Although Canadian writing began as an imitative colonial literature, it has steadily developed its own national characteristics. Because of the huge immigrations, first of New England Puritans from 1760 on and later of American Loyalists during the Revolution, Canadian literature followed U.S. models almost until the confederation in 1867. Before 1800 the rigors of pioneering left little time for the writing or the appreciation of literature. The only notable works were journals, such as that of Jacob Bailey, and the recorded travels of explorers, such as Henry Kelsey, Samuel Hearne, and Sir Alexander Mackenzie.
The first Canadian novelist of note was John Richardson, whose Wacousta (1832) popularized the genre of the national historical novel. With The Clockmaker (1836) T. C. Haliburton began his humorous series on Sam Slick, the Yankee peddler. Historical novelists writing c.1900 included William Kirby, author of The Golden Dog (1877), and Sir Gilbert Parker, author of The Seats of the Mighty (1896). The novels of Sara Jeannette Duncan, such as A Social Departure (1890), were noted for their satire and humor. The Rev. C. W. Gordon (Ralph Connor) produced Black Rock (1898), a series of novels on pioneer life in W Canada. Animal stories became popular in the works of Ernest Thompson Seton, Sir C. G. D. Roberts, and Margaret Marshall Saunders.
Since 1900, Canadian novels have tended toward stricter realism, but have remained predominantly regional, and many writers have been women. Among the most prominent authors have been Lucy M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables (1908); Mazo de la Roche, well known for her series on the Whiteoaks family of Jalna; Frederick P. Grove, author of Settlers of the Marsh (1925), a novel of farm life; and Laura Salverson and Nellie McClung, novelists of immigrant and rural life in W Canada.
Margaret Atwood is probably the best-known modern Canadian author. Other important novelists during and after World War II include Morley Callaghan, Gwethalyn Graham, John Buell, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, Malcolm Lowry, Ethel Wilson, Robertson Davies, Brian Moore, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findlay, Neil Bissoondath, and M. G. Vassanji. Many of their novels have focused attention on Canadian city life, social problems, and the large problem of Canadian cultural division.
The essayist Northrop Frye is noted for his systematic classification of literature, presented in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Stephen Leacock is well known for his humorous essays as well as for his scholarship. Other notable essayists include Sir Andrew Macphail, Archibald MacMechan, and Lorne Pierce.
Genuinely Canadian poetry was late in developing. In the 18th cent. Puritan hymnists, such as Henry Alline, and refugee Tory satirists, such as Jonathan Odell, took their models from American colonial or English neoclassical literature. Before the confederation of 1867 the only poets of note were Charles Sangster, the first to make use of native material, and Charles Heavysege, whose long poetic drama Saul brought him widespread acclaim.
Starting c.1880, the "confederation school"—C. G. D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, and Duncan Campbell Scott—began producing a large body of romantic poetry, describing nature and Canadian rural life. In 1905, long after her death in 1887, Isabella V. Crawford was recognized as an important poet; she was followed by Emily Pauline Johnson and Marjorie Pickthall. Other poets of the early part of the century included Wilfred Campbell, W. H. Drummond, Francis Sherman, John McCrae, and the greatly popular Robert W. Service.
In 1926 the prolific E. J. Pratt broke away from the romantic tradition with The Titans; his highly original and powerful epics place him among the foremost Canadian poets. Notable contemporary poets in the Pratt tradition include Kenneth Leslie, Earle Birney, W. W. E. Ross, Dorothy Livesay, and Anne Marriott. Other poets sharing the modern cosmopolitan tradition of the United States and W Europe are F. R. Scott, L. A. Mackay, A. M. Klein, P. K. Page, Irving Layton, Raymond Souster, James Reaney, Margaret Avison, Phyllis Webb, Leonard Cohen, and Margaret Atwood.
See bibliography by R. E. Watters (2d ed. 1972); R. P. Baker, A History of English Canadian Literature to the Confederation (1920, repr. 1968); C. F. Klinck, ed., A Literary History of Canada (1965); A. J. M. Smith, ed., Modern Canadian Verse in English and French (1967); M. Atwood, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972); G. Woodcock, The World of Canadian Writing (1980); W. Toye, ed., The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983); D. Bennett, Canadian Literary Criticism (1989).