Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In Canada

            On Monday we flew to Montreal, where our younger son and his wife are both university professors, and where our youngest and third from youngest grandchildren have both been growth-spurting like mad during the months since I last saw them.  It is necessary for grandparents to be indispensable, or at least that they be allowed plausibly to seem indispensable.   All our children, bless their hearts, cooperate with this need.  The rationalization for this particular trip is convincing enough.  Luke must be away for several days at a conference in California, so that there is a genuine role for the grandparental Helping Hand.  At the same time it is clear that introducing two more large and sometimes slow-moving people into such a busy scene has its social ambiguities.

            I don’t claim to know Montreal, but I like what I see when I come here.  In fact I have liked most of what I have experienced in Canada over the years, mainly limited though it has been to lecture engagements and academic conferences.  Canada is a very large country with a relatively small population, most of which lives in a narrow band near the American border.  So you have a very big ship making quite a chop for the not so big ship in its wake.  I have always been aware of the cultural anxiety that the situation induces in many Canadians, who insist upon a distinctive Canadian “identity” for which I see little support in actual historical experience, and label as “Canadian” cosmopolitan virtues shared by the international intellectual community.  While I was in graduate school, a professor at Toronto named Northrop Frye was unofficially crowned the reigning monarch of English language literary criticism.  Frye was indeed an impressive and stimulating critic of literature, and he could teach you to see things in texts you hadn't seen before, but I never was able to grasp the distinctively “Canadian” character of his insights about the Bible or William Blake often claimed by his compatriots.

            I don’t think that, for all the obnoxious forms of provincialism emanating from the United States, one would encounter a parallel attitude in America.  Once when I was chairman of the Princeton English Department I got a letter from my counterpart at the University of Toronto.  The preëminence of Toronto in Canadian higher education is very marked and has no parallel in the United States, where Yale vies with Chicago and Chicago with Stanford and so on.  In this way Canada is more like European countries than it is the United States.  Anyway this man wrote to tell me that his department was the beneficiary of some targeted largesse of the Ford Foundation.  They would now be able to accomplish their long desired hope of expanding their offerings in American Literature.  Did we have at the moment any outstanding Canadian graduate students in the field whom we would choose to nominate for faculty positions in Toronto?  Here we had American money eventually deriving from an icon of American capitalism in search of American-trained scholars expert in American literature.  But no Americans need apply!  It was the law.

            My limited experience in Canadian Academia is that this strain of cultural sensitivity is at times not far from a form of anti-Americanism.  I don’t want to make too much of a single unpleasant immigration officer at the airport.  Of course I could be being oversensitive myself, but we know that sometimes paranoids do have real enemies.  And arriving on the day of the Iowa caucuses might not be strategic.  I was not looking forward to having to defend the results of the Republican race, should I be stopped on the street and forced to deliver, since I had assumed the inevitability of a Trump victory.

            Donald Trump did not win the caucus, however.  Ted Cruz, a native of Calgary, Alberta, prevailed.   One of the charges American conservatives have often made against the current administration is that of constitutional impropriety.  Their criticism of the more liberal members of the Supreme Court is that the justices too often indulge in allegorical interpretations of the Constitution that mock the document’s clear, literal sense.  Well, the first section of the second article of our constitution reads thus: “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”  It may yet take some fancy literary criticism to resolve all this.

            I hope the Canadians recognize that indefinable kinship of Cruz and Frye.  I see it pretty clearly, but then I have more than trace elements of Canadianism myself.  Though raised in a sod house in the Nebraska Territory, my paternal grandmother, née Herrington, sprang from a family of colonial English Baptists who fled to Canada rather than bow their necks to the tyranny of the Jacobin putsch more commonly known as the American Revolution.  They went no further than Windsor, Ontario; but a miss is as good as a mile.  My grandfather Fleming, a jingoist of the old school,  cast scorn upon his wife’s loyalist forebears, but what can you expect from an Irishman and an anti-English bigot?