An Outsider’s Eye

Newfoundland culture as defined from without and within.

It was late May 1997 and Memorial University was hosting the annual Learneds congress for the humanities and social sciences. Over the course of a week, about 5,000 academics had gathered to listen to papers, reconnect with mentors and old friends and take in the sights. Typical of the time of year, massive icebergs floated down the Labrador seas in time to impress the visitors. Daily temperatures were still punishingly low for spring, but the promise of bergs and capelin-seeking humpbacks just off the shores of St. John’s drew even the most timid linguist or philosopher out of doors.

E. Annie Proulx , as she was then known, had been invited to deliver one of the congress keynote lectures. This was to be a major event. Just three years earlier, Proulx’s The Shipping News had earned its author three major literary prizes, including a Pulitzer. Based as it was on a fictional Newfoundland outport community, the novel suddenly cast not only Proulx but the province itself in the full glare of an international spotlight. Both Proulx and the island on which her success had been built were markedly uncomfortable with the attention, but for different reasons.

Proulx’s lecture title had been widely advertized as “The Outsider’s Eye,” a provocative hint at her peculiar situation—an outsider whose astonishing literary success drew heavily on a place with a strong sense of itself, a place she could not rightly claim as her own. The chattering class had been arguing about The Shipping News for years, the popular view being that the novel was grossly inauthentic, misleading and misrepresentative. Open-line callers railed against her culinary fictions, such as squid burgers, while graduate dissertations started to critique the novel’s folksy deviations from verisimilitude, including her main characters. The world might have been devouring the novel with relish and in many translated versions, admiring, as Sara Rimer did in the New York Times, its “vivid sense of place,” but Newfoundlanders were at best ambivalent. Naturally, by the time Proulx arrived in St. John’s to deliver her address, curiosity about what she would say and how she would justify her lucrative exploitation of a place not her own was feverish.

As the local coordinator assigned to manage Proulx’s visit, I picked her up at the airport at about 1:30 on the morning of her talk. She had been flying all day from Wyoming where she now lived and was ardently looking forward to a drink. The bars would be noisy, smoky and likely closing in less than an hour, so I invited her over to my place to partake of the perfectly chilled vodka she claimed she preferred. Sometime between two and nine in the morning, while I tried to keep pace with her impressive consumption, while my husband kindly managed to keep replenishing our ice cubes, while a house guest, awakened by the noise, wandered sleepily into the living room to find a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist sitting on the sofa, chatting freely about her life and work, Proulx mentioned that she had decided to change the title—and content—of her talk, the one she was scheduled to deliver in only a few hours.

What could I do? I knew that well over 600 people were soon expected to show up to hear her speak to the subject of writing as a so-called outsider, but she was Annie Proulx and by then I was in no shape to protest. Besides, she had not come prepared with the talk she had promised to deliver. Instead, she had arrived with a copy of an essay entitled “House Leaning into the Wind,” a piece commissioned for a forthcoming issue of Architectural Digest. The condition of her reading it was that no one entering the lecture theatre would be permitted to record even a phrase, while the media needed to be firmly instructed against broadcasting any or all of the talk. Her agreement with Architectural Digest demanded the privilege of first publication and so any leaking of the content of the essay would be considered a violation of her contract—and a threat to her income.

Introducing her to the standing-room-only crowd, mildly dizzy as I was from sleeplessness and a lot of vodka, I announced the change of topic (as well as her decision to drop the awkward initial E from her name). No one knew what to expect. Proulx had told me only a few hours earlier that she had been quite uneasy about speaking in St. John’s, this being her first public opportunity to do so. She was acutely aware of local resistance and even anger with her, and the last thing she wanted to do was face a hostile crowd accusing her of not knowing what she was writing about. So it was that she read “House Leaning into the Wind.” The essay was largely about her first encounter with the province in the early 1990s, when she had arrived on the west coast in search of a long-lost relative and the threads of her family history. The journey led her not only to a particular cove on the northern peninsula of the island, but also to the family member himself and the beginning of a deep attachment to the place that would result in the writing of The Shipping News. In effect, her entire experience in Newfoundland, from the moment she had stepped off the ferry in Port aux Basques, was informed by a strong sense of the uncanny. Something about the place had called her to make connections and launch a career she could hardly have imagined. Every Newfoundlander and a lot of happily transplanted mainlanders listening to Proulx’s account of island appeal understood what she was talking about.

Reading that essay was a brilliant tactical move. Its celebration of place, its implicit acknowledgement of the way the island had worked a form of enchantment on an unsuspecting outsider, disarmed the detractors and softened the subsequent question-and-answer session. Only one audience member dared to raise the spectre of Proulx’s outsider status, which by then was considered a rude question.

Taking a position on The Shipping News has become one of the convenient ways one measures the quality of one’s identification with Newfoundland. There is no denying the enormous international appeal of the novel and so denunciations of its failure to catch the “real thing” are often qualified by admissions of liking this or that element of the story. For years, everyone was asking everyone else what they thought of the book, a test question to both natives and come-from-aways if there ever was one. The sheer magnitude of its enduring popularity, extended by a Hollywood-produced film adaptation with a star-studded cast, was bound to inform conversations about authenticity and representation, the twinned indicators of cultural expression. It still does.

The phenomenon reminds us of what happened to Mordecai Richler when he published The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in the late 1950s. Many prominent members of the Montreal Jewish community accused the author of grossly distorting elements of Jewish culture to suit his comic purposes. Until the day he died, Richler was viewed as a less than ideal voice of that community, even considered by some to be anti-Semitic. But Richler was born of that community, and so sticks and stones could never really ever harm him in the way a non-Jew might have been injured after writing such a novel.

Annie Proulx probably does not worry anymore about whether Newfoundlanders accept or reject her depictions of this place, but in that moment when she came to St. John’s she was worried enough to sidestep the topic altogether. Since moving to Newfoundland in 1984, not a day has gone by in which I have not thought about my status as an outsider. I am not from here, as the expression goes, but after living in four other provinces and in the United States I have happily claimed this place as my home, as much as it has claimed me, and insist on my right to do so. It isn’t always easy. One is up against this enormous legacy called Newfoundland culture, a limitless term that is intimately connected to at least four centuries of white settlement. By North American standards, that is a long time for various narratives and counter-narratives of history to have developed, and it is critical for one’s well-being to have an appreciation of how layered, complex and contentious these narratives are. As it must be for anyone who chooses to live here, by birth or design, such an appreciation is a work in progress.

When Stephen Harper came to the town of Cupids in early August 2008 to announce a federal funding package, he told the assembled crowd that Canada had become “whole” when the province joined Confederation. Moments later, he said: “So when Newfoundland finally joined together with us in Confederation in 1867, we all say it was like a family reunion.” This is the kind of honest mistake that can kill you. As Harper knows, Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, and then only after a very close referendum, but a slip like that can haunt you forever. So much depends on just how closely related Newfoundlanders think they are to what Harper called the (Canadian) family. Indeed, in the decades since Confederation, and partly by contrast with the rest of Canada, discussions of a concept of Newfoundland culture have become more familiar. The category itself enters discourse more deliberately as more and more scholars, writers and bureaucrats take it up, examining it for content, analyzing its implications and trying to determine its essential characteristics.

Most famously, in a 1976 article for Saturday Night, Sandra Gwyn proclaimed what she dubbed the “Newfoundland Renaissance,” heralding the talent of the satirical comedy troupe, Codco, and celebrating indigenous art and music in a way that the rest of Canada had not yet considered. Interestingly, Ed Roberts, historian, politician and former lieutenant governor, has observed that “culture became part of the political lexicon in the 1970s and the emergence of Newfoundland writers, visual artists, performing artists, and film makers represented a ‘potent political force’.” However, Roberts said, “it was not a revival. It was an arrival.’”

To be sure, the concept of a distinct and essential cultural reality started to crystallize during that period in line with the evolution of a more formal and focused provincial arts policy. But it is important to separate the sense of culture as a commodity, as government policy prods it into being, from a much more amorphous, dynamic sense of culture as lived experience tied to history and landscape. The term might have taken up its own official currency since the 1970s, but everyone living here understands that its roots are old, deep and tangled.

Like Quebec, the province has a troubled relationship with its recent federal masters, and comparisons of the two provinces based on notions of distinctiveness, otherness and difference have become commonplace. But a big difference between them is that culture in Newfoundland is informed not just by a powerful sense of history, colonization and the misguided politics of civilization, but also by a profound sense of attachment to weather and landscape. Culture is therefore an effect of both the built and the natural worlds. Failure to understand this interplay of vexed history and harsh beauty can be fatal, especially for the naive outsider.

That is why the tendency to romanticize or exoticize the province, whether in art or tourism ads, is often regarded with deep suspicion. You can taste this sort of resistance in a novel like Ed Riche’s Rare Birds, which draws comically on the rhetoric of cultural tourism to expose its fallacies and underscore the differences between islanders and outsiders, and between the real and the romantic experience of place. It is no small irony that the feature film adaptation of the novel starred William Hurt in the central role of the hapless rural restaurateur, Dave. Conspicuously from away—from New York or Hollywood, in fact—Hurt brought an added irony to the tale of a man who is out of sorts with the world. Conspicuously from here, Andy Jones played Dave’s foil and friend, Phonse, a wacky eccentric with a shed full of tricks. The subtext of the film, much more so than the novel, played on the tension between two very different residents: the one from here comfortable with his own native zaniness, the other from away repressed and hopelessly self-absorbed. Perhaps more than other Newfoundland writer, Riche captures the ambivalence of place while describing a modern culture of resistance to romanticization.

Even more directly about insider- and outsiderness is Michael Winter’s The Big Why, a brilliant piece of historical fiction that imagines the experience of American artist Rockwell Kent, who lived for a short and troubled time in the community of Brigus. Kent had escaped the noise of New York City with his young family in the belief that he was coming to a place of serene tranquility. In 1914, he convinced his wife to join him and put down roots in a place he imagined to be welcoming and magical. He was dead wrong. The Big Why traces the huge abyss that opened up between the peculiar, relatively affluent painter and the rest of the rural community, suspicious of outsiders, uneasy with Kent’s German sympathies, his habit of quoting Goethe and his obvious class difference. In the end, Kent was deported back to the United States upon suspicion of being a German spy, a gesture for which Joey Smallwood publicly apologized almost 50 years later. Winter paints Kent not so much as a victim, however, but in part as an agent in his own near-tragic destiny. The people of Brigus also had their reasons for disliking this strange man who suddenly set up house in their midst, but the point is that the historical novel carefully explores the uneasy dynamic of the relationship between native and outsider in ways that point to a long history of such tension and to ongoing sensitivities to otherness. At public readings, Winter often tends to refer to himself as a non-native, having been born in England, offering a kind of apology in advance, perhaps, for being so interested in the binary of here and there, in and out. Such self-consciousness of identity is doubtless heightened by his having chosen to live a great deal of the year in Toronto, always a dubious move to those with a permanent Newfoundland address.

As The Big Why shrewdly tells it, class difference is a significant marker of here and there, a measure, at least until recently, of the difference between having and not having—or “have” and “have not,” to call on the language of federal equalization policy. Rockwell Kent might have strode into Brigus with good intentions, but by wearing the trappings of his class he was a bright beacon of difference. I don’t worry about this anymore, but for a long time after moving to St. John’s I could smell the suspicion of class privilege. I come from about as conventionally middle class a family as anyone I know in Canada—from Victoria to Bonavista—but arriving as a native Montrealer who had been educated in Ontario, I was labelled pretty quickly as importing class attitude. Many years after I had been paying Newfoundland taxes, Mary Walsh told me in the legendary Ship Inn pub that I had become “a lot nicer” than she had initially remembered me, but I always took that to be not so much a sign of my having had a personality change as an indication of my being, as we say, dug in. Here it’s a lack of familiarity that breeds contempt.

You can see a profound mistrust of class privilege in the savage humour that Mary, Andy Jones, Cathy Jones, Greg Malone and Rick Mercer, especially in his pre-CBC star status days, created and nurtured on stage and eventually on television and film. You can hear it in every pub and at every poetry reading. You can even hear it mocked by those who possess the most privilege of all, such as current lieutenant governor (the Queen’s representative, for goodness sake!) and sometime stand-up comic John Crosbie. It is a sign of solidarity with a history of bad governments and bad choices, with a shared familiarity of the abuses and misuses of power. It matters not that so many Newfoundland writers and performers now claim earnings far beyond average Canadian wages, or live more comfortably than most members of the middle class. They can do so because they have held on to their tribal identification with place and its history, incapable of doing otherwise, regardless of their successes or perhaps in spite of it. A healthy ongoing suspicion of Canada, vaguely understood as white Anglo-Saxon culture and embodied in most of the figures who have ever governed in Ottawa, is surely the strongest marker of Newfoundland culture in its current manifestation. It is hard to imagine this will ever change, regardless of how many Wal-Marts or Gaps pop up in the strip malls, or how much the city of St. John’s is starting to resemble the globalized urbanscape.

I have often said that in leaving Quebec in the early 1970s I was escaping tribal culture, deliberately in search of newness and a place in Canada that was not burdened by an exclusive sense of history. That I ended up being embraced by another tribal culture, one mired in sorting out its own histories of place, speaks, I suppose, to the appeal of the familiar and to living out one’s destiny.