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Manitoba History: Review: Ralph Connor, The Foreigner: A Tale of Saskatchewan, afterword by Daniel Coleman

by John Lennox
York University

Number 77, Winter 2015

Ralph Connor, The Foreigner: A Tale of Saskatchewan. Afterword by Daniel Coleman, Early Canadian Literature Series, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014, 301 pages. ISBN 978-1-55458-944-9, $24.99 (paperback)

Charles W. Gordon, the author of many romances published under the pseudonym of “Ralph Connor,” lived a life and career of larger-than-life proportions. Raised in pioneer conditions, he was prodigiously gifted. He was adventurous, a man of action, a participant in the Great War in his fifties, and, in his later years, a respected elder statesman figure of international stature. How he found time and energy to write amid the fullness of his professional and personal life is a mystery to me. He was, in short, a legendary figure with remarkable energy, passionate in this commitment to his beliefs and his country, and a man of hope.

Gordon and his literary achievements have been questioned since he first began writing. From the start, critics objected to his formulaic writing. Today, in addition to the charge of writing to formula, he’s likely to be denounced as racist, anti-Semitic, and short-sightedly Protestant (an arcane term these secular days), and as blinkered by a narrow perspective, by sexism, and by cultural insensitivity. He is a target for correction on any or all of these fronts by today’s enlightened commentators and critics (I have played my part in this company), who underscore how short he fell of any contemporary norm of tolerance. This is all very predictable and all very correct, but somewhat in the spirit of the personal-attribute-of-themonth that now graces the signboards outside Ontario elementary schools in the service of character education. There is an implicit assumption that if we do not correct Connor, we are throwing in our lot with him. No more the Jamesian “donnee,” but, rather, today’s admonition in place of yesterday’s.

Whatever Connor’s limitations, he was a path-breaker and a visionary. The Foreigner is a significant work, one of the first — if not THE first — Canadian story that took as its subject matter the immigration of Eastern Europeans to Canada. Connor got a lot wrong, as critics have argued, but Connor was remarkable in a foundational accomplishment: opening Canadian writing and the minds of Canadian readers to the fact that there were others from outside the British mainstream immigrating to and living in this country, and that they were going to make Canada their own. Unlike his immensely popular earlier work — The Man from Glengarry and Glengarry School Days—which are works of nostalgia, The Foreigner is set firmly in the author’s contemporary world: an industrializing Canada where modern technology is being put in the service of great projects like building a national railway and mineral extraction. The future beckons, and Connor knows that such a future will include “the foreigner.” In his day, in the world just before the First World War, such a view among his readers would have been unusual. As it happens, Connor’s plot was wildly romantic. But the substance of his projection, a Canada belonging to and shaped by all its inhabitants, was prophetic.

Daniel Coleman has an appreciation of Connor, and Coleman’s afterword to The Foreigner is perceptive and valuable. He makes common cause with those critics who are interested “in releasing Ralph Connor from historical quarantine and reconnecting him to the present” (p. 276), and he proceeds to do just that, arguing that, “this particular novel is worthy of reissuing because there is a lot to learn from it” (p. 277). The afterword enriches the reading of The Foreigner in several ways. It examines the publishing context and the confluence of mass printing and mass audience—tailor-made for the blockbuster success of the popular writer (and for the treasury of the publisher) when an author’s books, like those of Connor, sold in the tens and hundreds of thousands of copies around the English-speaking world. Coleman argues that Connor “meant his novels to be a direct engagement with the modern world” (p. 282), and with the important issue of how, in the face of rampant technology, mobility, and change on many fronts, one could deal with “the logics of place, inheritance, and tradition” (p. 282). I was amused to find myself used as the straw man for this argument, but Coleman’s point is important. Central to his point are the questions, still central preoccupations today: “Who has the right to claim citizenship and its rights? Who is foreign?” (p. 284)

Coleman skillfully links his definition of Connor’s employment of “heroic allegory” (p. 284) with the setting of the story and with the panoramic set pieces, such as the opening passage of The Foreigner (and there are several such passages in the story, as in his other fiction, that elevate the world of action to a totemic plane). MacLennan did the same thing in the opening passage of Two Solitudes. But in the works of both Connor and MacLennan, as Clara Thomas has argued, is the presence of sudden, random, and frightening violence that also makes their worlds unpredictable and dangerous. This aspect of Connor has been underestimated, and it is part of the heroic inheritance as well. Coleman describes these scenes as illustrative of “the gap in moral development” (p. 287), whereas one might argue that they are part of Connor’s view—not “social Darwinism” (p. 287), but Darwinism tout court.

Coleman shows the relevance to the present day of much in The Foreigner, but he can’t resist a final bit of sermonizing. The final section is his equivalent to the question posed in Earle Birney’s “All Spikes But the Last”: “Where are the coolies in your poem, Ned?” Coleman contends that, “the myth of the Canadian North West fed a racist Darwin narrative of imperial expansion” (p. 291), hence the thoughtless and complacent emptying from The Foreigner “of any vestige of legitimate prior habitation” (p. 291), that is, the willful absence from the narrative of a native Canadian presence. The Foreigner is the illustrative warning to us today of “what confidence looks like from its other end, from the perspectives of its rejected other others” [sic] (p. 298). So the moralizing of yesteryear meets its contemporary correction. We may well wonder what three or four generations hence will say of our certainties.

Daniel Coleman is persuasive in arguing for the ongoing pertinence of The Foreigner and has provided an enlightening examination of Connor’s romance. I’d suggest a further Connor project for him and for WLU Press—a reissue, with critical afterword, of Gordon’s autobiography, Postscript to Adventure, his most accomplished work.

Page revised: 19 November 2015

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