The term “Acadian literature” is associated with literary works created by francophones in the Maritimes. This term and others (“Franco-Ontarian,” “Franco-Manitoban,” etc.) came into use as Québécois literature came to be recognized during the 1960s.
In the 1960s, Acadia experienced a cultural awakening and significant sociopolitical changes that were in some ways comparable to the Quiet Revolution in Québec. After the Official Languages Act was passed, Acadian literature became established through specific literary products and institutions (magazines, publishing houses and, later, literary awards) and through the use of those creative works to generate a critical discourse on the literature.
The institutionalization of Acadian literature was associated with the shift from so-called “traditional” to more “modern” works — a shift that has been recognized by literary critics. The emergence of modern literature was paralleled by the publication of various anthologies and also by Marguerite Maillet’s history of Acadian literature. As Maillet shows, the works concerned were not always literary in the strict sense of the word. The following review of Acadian literature covers the period from the early days of the French colony in Acadia to the 1980s.
From Dream to Reality (1606–1866)
Strategically located for trade, Acadia was long coveted by both France and England. Even though Acadia had only distant ties with the culture and institutions of New France, it was in Acadia that Marc Lescarbot wrote North America’s first French literary works: Les Muses de la Nouvelle France and Théâtre de Neptune in 1606 and Histoire de la Nouvelle France in 1609.
Later, visitors such as Pierre Biard, Chrestien Leclercq, Nicolas Denys, Dièreville, Pierre Maillard and Joseph-Mathurin Bourg wrote documents describing Acadia’s geography and its settlements as well as its flora and fauna. In addition to these documents, which in many cases were travel accounts, there were letters by settlers, missionaries and clergymen. The letters of Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier are a notable example: he paid a visit to the community and described its religious and economic conditions.
Acadia’s troubled colonial history (marked by wars and the 1755 deportation of its people), the slow growth of its population, and the constant threats to its future explain why the Acadians did not produce works of the calibre of those written by Louis Jolliet, Marie Morin, and Pierre Boucher in New France. Information about the period after the deportation of the Acadians comes mostly from correspondence.
Alongside these texts, which form part of what is called “les lettres acadiennes” (the Acadian letters), existed a flourishing oral history preserved in tales, legends and songs (see Acadian Folklore Studies). Toward the end of the period, the deportation of the Acadians became the subject of a poem and a story of great significance in the Acadian imagination — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” (1847) and Napoleon Bourassa’s novel Jacques et Marie (1865–66), respectively. In addition, François-Edme Rameau de Saint-Père’s book La France aux colonies (1859) covered the history of the Acadians during the period following the deportation and continued to be a reference work of some importance in the 20th century.
Retracing the Past (1867–1928)
In this period, Acadian thought and literature were dominated by the nationalist debate, which found expression in sermons, discussion groups, and French-language newspapers. This debate was rooted in the works of Rameau de Saint-Père and encouraged by clergy from Québec, who adopted his theories. Seeking to embrace politics, the economy and sociographic research, the debate was the focal point of cultural activity, fostering recovery from the trauma of the deportation and redefining the character of the Acadian community.
The growing interest in the history of Acadia gave birth to the “Acadian Renaissance,” the beginnings of which were marked by the establishment of the first Acadian newspaper, Le Moniteur Acadien, in 1867. This was one of a number of landmark events. In 1864, for example, Father Camille Lefebvre, member of the congregation of the Fathers of Sainte-Croix, had founded the Collège Saint-Joseph in Memramcook in New Brunswick. The establishment of this institution was significant because the graduates quickly began to play active roles in the Acadian community and, with the help of the clergy, started questioning their own identity and asserting their aspirations as francophones in an anglophone environment.
These developments were part of a movement that affirmed a national ideology and spread throughout society, as the first Acadian national convention in 1881 demonstrated. Newspapers such as Le Moniteur Acadian, L’Evangéline and L’Impartial played a major role in this movement, and writers were invited to publish their literary works in them.
Speeches by the orators and ideologues of the period are worthy of study too. One individual — Pascal Poirier — stands out as an intellectual. His lectures and essays on history and linguistics (Origine des Acadiens, 1874; Le parler franco-acadien et ses origines, 1929) continued to be read in the 20th century.
Finally, this period marked the first attempt to collect Acadian accounts, tales, legends, as well as various myths that were spread or deconstructed through literary discourse in later works.
Moving Beyond the Nationalist Debate (1929–1957)
The rediscovery of their history played a significant role for Acadians and extended rapidly to include anecdotal history, biographies, genealogies, parish monographs, and those of individual settlements. Traditional literary genres that often reflected the nationalist theme began to appear. Among them were F. Moïse Lanteigne’s and Napoléon-P. Landry’s poetry, stories by Antoine-J. Léger, Hector Carbonneau and J.-Alphonse Deveau, and Alexandre Braud’s and Jean-Baptiste Jégo’s theatre. Braud’s and Jégo’s work focused on the periodic struggles for the freedom to be educated in French. This theme was also at the heart of James Branch’s social dramas with their explicit references to Acadians (L'Émigrant acadien, 1929).
The mid-20th century heralded a reassessment of the nationalist debate, and a number of crises led to significant socio-political and cultural change. Authors turned to other subjects: for example, Donat Coste, an Acadian living in Montréal, wrote L’Enfant noir (1957) to denounce modern society’s hypocrisy. It was the dawn of a transition period for Acadian literature, and with it came the first publications of Antonine Maillet. Her first novel, Pointe-aux-Coques (1958), dealt with life in a small Acadian village. Ronald Després, musician, poet and translator, who also lived outside New Brunswick, published his first collection, Silences à nourrir de sang (also 1958). He went on to publish many poems and a novel, Le Scalpel interrompu (1962), which presented a tragicomic vision of the modern world. As Acadia lacked a publishing industry, these works were first published in Québec.
Crises and Redefinition of Identity (1958–1980)
By achieving resounding success with La Sagouine in 1971 and winning the Prix Goncourt (a French literary award) for Pélagie-la-Charrette in 1979, Antoine Maillet became a leading Acadian writer. Ronald Després’ work sparked interest in Québec, but the creative turning point was engineered by the younger generation.
In 1966, the Rassemblement des Jeunes (association of young people) called into question the core components of the nationalist debate, its emblems, symbols, and historical viewpoint — in short, the traditional picture of the Acadian. The time was ripe because the Liberal government of Louis J. Robichaud (Acadian premier of New Brunswick, 1960–70) had succeeded in implementing the Program of Equal Opportunity and the provincial Official Languages Act at the same time that the Quiet Revolution in Québec and the scale and scope of the radical movements of the time were serving as both models and driving forces for change.
Overall, the 1960s were marked by a number of significant events for Acadians and by a social renewal that helped to create a new artistic sensibility. This situation was the result of a period of widespread crisis affecting the elite, those in power, and the traditional nationalist ideology of Acadia. The student strikes at the Université de Moncton and their legal and social consequences were significant because the demonstrations extended beyond the bounds of the university to society as a whole. The demonstrators’ demands, especially those with respect to language rights, helped redefine the issue of identity in Acadia and formed the basis for a “new nationalism.” Cultural works conveyed these developments to a wider audience in their own unique way. In the wake of the “Nuit de la poésie” — a gathering in Québec City on 27 March 1970 at which poetry was actively created — other “poetry nights” were organized, and the poems read were the products of research and collation work by Université de Moncton students.
It was in this context that an activist style of poetry first appeared, conveying primarily a search for identity and rebellion against traditional Acadian values. It became a way for the younger generation, using poetry, to speak out about identity and, more broadly speaking, politics. The desire to create a country is embodied in texts by Raymond LeBlanc (Cri de terre, 1972), while a sad and violent denunciation of an Acadia where the collective vision remains uncertain characterizes the work of Herménégilde Chiasson (Mourir à Scoudouc, 1974).
These authors’ poems are also a search for the everyday and for a language of writing, but they never stray far from politics. For example, in Acadie Rock (1973), Guy Arsenault uses a studied naiveté for an in-depth exploration of the ways in which Acadia continues to be devalued. Choosing a broader theme, Ulysse Landry denounces the invasion of personal life and its devaluation by so many aspects of modern society. The work of these poets, published between 1973 and 1976, combines the use of everyday language with writing that moves away from the literary canon.
Essays by Michel Roy, in L’Acadie perdue (1978), and Jean-Paul Hautecoeur, in L’Acadie du discours (1975), provide a very different perspective on Acadia. These works are a historical essay and a sociological essay, respectively, and literary creation is not the main purpose. Nonetheless, these texts illustrate the critical questioning about Acadia that took place at that time and that, although expressed differently, is also present in literary works.
Literary output grew during this period because publishing houses were now publishing Acadian literature and the literature itself had become institutionalized. In 1972, Melvin Gallant, Gérard LeBlanc and Laurent Savoie, three professors in the French studies department of the Université de Moncton, founded the Éditions d’Acadie, a publishing house that would make a significant contribution to the creation of Acadian literature. By the time it closed in 2000, it had published more than 400 works by 200 authors.
Many anthologies were now being produced, and courses on Acadian literature at the Université de Moncton gave greater exposure to a number of Acadian authors. Teaching at the university was coupled with research and the establishment of a school of literary criticism that focused on the characteristics of this marginalized literature and drew parallels between Acadian literature and other francophone literature in Canada (see Literature in French).
Diversification of Writing Practices (1980 to present)
Even though it was fragile, this institutional support enabled many authors to publish during the 1970s and later. Trends diversified and, while certain themes remained important, poetry continued to experiment and evolve in format and theme. Roméo Savoie moved into philosophy, while Gérald LeBlanc injected a new cosmopolitan strain of writing into Acadian literature. Léonard Forest shared the same desire to reach other cultures through his poetry, creating a special kind of musicality by using archaic words and constraining ritualistic rhythms. Others, such as Huguette Legaré, Clarence Comeau, Daniel Dugas, Huguette Bourgeois, Robert Pichette and Melvin Gallant, explored a broad range of feelings and emotions. The Acadian novel was dominated by the works of Antonine Maillet, whose boundless energy combined the epic with everyday events and harnessed all the resources of the oral tradition of popular legend and storytelling.
Acadian writers have taken an interest in history as well. For example, Louis Haché used his knowledge of archival sources to retrace the history of Acadian life in northeastern New Brunswick, and Régis Brun adopted a historical perspective, focusing on the Acadian population’s thirst for freedom and its joie de vivre. Claude Lebouthillier rewrote the history of Acadia in his works, sometimes evoking a restored utopian homeland of Acadians. Jeannine Landry Thériault and Laurier Melanson described village life, often in a satirical way, with its personal dramas, bawdiness, hopes, and disillusionment. The body of work is, therefore, quite mixed.
In the wake of the female poets of the 1980s (Hélène Harbec, Rose Després and Dyane Léger), poetry moved, according to Raoul Boudreau, in a “radically different direction, perhaps revealing as well as suppressing its obsession — an escape into fantasy and dreams, the denunciation and deconstruction of jingoistic thinking, and the reclaiming of individual destinies where writing takes priority and cannot serve causes other than itself.”
The writing of another major literary figure, Serge Patrice Thibodeau (La septième chute, 1990; Le cycle de Prague, 1992; Le quatuor de l'errance, 1995), reflects both a spiritually charged quest for another world and a firm intention to move away from conventional Acadian themes. In 2007, while still working as a writer, Thibodeau once again took up the reins as director of the Éditions Perce-Neige publishing house in Moncton. Also worthy of mention are the works of Fredric Gary Comeau (Stratagèmes de mon impatience, 1991; Naufrages, 2005), Mario Thériault (Echographie du Nord, 1992; Terre sur mer, 1998), Marc Arseneau (Avec l'idée de l'écho, 2003; À l'Antenne des oracles, 1992), and Maurice Raymond (Implorable désert, 1988; la Soif des ombres, 1994).
A review of the literature highlights the fact that the creative paths followed by Herménégilde Chiasson and Gérald LeBlanc were equally influential, even though their tone and style were quite different. In addition to exploring poetry, the theatre, visual arts and film, Chiasson wrote short texts that could be considered as essays developing interesting, original ideas on literary creation in an Acadian context.
Poetry continues to dominate Acadian literature, but the literary output also includes novels written in a variety of very different styles. Brought to the big screen, Les Portes tournantes (1984) is one of the most significant productions of its genre and stands alongside a number of other novels by Jacques Savoie (also known for his body of work in film). France Daigle’s work cannot be overlooked. The way she has renewed her writing and maintained a coherent approach to it can be seen from novel to novel, from Sans jamais parler du vent (1983) right through to Pour sûr (2011). Questions relating to the languages of writing and particularly the use of English or Chiac (a variety of Acadian French heavily mixed with English), or indeed any standardized language, cut across contemporary literary creation and show its intrinsic diversity. This is reflected particularly in the growth of children’s literature in French, and the Bouton d’or Acadie publishing house, founded by Marguerite Maillet, has played a key organizing role for this genre. In addition to his work as a critic, editor and writer, Melvin Gallant has contributed to the rise of this unique branch of literature, especially with the publication of Ti-Jean (1973).
This review of Acadian literature has highlighted its historical development, the changes in theme, form and creative genre, and its progression on an institutional level. That being said, the main purpose of the review is to encourage readers to discover, through all its successes and failures, the history, the unique imagination, and the specific context lying at the heart of Acadian literature. Even though the Éditions Acadie publishing house closed down in 2002, this remarkable journey is far from over: new authors are throwing themselves into writing, exploiting the potential offered by the Acadian culture and environment, and finding new opportunities outside Acadia, particularly in francophone Ontario.