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Oh, say can you see…Canada? Yankee Doodle went to…Ottawa? Why Canadians are not American, eh?

July 14, 2011

Esi Edugyan

An essay in the Guardian naming the 10 best books about Americans in Europe includes three titles by Canadian authors, which leaves me all but speechless in outraged puzzlement: When did Canadians become American?

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Before you launch into a geography lesson, allow me to explain. The Guardian piece, by Canadian novelist, Esi Edugyan, is certainly defensible as regards literary quality. Mordecai Richler, whose Barney’s Version she lists at No. 1, is a superb comic novelist, and, on the basis of an interview I did with him late in his career, a Canadian patriot.

Mavis Gallant deserves her reputation as one of the great modern short-story writers, so no qualms about Edugyan placing her Collected Stories at No. 1o. I don’t know John Glassco, but I’m willing to grant his Memoirs at Montparnasse its position at No. 8, if only because her other selections are so astute.

Edugyan includes books by Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and, of course, Henry James, who could have easily filled out all 10 slots, as this prolific novelist wrote about almost nothing but Americans in Europe.

Really, though, when did Canada become part of America? Edugyan’s strongest and most obvious retort would be the geographic one: Canada and the United States share the New World (that’s a term prominent in her essay — these are “New World” writers engaging the “Old World),  so why should U.S. citizens have exclusive claim on “American?”

But it’s an arbitrary and confusing argument, a candle that gutters out at the first puff of breath. For one thing, the term “American” is a colloquial designation for the United States, it’s government, culture and citizens the world over. We didn’t pick, it was chosen for us.

When our women are kicking butt at the World Cup, what do we chant? “America! America! America!” No, it’s: “USA! USA! USA!”?

Besides, if Erdugyan wants to stake out the geographical position, and I’m assuming she would, she would also no doubt accuse me of American chauvinism. That is, an unwillingness to share the term “American” when Canada is so clearly a part of the American land mass.

Ha! Where, then, my dear Ms. Erdugyan, are your Mexican, Columbian, Brazilian, Argentine or Peruvian selections? Have no Latin Americans written good novels about visiting or living in Europe? Is Central and South America not part of the New World? Does its citizens have any less claim on the word “American” than does Canada?

Finally, and this is the most surprising implication of Erdugyan’s piece: By mingling Canadian and American writers (sorry — I can’t help myself, a lifetime habit don’t you know), she essentially is throwing in the towel on the notion of a separate and distinct Canadian culture.

It’s all one — U.S. and Canada — she seems to say. And here I was under the impression that Canada and Canadians, overshadowed as they are by the powerhouse American entertainment industry, were fiercely defensive of their own culture. Guess not.

I suppose now they’ll disband the Giller Prize (literature), the Juno Awards (music), the Genie Awards (movies) and the Gemini Awards (television). What? Why not — we’re all Americans here, aren’t we? Let them compete with Hollywood, Nashville and New York.

Stepping off my soap box for a moment –even though it’s so bracing up there! — let me say that while I endorse Edugyan’s list, I would like to expand on it with a few picks of my own:

First, I’d suggest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in place of A Moveable Feast, although either is excellent. And where oh where is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, much of which is set in Europe? So it’s not the perfect little gem that The Great Gatsby is, but it’s far more ambitious, and the good parts are unsurpassed.

And while I think Henry Miller is vastly overrated, how can any such list leave off Tropic of Cancer, his semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of being down and out and horny in Depression-era Paris?

Others: The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis; The Talented Mr. Ripley (and many other novels) by Patricia Highsmith; Prague, by Arthur Phillips; Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick; Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Pillars of Hercules, by Paul Theroux; My Life in France, by Julia Child.

Do you have a favorite American book with a European setting? If so, please share.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2011 6:25 pm

    The border line is a fake. Always has been. We are really North America first. Ask any one. where is Canada? North America. Where is USA? North America. Where is Mexico? Twenty miles to “South of the Border.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 15, 2011 12:29 am

      But the official name of our country is the United States of America. The official name of Mexico is the United Mexican States. The official name of Canada is, rather elegantly, Canada. We are the only one with the word “America” in our official name. That makes us Americans, in a way our neighbors cannot be. I have lots of other arguments on this question, too.

      Such as: If Canadians are essentially Americans, then why are Canadians able to travel internationally with less care than we do? Why do Americans paste Canadian stickers on their luggage? Why does everyone my daughter is meeting in Australia this summer ask if she’s American? And I assure you, by that they mean are you a citizen of the United States, not are you from North America…

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