'The Old Kinship of Earth': Science, Man, and Nature in the Animal Stories of Charles G. D. Roberts

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Editors: Jessica Bomarito and Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 2006
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 91)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,892 words

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[(essay date spring 1987) In the following essay, Dunlap considers the role of science in Roberts's animal stories, arguing that their "ideology . . . owed as much to nineteenth-century biology, particularly to Darwinian evolution, as it did to Romanticism or the Canadian wilderness."]

Since the 1890s, when Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G. D. Roberts developed the genre, "realistic" animal stories have been popular with the public and ignored by the critics. This has certainly been the case with Charles G. D. Roberts, who wrote about two hundred animal stories over a period of thirty years, but is remembered, if at all, as one of the Confederation poets. His prose, critics thought, was just work he did for money. In 1965 Joseph Gold rejected this view, arguing that Roberts's animal stories were not potboilers but the "only sustained attempt" ever made to create a "coherent view of the world which man inhabits" using the material of the Canadian wilderness. They showed an articulated ideology and mastery of technique which should, Gold said, place Roberts in the front rank of Canadian literature.1

Later critics, if they have not fully shared Gold's views, have at least seen the stories as an important reflection of Canada and late Victorian culture. W. J. Keith and Margaret Atwood pointed out that Canadians invented and have dominated the field, and Atwood believed that the genre was the "key to an important facet of the Canadian psyche."2 James Polk saw the stories as an attempt to mediate between man and nature; Robert MacDonald viewed them as part of a popular revolt against Darwinian determinism; and John Wadland found in the fiction of one of the preeminent animal story writers, Ernest Thompson Seton, a critique of modern North American civilization.3

Contemporaries, and the authors themselves, would have agreed that the stories were more than popular literature. The "nature-faking" controversy that Burroughs set off in 1903 attracted the attention of the serious part of the popular press, of scientists, and of many educated North Americans, all arguing about "correct" natural history and its use in building in the young a "healthy" interest in the outdoors.4 Roberts believed that the "animal story, as we now have it is a potent emancipator. ... It helps us to return to nature, without requiring that we at the same time return to barbarism. It leads us back to the old kinship of earth, without asking us to relinquish by way of toll any part of the wisdom of the ages, any fine essential of the 'large result of time.'" Our life in nature, "far behind though it lies in the long upward march of being," is nevertheless a touchstone, a life to which we can and must return for refreshment and even wisdom, and the animal story will be our guide.5

Modern critical work has, while recognizing the importance of the animal story, neglected or distorted a vital element--the science that made the stories plausible as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420072459