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Review

E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose

By Veronica Strong-Boag, Carole Gerson

November 4, 2013

Review By Armand Ruffo

IN THEIR INTRODUCTION to this collection of poetry and prose by E. Pauline Johnson, the editors, Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, reference their previous biography Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake). This makes perfect sense because this collection of Johnson’s work appears as a compendium of sorts to the preceding text. Where the authors argued in Paddling that Johnson’s historical and cultural significance had been unjustly neglected and that a reassessment of her place in Canadian literary history was long overdue, Tekahionwake serves to substantiate their argument by showing us why they are advocates of Johnson’s work. Beginning with an introduction that builds on the research gathered in Paddling, Gerson and Strong-Boag provide a brief overview of Johnson’s life and milieu while highlighting various themes in her work in order to provide a context for those who might be reading it for the first time. The works included consist of all the poetry the authors have managed to locate as well as a substantial amount of her prose, including classic examples of her short stories and essays.

Though obviously not as comprehensive as the full biography, the collection’s introduction nevertheless serves the text well in providing a general “map” by which to navigate the body of Johnson’s prose and poetry. It is worth noting that the authors expand Paddling by adding several topics to the introduction. For example, most significantly, they emphasize the oral tradition in Johnson’s work, which necessarily implicates her Mohawk heritage. Acknowledging that her work “regularly recalls the persistence of such traditions” (XXX), as evinced in both her writing style and her oral performances, the authors point to Johnson’s early upbringing, particularly the influence of her grandfather (Smoke Johnson) and the socio-cultural environment within which she was raised — despite her having grown up somewhat separated from the larger Mohawk community. Her Mohawk heritage, for example, gives her an alternative perspective on the rights of women – a perspective that was well advanced for its time. 

By implication, Strong-Boag and Gerson’s emphasis on the oral tradition makes us realize that Johnson came by her “Indian” identity honestly, despite her (melo)dramatic stage appearances, which, one suspects, were a direct result of financial need and, hence, a sop to a white audience’s expectations. The authors’ emphasis on the oral tradition clearly signals a rethinking of their position in Paddling, where they held that, “initially [Johnson] drew very lightly on her Native heritage” (101). Such a statement now appears limited to addressing the work thematically without taking into consideration stylistic qualities inherent in her poetry. 

The authors also touch on the implications associated with “naming.” Noting that “naming represents power, its loss represents defeat” (XXXII), they tie this idea specifically to Johnson’s adoption of the Mohawk name “Tekahionwake.” The authors indicate that the act of naming may be interpreted as a further indication of Johnson’s identification with the Mohawk side of her family. As in their previous study, Strong-Boag and Gerson point to themes involving First Nations issues, women’s issues, sexuality, nature, and the more general “idea” of Canada and of how Johnson perceived the nation in her work. We learn that she exulted in the idea of the fledgling nation while, at the same time, challenging its treatment of First Nations peoples. And yet, while referring to the public’s continued fascination with Johnson, the authors also note the mixed reception of her work over the years – usually on the part of male critics. However, with the advent of postcolonial and feminist studies, which have ushered in a positive reassessment of Johnson’s life and work, time is clearly on Johnson’s side. Strong-Boag and Gerson hammer this point home by ending their introduction with a reference to Johnson’s influence on the new wave of First Nations writing, a point that is self-evident in the publication of this comprehensive collection. 

That the authors’ thorough research has made available all of Johnson’s poetry under one cover, along with a fine selection of her representative prose, warrants considerable applause. The organization, however, is problematic. For the poetry, there are four general divisions: (1) The Early Years: Beginning to 1888; (2) The Prolific Years: 1889-1898; (3) Later Years: 1899-1913; and (3) Anonymous and Pseudonymous Poems. Although such divisions provide a logical methodology by which to structure the text, they make for rather difficult reading – especially if one is trying to interest students in the work. To find the poetic gems, one must dig through pages of raw material. In any poet’s body of work, there are poems that will be remembered and poems that will be quickly forgotten (and, in some cases, for the better). This is certainly the case with Johnson. This not to say that all the poetry is not without interest and value; it is just that it might have been much more effective to have structured this section around Johnson’s first two publications, The White Wampum and Canadian Born. For the most part, these collections contain “the best of Johnson,” while her previously uncollected work provides an overview of her development as a poet. As it stands, the major poems have a tendency to get lost in the lesser work. Furthermore, to locate the poems that were published in these first two collections, the reader has to constantly refer to the text’s notes at the back of the book; and, although these notes are in themselves informative, the constant flipping back and forth becomes quite tedious. For Johnson scholars, and others with an abiding interest in her work (like myself), the text will undoubtedly be appreciated, and perhaps the linear structure will not present a problem. However, those intending to use the text in the classroom, especially at the undergraduate level, will have to consider strategies to keep the students from being overwhelmed by the material. They will have to point them directly to the gems and then move them on from there in order to keep them from succumbing to frustration and boredom. 

As for the prose section, the authors point out that, because of the text’s limited number of pages, they have had to be “highly selective.” The nineteen pieces they have included work well to balance the representative pieces with the more obscure pieces. Their selection includes classic stories (such as “As It Was in the Beginning” and “A Red Girl’s Reasoning”) along with the previously uncollected (such as “A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction” and “Mothers of a Great Red Race”). To their credit Strong-Boag and Gerson even manage to include the previously unpublished essay “The Stings of Civilization.” My only complaint — and this is highly personal – is that the authors did not include Johnson’s story “My Mother,” which was inspired by her mother’s life. They do acknowledge that this piece can be found in the short story collection The Moccasin Maker, which is still in print. I bring this up because any instructor wanting to use Tekahionwake in class will either have to ignore this insightful story (which provides important clues to Johnson’s upbringing) or send the students off to the library. Anthologizing is no easy feat, however, and it always demands tough decisions that will not please everyone. Thus, one must commend Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag for work well done. They have done much to bring Tekahionwake’s work back into the spotlight.