The great majority of English Canadian essayists of literary quality have preferred the informal, personal approach of the familiar essay, and a discussion of the essay in Canada is therefore essentially a discussion of the familiar essay. The familiar essay became a serious literary art form in Canada only around the turn of the present century.
Though better known for his novels, Grove was also an accomplished essayist who, notwithstanding his strongly held opinions on social issues, wrote his most memorable essays about nature and pioneer life. Over Prairie Trails (1922), based on weekend journeys he made while teaching in rural Manitoba, and The Turn of the Year (1923), which follows the changing seasons on the prairie, are grounded in keen, almost scientific observation. In powerful prose, they capture both the beauty and the harshness of the prairie environment and pioneer life. While the individual pieces in these collections resemble sketches in consisting largely of description and narration, Grove’s continuing search for meaning in what he relates brings them closer to the essay. Grove also wrote more conventional essays for periodical publication, and one collection, It Needs to Be Said (1929), mainly concerned with writing. Haig-Brown is arguably the most accomplished Canadian essayist primarily concerned with nature. After concentrating on fiction, often for young readers, for more than a decade, Haig-Brown discovered his natural medium in the familiar essay. Although he wrote well on a wide range of subjects, his best essays are about nature and fishing. Most were written for such integrated collections as A River Never Sleeps (1946), Fisherman’s Spring (1951), which explores the essential meaning fishing holds for him, and Fisherman’s Summer (1959), which shows a growing concern with conservation. Haig-Brown’s success rests not only on his descriptive power but on his extensive firsthand knowledge of game fish, Canadian waters, and the techniques of fishing, as well as an ability to convey his enthusiasm about nature and fishing that remained undiminished throughout his long career.
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Like Grove and Haig-Brown, many of the best Canadian essayists of this century have been novelists as well. Hugh MacLennan (1907–90) concentrated on novels for several years before taking up the essay. MacLennan began by writing comparatively formal essays on topics of public concern in order to support himself between novels, but he gradually developed a deep affection for the familiar essay. His first two collections, Cross Country (1949) and Thirty and Three (1954) won him Governor-General’s Awards for nonfiction, and Seven Rivers of Canada (1961), which, in revised form, was the basis of The Rivers of Canada (1974), includes some of the best familiar essays on Canadian regions yet written. MacLennan excelled at explaining complex subjects lucidly and memorably, and his essays reflect the wide range of his enthusiasms. His central concern, however, is personal and national identity, and his explorations of what it meant to be a Canadian in his time played a central role in shaping national self-perception.