Critical Response


Sarah Binks

In the University of Toronto Quarterly every winter a "Letters in Canada" feature is published outlining an overview of Canadian publications for that year. Claude T. Bissell writes in the fiction section in 1947:

Of the novels that appeared during 1947, five, it seems to me, are worthy of special consideration: two—Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell and In Due Season by Christine van der Mark—achieve a high degree of excellence; three—Music at the Close by Edward A. McCourt, The Sealed Verdict by Lionel Shapiro, and Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson—are pleasant departures from the mediocre. (265)

Nowhere is Paul Hiebert's 1947 book Sarah Binks listed, even though it won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour the following year.

This mixed reaction proliferates among the literary surveys or broad national Canadian Literature works of criticism over the years, where Sarah Binks is often either overlooked (Atwood, Davidson, Howells, Jones, Matthews, Nischik, Ross, Stouck, Woodcock, even in more regionally Western surveys (McCourt, Ricou), or praised but with only a brief mention (Klinck, New, Pacey). Hiebert is listed in Lecker's book Making it Real: the Canonization of English-Canadian Literature, but only in a spread- sheet in an appendix to indicate his low inclusion rate in anthologies. Dick Harrison, in his Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction says "Hiebert's work [Sarah Binks] is a highlight of prairie humour" (167). W.J. Keith is one of few to say anything substantial about Sarah Binks when he writes "perhaps the one book that most obviously and brilliantly continues the Leacock tradition of humour and parody is Paul Hiebert's Sarah Binks" (204).

But that is not to say that Sarah Binks is not considered a classic. Indeed, it is still read and it still inspires criticism, however less frequently than more "major" Canadian authors; thanks to its inclusion in the New Canadian Library in 1964, it has become a staple of Canadian Literature around the country. Janet Friskney informs us, however, that of all the McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library authors who have sold at least 2,000 copies annually, "only Paul Hiebert engendered little criticism in any form" (165).

An early short article "A Haunting Echo" by C.C.J. Bond from Canadian Literature (1963) compares Sarah to Emily Dickinson, acknowledging both a comparison in their lives and in their works. Bond finds chiefly linguistic comparisons between the two poetesses, observing in their poetry the use of "thought-rhymes," "general terms in a particular sense," (83) and "the poet's privilege of finding new uses for old words or coining new ones" (84). Bond also notes both poets's "imagery was intimately bound up with [their] own environment[s]" (84) and suggests Binks's Me and My Love and Me is "directly descended from Emily's piece on the dichotomous personality" (84). Lastly he suggests that "some energetic scholar" should "make a thorough examination of the matter that I have adumbrated here" (84), though to my knowledge no one has.

Hiebert acknowledges Bond's comparison in his conversation with Reynold Siemans saying "I think if you're a reader like myself you come across things like that" (68) but ultimately suggesting "I can't say that I have any antecedents" (69).

Another critic, Carole Gerson, finds a link between Sarah Binks and another woman, this time the popular Canadian poet Edna Jaques. In "Sarah Binks and Edna Jaques: Parody, Gender, and the Construction of Literary Value" Gerson finds Jaques to be "the real woman whose verse Sarah's approximates" (62), but in this equation it is Jaques who is the marginal and Binks who is the canonical poet, furthering Canada's schizophrenic view of Hiebert's masterwork as somewhere between canonical art and period parody. It is Gerson's view that Sarah Binks is canonical and that Edna Jaques is not because "the literary establishment has extended greater hospitality to the parody than to the reality" (67). Gerson's feminist (or anti-establishment) paradigm points to Hiebert's position that his parodic poems are funnier coming from a female poet rather than his originally envisioned male one (Siemans 66). She writes "the men are funny because of their misguided professional zeal, but the women are funny because they are constructed according to the stereotype of the frustrated spinster" (65). The canonicity of Sarah Binks stems from a sort of "old boys club" of Canadian literature, as she concludes by saying

contextualizing a parodic figure like Sarah Binks within the shifting grid of literary value shaped by the changing reputations of real, albeit very different, popular writers like Edna Jaques and W.H. Drummond allows to see in operation some of the biases of class, gender, and ethnicity that have been unquestionably accepted by the profession that constructed literary value, and in many instances still prevail. (70)

Keeping with the comparison between Jaques and Binks, Candida Rifkind's more recent article "Too Close to Home: Middlebrow Anti-Modernism and the Sentimental Poetry of Edna Jaques" is mostly about the real popular poet, but she too finds similarities between Jaques and the fictional Binks. Rifkind writes

While Binks retains currency as a stereotype, Jaques has receded from cultural memory. In this displacement of poet by parody lie a series of gendered, regional, and ideological assumptions about poetic value and literary authority at work since the modernist period of Canada. (96)

Most of her article is about Jaques, but the salient point regarding Sarah Binks is the assertion that the modernist period of Canada created the "ground of an aesthetic, but also political and economic, battle over the gendered politics of artistic production and consumption" and for that reason the very real Jaques has faded from view but Sarah Binks remains funny because she is a stereotype beleaguered by the Academy. This reaffirms the power structure by opposing it with a comical character at whom a reader can but laugh; as Hiebert says he thought the poems "a bit more fascinating" when written by a "girl" (Siemans 66), yet through Gerson's lens his reasons for such an assertion remain for some rather suspect.

Gerald Noonan dissects Canadian humour in his essay "The Canadian Duality and the Colonization of Humour," where his general thesis contends that "Canada has become the place where British tradition meets contemporary American culture" so that Canada has "cultural schizophrenia" (912), which leads to a duality in our culture. Noonan suggests it is this duality that makes our humour funny and uniquely our own: "duality compressed to brevity is the soul of humour, duality being central to the pun, to irony, to ambiguity, to incongruity, and to an unlabelled number of other juxtapositions of tangential stances" (913). Noonan spends much of the article discussing what many critics believe a direct influence on Binks, Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town; Noonan also specifically references Sarah Binks near the end of his article and suggests it is "a timely development of a growing Canadian ambivalence and disenchantment about the rural life [in the 1940s]" (918). He then says the humour comes from the triggering of

the reader's rueful awareness that our ostensible desire to get back to the land, to a world of innocent perfection, is hemmed in by so many incongruous improbabilities that even the momentary self-delusion is laughable. (918)

Here he cites his own article "Incongruity and Nostalgia in Sarah Binks." In that article he also finds Sunshine Sketches similar to Sarah Binks in its humour, specifically the "incongruity or discrepancy between what is real and what is perceived or fancied" (n.p.). For Binks Noonan argues that there is a "concept of incongruity" that is "sustained at all levels" (n.p.) between high and low art/culture (or poesy and trivia), between subjects in Sarah's poetry, Sarah and other poets (like Stead and his poem "The Prairie"), Sarah and the "Author," the "Author" and Hiebert, and Hiebert and the reader. This dichotomization combined with a nostalgic mode and because "we [the readers] ourselves have briefly shared Sarah's naiveté" (n.p.) give Hiebert's novel its comedic power. The incongruity between the pastoral idyll and reality provides humour, but any potential mean-spiritedness is tempered by nostalgia.

Another critic who looks at the jocularity of Binks is Elizabeth Porter in her 1982 article "Sarah Binks: Another Look at Saskatchewan's Sweet Songstress." She suggests that the book "is not just a playful parody of literary form or a spoof on literary criticism and on critics who take themselves too seriously ... it also serves as a window on this early period of the Canadian prairies" (96); Binks is not merely parody but also realist prairie fiction like W.O. Mitchell and Sinclair Ross, two of Hiebert's contemporaries. In fact, Porter suggests that Binks

represents a rejection of the romantic image of prairie homesteading presented by turn-of-the-century writers such as Robert Stead. (In this it could be regarded as consistent with the fiction of Ross and Grove, though Hiebert's vision has not the sombre quality of theirs). (96)

In Porter's estimation, Hiebert's self-affirmed "real prairie stuff" (quoted on 100) make Binks more than just satiric comedy because "like Leacock, Hiebert "loves what he hates" [Porter is quoting Ross's introduction to the NCL edition of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town] and has the maturity of mind to accommodate the paradox, recognizing in it the healthy tension in which truth often resides." It is easy to be funny, but it is very hard to be funny and poignant, to have a mixture of comedy and sadness that combines, as Leacock's masterful Sunshine Sketches does, to create a fundamentally complex view of small town life. It is neither mocking nor idealised, but "real prairie stuff." Porter goes on to point out some of the targets of Binks as "pragmatic artistic standards" (103) when it comes to the Wheat Pool Medal and "small town gossip" (104) as well as regionalism and education. Porter's summation is that "it is Hiebert's deep respect for the farmer and his love for the prairies that earn him the privilege of jesting about the prairie-dwellers and their lot" (106) and it also makes his masterpiece more than simply a book of humour, but "a small comic gem" (Ferguson).

This comic gem is called by Louis K. MacKendrick

a touchstone in Canadian letters for other exercises in the genre, a model of literary burlesque that reflects the essential generosity, geniality, and wry self-examination of the national humour. (180)

MacKendrick calls the book a "burlesque of literary biography and satire of literary critics and criticism" (180) and as well as Noonan finds the comedy sustained by "the disparity betwen such events and the tonal seriousness with which the biographer treats them" (181). MacKendrick uses the wonderful phrase "momentum of banality" which he calls exquisite (182) to describe the tone of Hiebert's Sarah Binks and the "sense of authorial understatement" (182) as one of the key sources of humour, but recognizes that Hiebert "relied for humorous effect on numerous stereotypes of region, gender, and ethnicity - perhaps ... [this] explains why the book has not enjoyed uniform appeal" (181). The satirist is also only an arms length away from his own pen, and that mighty sword can cut both ways, somtimes perhaps alienating what it subjects to its powerful strokes.

This leads us to ask a central question of Sarah Binks: "of what is Sarah Binks a parody?"

Depending on a reader's humour, there are many potential targets:
1) Saskatchewan and the prairie-dweller. Many critics believe Sarah Binks makes fun (though it is gentle fun) of the rustic Saskatchewan prairie, whereas others distinctly deny it. Siemens writes "to really appreciate Sarah you have to know something of that background, you have to know something about country fairs" (74), yet it by no means necessarily mocks the prairie province by having a comic character come from it
2) Edna Jaques. Gerson and Rifkind both point toward Sarah mocking the Saskatchewan-born popular sentimentalist poet Edna Jaques, though Hiebert denied it. Some think it more broadly about popular poets in Canada, but Hiebert claims the only direct parody is that of "Hiawatha" by Longfellow.
3) The Academy. Hieberts mockery of the Academy is inescapable and inassailable in its completeness. Earle Birney called it "required reading for all English professors, reviewers and members of the Canadian Authors' Association." Critics comment on Sarah Binks with such claims as "Binks's enduring popularity in the Canadian academy is part of a larger process in which" (Rifkind 95) - here Rifkind quotes Gerson - "power is maintained by subordinating the other (defined by gender or by language) in humorous writing purporting to represent the other, but penned by a member of the power establishment" (Gerson 66). There is a suggestion here that the Academy is a "white boys club" which is part of the parody. Further still, the satire cuts deeper when Hiebert acknowledges the vain, self-indulgent reading of poor poetry with absolute assuredness to the correctness of meaning.
4) Bad Poetry. Hiebert is lambasting poor, sentimental poetry, such as that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other well-known Victorian poets. The target seems to be sentimentalism and the false grandiose given to just about everything via the "poetic langauge" used in order for poems to live up to historical greats such as Tennyson, Pope, Milton, etc.

MacKendrick summarises and also supplies these additional targets:

provincialism, presumptiveness, sentimentality, academic enthusiasm (too often clouded by local pride), academic method (too often cluttered by attention to minutiae at the espense of common sense), and the "simple" failure to distinguish between "good" and "bad" writing. (181)

Willows Revisited

Willows Revisited is not nearly as discussed as Sarah Binks; Louis K. MacKendrick in the "Paul Hiebert" entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography writes

though the book never won the affectionate following that Sarah Binks did, it nonetheless contains some brilliant parodic sections, including the transcript of the school attempt to devise a new and acceptable national anthem. Many sacred Canadian oxen are gored here, including regionalism, anti-Americanism, and multiculturism. (183)

MacKendrick tempers these remarks by saying "the results are a bit un-even" and "none of these individual characters is as sharply drawn as Sarah, nor is the satire as focused, nor the doggerel as clever" (183), yet the praise remains high for the sequel to Sarah Binks.

Reynold Siemens, who also wrote on Binks, wrote the article "Archetypal Bovanism in Willows Revisited" in 1979. He traces the motif of "the bovine - be it the cow, bull, ox, or calf" (40) and says "we have Hiebert to thank for writing the only book in English in which the bovine figures so prominently" (40). Siemans recounts the poems that are "essentially bovanist" (40), although he interestingly fails to quote "Boy Cow," which is about a bull calf. Irving Layton, another Canadian poet whose collection we have at the University of Saskatchewan, has written a famous poem called "The Bull Calf" (see a MSS of The Bull Calf and Other Poems from our Layton Collection here) where some similar motifs are at work. Both poems in their entirety run:

"Boy Cow" from Willows Revisited

The cow she give no milk to drink,
boy-cow take it all, I tink,
I slepp him six times on de pents,
Every time he jump dat dam fence,
But he got no dam sense;
Last night he jump dat fence some more,
Boy, dat little baster make me sore!
He too big for drink dat cow,
I say to him, what t'ehll you tink you are anyhow,
Don't tink I'm not running here no dam soda fountain,
If you're so dam thirsty why don't you go down to the slough?
What about me - I got to go all the way to the saloon.
And how am I going to pay for it? Yah, Moo!
Moo, yourself you little so-and-so!
Oh well, we all get thirsty, don't I know.
But I'm telling you, don't get here too dam free -
Come on, don't cry - tonight you can sleep wit' me. (133)

Irving Layton's "The Bull Calf"

The thing could barely stand. Yet taken
from his mother and the barn smells
he still impressed with his pride,
with the promise of sovereinty in the way
his head moved to take us in.
The fierce sunlight tugging the maize from the ground
licked at his shapely flanks.
He was too young for all that pride.
I thought of the deposed Richard II.

"No money in bull calves," Freeman had said.
The visiting clergyman rubbed the nostrils
now snuffing pathetically at the windless day.
"A pity," he sighed.
My gaze silpped off his hat toward the empty sky
that circled over the black knot of men,
over us and the calf waiting for the first blow.

Struck,
the bull calf drew in his thin forelegs
as if gathering strength for a mad rush ...
tottered ... raised his darkening eyes to us,
and I saw we were at the far end
of his frightened look, growing smaller and smaller
till we were only the ponderous mallet
that flicked his bleeding ear
and pushed him over on his side, stiffly,
like a block of wood.

Below the hill's crest
the river snuffled on the improvised beach.
We dug a deep pit and threw the dead calf into it.
It made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,
as the warm sides bulged and flattened.
Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,
one foreleg over the other,
bereft of pride and so beautiful now,
without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,
I turned away and wept. (9-10)

"The cow she gave no milk to drink" is the first line of Hiebert's "Boy Cow," which point to Layton's ""No money in bull calves," Freeman had said." These lines both illuminate farmers' hardships where no absolutely non-essential things can exist: a utilitarian state, though Hiebert's poem pastoralises it, and Layton's exposes the realistic horrors of the conditions.

In "Boy Cow" the cow is invited into the poet's bed, suggesting a conection of love between the farmer and its animals (bordering on the tawdry) but for Layton the Bull Calf lays "as if asleep" and retains a connection - this time in death - to the calf as he turns away and weeps.

The last similarity I will mention here (though it behooves [!] one to look more closely at these poems) is the ironic overstatement of the calf. For Layton it is Richard II and for Hiebert it is the biographer who supplies false grandeur such as when he writes "How universal is the poetic spirit! It knows neither time nor distance, but leaps across the centuries and continents" (133) like the boy cow, valiantly leaping across fences like an equestrian horse. Here are the biographer's own words concerning the poem:

The cow, that leitmotif of so much Saskatchewan poetry, is in Potatok's case the symbol of economic freedom, since from her he generally gets milk. But the little bull-calf, which the cow evidently begat, is something else again. It is almost a personal friend. And in "Boy Cow" Potatok tells of the problem of the calf being separated from its mother, and although the poet seems to scold the creature whom he affectionately calls "that little baster," he nevertheless expresses his sympathy and understanding of very natural thirst and ends by offering to share his bed. (133)

Works Cited.

Atwood, Margaret. Survival. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

Bissell, Claude T. "Letters in Canada: 1947. Fiction" Toronto Quarterly 17.3 (April 1948): 265-278.

Bond, C.C.J. "A Haunting Echo." Canadian Literature 16 (Spring 1963): 83-84.

Davidson Arnold E. Studies on Canadian Literature: Introductory and Critical Essays. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Ferguson, Will. Sarah Binks back cover. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McCelland and Stewart, 2010.

Friskney, Janet B. New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years 1952-1978. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.

Gerson, Carole. "Sarah Binks and Edna Jaques: Parody, Gender, and the Construction of Literary Value." Canadian Literature 134 (Fall 1992): 62-73.

Harrison, Dick. Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction. The U of Alberta P, 1977.

Hiebert, Paul. Sarah Binks. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1947.

---. Willows Revisited. Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1967.

Howells, Coral Ann and Eva-Marie Kroller, editors. Cambridge History of Canadian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Jones, D.G. Butterfly on Rock. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1970.

Keith, W. J. Canadian Literature in English. New York: Longman, 1985.

Klinck, Carl F. A Literary History of Canada: Canadian History in English. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965.

Layton, Irving. "The Bull Calf." The Bull Calf and Other Poems. [Toronto]: Contact Press, 1956.

Lecker, Robert. Making it Real: the Canonization of English-Canadian Literature. Concord, Ont.: Anansi, 1995.

MacKendrick, Louis K. "Paul Hiebert." Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 68. 180-183.

Matthews, Robin. Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution. Toronto: Steel Rail Educational Pub., 1978.

McCourt, Frank. The Canadian West in Fiction. Toronto: Ryerson, 1970.

Nischik, Reingard. History of Canadian Literature in Canada: English-Canadian and French-Canadian. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2008.

New, William H. "A Wellspring of Magma: Modern Canadian Writing." Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal. 14.3 (Oct 1968): 123-132.

Noonan, Gerald. "Canadian Duality and the Colonization of Humour." College English 50.8 (December 1988): 912-919.

---. "Incongruity and Nostalgia in Sarah Binks." Studies in Canadian Literature. 3.2 (1978): N.P. Accessed 18 October 2010
http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/7898/8955

Pacey, Desmond. Creative Writing in Canada: A Short History of English-Canadian Literature. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1952.

Porter, Elizabeth. "Sarah Binks: Another Look at Saskatchewan's Sweet Songstress." World Literature Written in English. 21.1 (1982): 95-108.

Ricou, Laurence. Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1973.

Rifkind, Candida. "Too Close to Home: Middlebrow Anti-Modernism and the Sentimental Poetry of Edna Jaques." Journal of Canadian Studies 1 (Winter 2005): 90-114.

Ross, Malcolm. The Impossible Sum of our Traditions: Reflections on Canadian Literature. Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1986.

Siemens, Reynold. ""Archetypal Bovanism" in Willows Revisited." Contemporary Verse [CV] II 4.1 (Winter 1979): 40-41.

Siemans[Siemens], Reynold. "Sarah Binks in Retrospect: A Conversation with Paul Hiebert." Journal of Canadian Fiction. 19 (1977): 65-76.

Stouck, David. Major Canadian Authors: A Critical Introduction to Canadian Literature in English. Lincoln, NB: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Woodcock, George. The World of Canadian Writing: Critiques and Recollections. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1980.


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