Monday, October 13, 2008



Why Susanna Moodie?

The University of Western Ontario, set up a CANADIAN POETRY website to exhibit poetry and poets of the confederation era of Canada. Wanda Campbell focussed on Susanna Moodie, the poet, and presents many of her poems, especially those relating to Moodie’s experience of Canada. Ms Campbell wrote,

“Primarily because of Roughing It in the Bush; or, Life in Canada (1852), an account of her arrival and settlement in Upper Canada, Susanna Moodie has become one of the central figures of nineteenth-century Canadian literature, attracting considerable critical attention and achieving reincarnation in such texts as Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and Carol Shields’ Small Ceremonies (1976). Both Roughing It in the Bush and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853) contain a substantial number of poems that Moodie included “in order to diversify [her] subject and make it as amusing as possible” (Introduction to Roughing It xiii).

Most of these poems had previously appeared in newspapers and periodicals including the Albion (New York), the Literary Garland (Montreal), the Palladium (Toronto), and the North American Magazine (Philadelphia). In 1833, she complained to the editor of the Albion of Canada’s “chilly atmosphere” that was “little favourable to the spirit of Poesy” (Letters of a Lifetime 90), but her poems were, in fact, warmly received. In March, 1833, R.D. Chatterton, the editor of the Cobourg Star, reprinted two poems that had just appeared in the Albion: “With us the beauty and chief attraction of Mrs. Moodie’s Poetry arises from the delicacy of sentiment and the enthusiastic feelings, that pervade it. We meet not the lofty, gaudy, oriental language, which so illuminates the poetry of Mrs. Hemans, but a simple and energetic language which cannot fail to reach the hearts of every true lover of poetry.”

Ms Moodie was middle class in genteel Britain and an activist for the anti-slavery movement. She was the author of several anti-slavery publications, including THE HISTORY OF MARY PRINCE, A WEST INDIAN SLAVE (1831) and NEGRO SLAVERY DESCRIBED BY A NEGRO (1831). That same year she also had her first book of poetry, ENTHUSIASM AND OTHER POEMS, and married. The following year she landed on the wharf at Cobourg.

Thus began the life of Susanna Moodie’s greatest contribution to Canadian culture and history, a heritage that is worth considerable gigabytes at the Library and Archives of Canada which collects and preserves Canada's documentary heritage, and makes it accessible to all Canadians. The specific Susanna Moodie site has this to say:
“Susanna Moodie had four children (Agnes, Dunbar, Donald and John) while living in the backwoods and still managed to pursue her writing career. She sent poems and stories to several newspapers and magazines in North America, notably the Albion (New York), the Cobourg Star, and the North American (Quarterly) Magazine. A vital opportunity came when, after several of her patriotic poems appeared in a Toronto newspaper called the Palladium of British America and Upper Canada in 1837–38, she was asked to write for a new monthly Montreal magazine, the Literary Garland.”
So there she stands on the wooden wharf of Cobourg harbour, disembarking from a small wooden ship of minimum comfort after endless days of travel. No health insurance. No dental care. No antibiotics. No social workers. No assistance whatsoever. “You’re on your own, baby.” So she and her husband buy a field outside town and set up house from the raw. ROUGHING IT IN THE BUSH or Life in Canada, became her signature work, which went on to inspire contemporary Canadian poets of the first order.

CBC’s opus, CANADA: A PEOPLE’S HISTORY, described Moodie’s book as capturing “the hardships of her own pioneer experiences in this collection of reminiscences that have become synonymous with the Canadian pioneer experience.”

Referring to the inspired Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood, CBC wrote: “Atwood's famous book of poems written in the voice of the pioneer author Susanna Moodie, depicts the hardships and the internal life of the character as she attempts to make a home and raise a family in the unforgiving wilderness.”

So how is this anti-slavery immigrant poet/writer who survived and transcended the merciless pioneer experience honoured by her contemporaries in Cobourg, Northumberland, south-central Ontario? In the early 1990’s she inspired Susanna Moodie Elementary School in Belleville which provides a charming Flash presentation of Susanna Moodie.

The University of Manitoba hosts a web-site for CM (Canadian Review of Materials) which is an "electronic reviewing journal (of) Canadiana of interest to children and young adults, including publications produced in Canada, or published elsewhere but of special interest or significance to Canada, such as those having a Canadian writer, illustrator or subject." The site hosts a review by Mary Thomas of the ECW Press book, Susanna Moodie: a Life written by Michael Peterman. The review begins with this excerpt: "While her husband was thus engaged [in attempting to find an affordable farm in the vicinity of Coburg], Susanna endured her 'unpleasant' residence in the crowded 'house of public entertainment' as best she could. With leisure and..."

For those interested in downloading and reading the full text of Roughing It In The Bush click here.

FEMINISTS: In the zeitgeist of the times, Susanna Moodie displayed a civic mindedness that went beyond the kitchen and parlour. Her anti-slavery activity was up-front. Her loving and lasting relationship with her sister, Catherine Parr Traill, all speaks of a woman who lived life head-on, and transcended. If she’s good enough for Margaret Atwood, she’s good enough for all feminists.

MULTICULTURALISTS: This is the story of an immigrant, with nostalgia, miseries, significant joys, but especially as a role model, not only surviving, but thriving, transcending. She stood for freedom, individual equality, expressed in her anti-slavery work.

POETS/WRITER: Let’s face it, her stuff is not the quality to find parking space in the Oxford Concise Anthology of English Poetry. Her value is literate observation of her life within the time and place she found herself. Nevertheless, she chose poetry as a vehicle of expression, and she was not without some competence – bits o poesie. If she was able to inspire Margaret Atwood, then she should writely inspire the members of the Cobourg Poetry Workshop.

Why, she’s almost a leftist’s dream come true, except that she’s white skinned & Anglo, but then again, she’s a dead white poet, so that should even things out. But then again, she’s Christian, and we know how too many of them are regarding abortion, euthanasia, birth control, and other human rights, etc. But then again, check it out, Ms Moodie did not address any of these issues – she`s clean.

She certainly deserves to have her name attached to something in Cobourg. Unlike Belleville, which has a Susanna Moodie Elementary School, Cobourg has been inclined traditionally to name its public buildings after politicians or administrators. Part of the good ole boys payoff honour. Bureaucratic inbreeding. Bureaucraps and adminiscastrators are not an inspiring lot.

Irving Layton Library. Perhaps a bit too rich for Cobourg. Keep it local and call it Susanna Moodie Library. What are the connections?:
1. Moodie writes & gets published in London & New York.
2. Moodie is well-known in the Canadian literati.
3. Moodie has a very local connection.
4. Moodie is Canadian culture.
Cobourg preferred to be inspired, and named it Local High School Principal Library.

One day, in 1965, a high school principal called me into his office; made me an offer: cut your hair, or I deny you an education at this school. So I cut my hair and got an education – the unintended one.

Historically, Cobourg politicians, have been culturally illiterate. The only reason Cobourg has a Birthplace of Marie Dressler is because of the work of a private individual. Is there a Marie Dressler Street? Council after Council after Council of cultural illiterates preferred naming streets after themselves as politicians/businessmen/administrators. That is what passes as hand-me-down culture by the good ole boys of Cobourg Councils. Old codgers marking turf, making a lasting impression; their stains are a public display of mediocrity on most street corners in Cobourg.

Go to any European community and you will find streets, avenues, blocks, parks, subway stations, etc named after their culturati; composers, artists, poets, writers, the creative class. Yes, there was the usual crap of politicians and generals on horseback extolling themselves, but there was room for cultural honours. In Cobourg, the good ole boys don't know culture from a Philistine sinkhole. Sadly, English teachers and English dep'ts of Cobourg schools have little cultural depth or spine to promote a local literary icon of national significance. It's actually quite pathetic, tragic, and worst of all, typical. No wonder poetry has become nothing more than an obscure parlour act with the pizzazz of porridge. If it's not poetent, it's not poetry.

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