In 1899, writer Robert Barr wrote in Canadian Magazine about the need for literature in Canada. He told how, as a young man, he went to see "the Niagara Falls" and came away disappointed by how unimpressive it was. That's because "No reality can ever equal the expectation of a boy's lurid fancy," and his had been fired by a poem of England's poet laureate Robert Southey, that appeared in all "readers" used then in Ontario schools. "The Falls of Ladore" began, Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling, and boiling . . . Years later, after he'd moved to the U.K.
Stompin' Tom Connors, who died on Wednesday at 77, had a romance with Canada, not just its people and features -- even its place-names. You gotta start somewhere. In the 1960s, when he began, that had a certain defiance: to treat Canadian sites as seriously as other nations treated theirs, and so did we. Poet Dennis Lee wrote kids' verse flinging Casa Loma in the face of Banbury Cross. Stompin' Tom took Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere" and replaced U.S. names with Canadian ones. Snow was born in the Maritimes, like Connors, but he went south and glorified "their" map.
Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is now at the McMichael art gallery near Toronto, after what we're told was a successful European tour. Canadians are always impressed when their artists are hailed elsewhere. The phenomenon spans three centuries. I was at the McMichael in August, before this show, when it was also full of Thomsons and Group of Sevens -- from its own collection. I went with an observant 14-year-old and a cultured foreign friend. Both came away with a sense of depression evoked by those paintings of lakes and woods.