that was fresh in Canadian poetry when post-modernism was beginning to take hold. Recently, I have turned to Parry and Lord’s fieldwork in former Yugoslavia where they studied the gusle and guslar traditions and tried to define the formulaic characteristics of oral literatures. Living in Serbia for three months in 2017, I took gusle lessons and also produced my fourth book of poetry, Bow’s Haunt: The Gusle’s Lessons. I thought that, perhaps, pragmatic study of this instrument and immersion in a culture might grow my theoretical insights.

I am belabouring an explanation of my own scholarly growth to highlight how Before the Country is still relevant to me and how I hope its assertions might still be examined by others. When I was writing Before the Country I was largely digging through boxes in the library of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Many Indigenous texts of the late 1960s and 1970s lay buried in boxes with the exception of seminal works like Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and Lee Maracle’s Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel.

I believe that when Indigenous literature could no longer be ignored in the late 1980s and early 1990s and when academic units in Canada were scrambling to create courses and programmes for the study of Indigenous literatures, they immediately embraced what was before them – the writings of Tomson Highway, Jeannette Armstong, and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, for example. They did not turn back to what I think is the most important body of Indigenous literature in Canada: the building blocks of what has become the most exciting creative writing in this country today.

Perhaps the academy’s omissions were due to a lack of time. Most certainly, the omissions had to have a lot to do with the fact that a significant amount of Indigenous writing of the 1960s/1970s was out of print. This is still true today.

I hope that a belief in the continued relevance of Before the Country leads to the following: the re-issuing of Indigenous texts from this time period; a serious revisioning of the Canadian literary canon, which needs to include these voices; a continued challenging of greatness in the study of poetry that still does not really account for notable aesthetics of Indigenous literatures during a foundational stage.

I also hope that the greatest fault of Before the Country – the lack of fieldwork – will prompt scholars to reconsider the essential role of ethnography and anthropology in literary analysis. When I was writing this study, I simply spread books in front of me, read and critically responded to texts in isolation. On the one hand, I think this was healthy as it solidified the fact that Indigenous literatures do not have to be handled with kid gloves. They grow from ancient traditions (albeit arrested during the residential school period) which can hold their own. They deserve intricate criticism.

On the other hand, though an understandable, if not virulent, avoidance of ethnographical research during the 1980s and 1990s, commensurate with the desire to efface a longstanding objectification of “the Indigenous,” is explicable, I don’t think this is healthy. It is important to understand what shapes voices and from where voices emerge. This is what the gusle has taught me and what Before the Country inevitably pointed to.

With the reprinting of Before the Country, published over a decade ago now, I would hope that people would still consider this scholarship relevant, even if that means to challenge, refute, or reveal weaknesses in the book. There are many. However, I would hope that the book’s existence underscores the relevance of Indigenous literature of the late 1960s and 1970s and the reason behind my commitments.

 

Stephanie McKenzie teaches in the Department of English at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Corner Brook. Listen in on Dr. McKenzie’s recent podcast, Poetry and the Gusle, in which she discusses her recent book and shares her research on the gusle, a musical instrument that accompanies epic poetry in Southeastern Europe. For more information see www.stephaniemaymckenzie.com.


Looking for more on the subject? You might also be interested in Cheryl Suzack’s Indigenous Women’s Writing and the Cultural Study of Law.

Putting the Devil in Context

Elizabeth Lorentz was a young maid servant in early modern Germany who believed herself to be tormented by the devil, and who was eventually brought to trial in 1667. We invited Peter A. Morton and Barbara Dähms to discuss their new book, The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz, and how they give the reader the opportunity to grapple with Elizabeth’s testimony for themselves.

Written by guest blogger, Peter A. Morton

This book is the second translation of trial records from the city of Brunswick in the seventeenth century that Barbara Dähms and I have published with University of Toronto Press. The first was The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663. Both trials involved an accusation of a pact with the Devil. A question that naturally arises is what this trial offers that distinguishes it from that of Tempel Anneke. The short answer is that Lorentz’s testimony reveals some of the richness and complexity of early modern ideas of the Devil and his relations with human beings.

The first point to make about the trial of Elizabeth Lorentz is that it was not a witch trial. Although she was accused of making a diabolical pact, no one involved in the case suspected that Elizabeth was a witch according to the picture that drove the witch trials. And this raises the question, why not? It would not have been difficult for the court officials to interrogate Elizabeth about the common aspects of witchcraft, especially the use of harmful magic and attendance at the sabbat. The use of torture was an option open to them, if they had wanted to force such confessions from her. The same court did just that in the trial of Tempel Anneke just a few years earlier. Yet, according to the records, both the court and the legal faculty at the University of Helmstedt accepted fairly readily that Elizabeth was a troubled soul, and that her pact (if there was one) did not derive from a desire to harm others as was commonly assumed of witches. A second point is that the stories of the Devil came from Elizabeth herself, not from the questioning of the court officials. The officials based their questions on what Elizabeth said of her own experiences.

There is here, I believe, a valuable lesson about early modern European beliefs concerning human relations with the Devil and his demons: There was not a single template applied universally to every suspicion of involvement with the Devil. As Stuart Clark long ago emphasized in his book, Thinking with Demons, despite the degree of uniformity in demonological thinking, the concept of human interaction with demons served a myriad of purposes and could be adapted to many circumstances. In the introductory essay to The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz I tried to convey some of the variety of ways in which concourse with the Devil was conceived of between the medieval and early modern periods. As I emphasized there, fitting Elizabeth neatly into any of these categories is problematic. These trial records will hopefully underscore the importance of not rushing to conclusions when we find the Devil appearing in historical documents.

With regard to understanding Elizabeth’s testimony, the reader of these documents is in somewhat the same position as that of the court officials. We have Elizabeth’s behavior as it was reported by the family and servants of her employer, Hilmar von Strombek, and we have her own descriptions of her experiences. What we don’t have is her presence before us, and so we must use the documents we have as best we can. The objective in preparing this book, as it was with The Trial of Tempel Anneke, was to present the reader with the documents as much as possible in the same manner as they would be encountered in the archive reading room. The opportunity is there for the reader to sift through the evidence so as to determine how best to make sense of the rather extraordinary tales Elizabeth tells.

Readers in the twenty-first century are of course not likely to take Elizabeth’s descriptions of the Devil as literally true, and so they will perhaps look for psychological origins of her testimony. This is an option the court considers as well. But understanding the trial records requires us to recognize that Elizabeth’s testimony conformed with a belief in the reality of the Devil that was universally accepted. There was at that time no reason to reject the truth of her testimony of demonic temptation without some kind of strong evidence against it. For the court, the possibility that Elizabeth was “not of sound mind” was fully consistent with the truth of her stories of spiritual torment by the Devil. We cannot, therefore, simply label or explain away her claims of demonic encounters; to gain a sympathetic reading of the records we must, rather, “think with demons.”

Much the same can be said for the supplementary reading of the book, the preface to a book of prayers for Appolonia Stampke, a girl who believed herself to be possessed by the Devil. There are dramatic ways of imagining cases of possession: violent behavior, strange preternatural powers, and so on. Some of these ideas have their origins in the history of possession. But there is little of this in the behavior of Appolonia, although some of the scenes in the church must have been startling. The story presented to us by her pastor, Melchior Neukirch, is that of a pious girl struggling to maintain her faith against doubts implanted by Satan. Like the attacks on Elizabeth, Appolonia’s actions need to be read carefully against their social and religious background.

The editor and translator of this book hope that the records will offer a chance for the reader to work directly with the complexities and nuances in the responses of ordinary people in early modern Europe to evidence of the Devil in their world.

Peter A. Morton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Humanities at Mount Royal University and author of the newly-released book The Bedivilment of Elizabeth Lorentz.

Barbara Dähms is a translator.

How to be a Man: If Beale Street Could Talk brings a new generation to James Baldwin

“We were all men, all fragile and broken in some way, in need of love and grace and the salve of a mother or father or estranged lover. We were all Baldwin’s children. The fact of this lineage and the generosity of our father confirmed that we, his readers, were worthy of love.”

—Barry Jenkins, Esquire, December 2018

Barry Jenkins, director of 2016’s Academy Award-winning Moonlight, admits a feeling of kinship with James Baldwin’s readers, but also his characters: the exuberant Giovanni, the tortured David. Baldwin, the father, offers an emotional tutelage, guides boys into manhood, so that they too can offer a path forward for a new generation. And so: Jenkins’ new film, based on Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Fittingly, Jenkins’ talk of fragile men and Baldwin-the-Father is written for Esquire, a magazine with a long relationship to Baldwin. It was in Esquire that Baldwin published some of his most famous essays, such as “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” and “Fifth Avenue, Uptown.” While tackling what was then called “the Negro Problem,” the always shrewd Baldwin tied his writing on race to issues of masculinity, seeking a common understanding with the presumably white, middle- or upper-class readers of a magazine subtitle “The Magazine for Men.” So it is that in “Black Boy,” Baldwin writes:

I think that I know something about American masculinity which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been. It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others. The relationship, therefore, of a black boy to a white boy is a very complex thing.

The lengthiest and most compelling of Baldwin’s Esquire pieces is a 1968 interview, published shortly after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in which Baldwin addresses social unrest, Stokely Carmichael, and the ideas of whiteness and Blackness. Central to the interview is Baldwin’s appeal that white men acknowledge and confront their history.

Esquire may give Baldwin space to make his appeal, but the magazine does much to undermine it. For example, the cover of the magazine reads “James Baldwin tells us how to cool it this summer.” The image is of seven stylishly dressed, cool Black men lounging on ice blocks. “Cool it” is immediately associated with its demotic or vernacular use—perhaps Baldwin is going to tell readers about his favourite nightclubs or albums. Within the magazine, however, the interviewer uses some version of the phrase “cool it” six times. In the context of the interview, “cooling it” refers to relaxing racial tensions; the cover, and the rest of the magazine, diminishes the seriousness of this situation. One need only flip a few pages to discover a feature offering “Advice for Summer Drinkers: Cool It!” Here, the idea of “cooling it” is not about riots, but a suggestion for how to prepare drinks. Altogether, this single issue offers Baldwin’s compelling critique of masculinity and whiteness to the exact audience who needs to hear it … and then seemingly takes steps to dismantle that critique. The magazine offers contemporary readers a glimpse into the push-and-pull of the cultural politics of race, class, and manhood.

And now, 50 years later, Esquire offers up space to Jenkins to promote his own film, based on Baldwin’s work, and to discuss the author’s influence on his own life and career. In so doing, Jenkins is able to reach out to a similar audience (not identical, but similar enough) to the one Baldwin addressed decades ago, and offer them his own take on the intersection of race and masculinity, his own take on how to be a man.

 

 

Brad Congdon received his PhD from Dalhousie University, where he is an Instructor in Gender & Women’s Studies and English. He is the author of Leading with the Chin: Writing American Masculinities in Esquire, 1960-1989.

 

 

The Sound of History: A Chronicle of Captain Eddie McKay

University of Toronto Press commemorates 100 years since the end of the First World War by curating a selection of new and recent books that remind us of our nation’s history, courage, and sacrifice. Notable amongst these titles is One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps by Graham Broad.

Broad’s lively chronicle of Eddie McKay, a varsity athlete at Western University, who flew with the Royal Flying Corps, doubles as an engaging meditation upon the historical process. The biography ends with four unsolved events in McKay’s life. These mysterious tales remind us that even the most detailed account of a person’s life is never complete.

We’re proud to present a recording of Broad reading perhaps the most dramatic of these tales, “The Woman.” The short mystery has been divided into several instalments. Like the radio serials that were all the rage in McKay’s time, we will post a new audio track every day leading up to Remembrance Day – so you can enjoy the sound of history.

Introduction

Part One: The Woman

Part Two: Who Was Maud Palmer?

Part Three: An Unexpected Possibility

Part Four: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Part Five: The Mystery Returns

Part Six: It’s Not Impossible

Coda

Witches, Charms & Rituals: Top Titles With Spirit For Your Halloween List

Trick or treat? That depends on your reading list…

This week, we’re counting down to Halloween with spirited titles on everything from ghosts to witchcraft to Canadian horror films. We’ve rounded up some of our favourites – just in case you want a couple of treats for your shelf.

Ghostly Landscapes: Film, Photography, and the Aesthetics of Haunting in Contemporary Spanish Culture

“To speak of ghosts is to always speak of a loss that returns. Loss can tell us something not only about the distant past but also how we live in the present and imagine the future.”

Revisit twentieth-century Spanish history through the camera lens. Ghostly Landscapes reveals how haunting serves to mourn loss, redefine space and history, and confirm the significance of lives and stories previously hidden or erased. A significant re-evaluation of fascist and post-fascist Spanish visual culture from Patricia Keller.

The Canadian Horror Film: Terrors of the Soul

Welcome to a wasteland of docile damnation and prosaic pestilence where savage beasts and mad scientists rub elbows with pasty suburbanites, grumpy seamen, and baby-faced porn stars.

Highlighting more than a century of Canadian horror filmmaking, The Canadian Horror Film offers a series of thought-provoking reflections that promises to guide both scholars and enthusiasts alike. Unearth the terrors hidden in the recesses of the Canadian psyche from editors Gina Freitag and André Loiselle.

Magic in Medieval Manuscripts

Exploring the place of magic in the medieval world through an exploration of images and texts in British Library manuscripts, Sophie Page reveals a fascination with the points of contact between this and the celestial and infernal realms. Find magicians, wisewomen, witches, charms, and rituals in Magic in Medieval Manuscripts.

Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism

“The spiritualist trend played a significant role in the ideological and social life of the realist age. The reality of the soul was a major issue of the time. Physicists, physiologists, theologians, mystics, and, of course, writers all took part in this debate.”

Surprisingly, nineteenth-century Russia was consumed with a passion for activities such as séances and summoning the spirits. Ghostly Paradoxes examines the relationship between spiritualist beliefs and the mindset of the Russian Age of Realism. Newly released in paperback – now that’s a treat!

Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime in Romantic and Victorian Poetry

“Suspension rejects the impulse to cling to the known and the knowable.”

Whether the rapt trances of Romanticism or the corpse-like figures that confounded Victorian science and religion, Awful Parenthesis reveals that depictions of bodies in suspended animation are a response to an expanding, incoherent world in crisis. Examining various aesthetics of suspension in the works of poets such as Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti, Anne McCarthy shares important insights into the nineteenth-century fascination with the sublime.

European Magic and Witchcraft: A Reader

“Those who have picked up this book are about to fly through a mirror, back through time, and look down upon an unfamiliar terrain.”

What’s really behind our fascination with magic and witchcraft? Editor Martha Rampton demonstrates how understandings of magic changed over time, and how these were influenced by factors such as religion, science, and law. By engaging with a full spectrum of source types, learn how magic was understood through the medieval and early modern eras.

Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts 

Medieval astrologers, though sometimes feared to be magicians in league with demons, were usually revered by scholars whose ideas and practices were widely respected. Explore the dazzling complexity of western astrology and its place in society, as revealed by a wealth of illustrated manuscripts from the British Library’s rich medieval collections.