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Pauline Johnson: Selected Poetry and Prose

By Michael Gnarowski, editor

Legends of Vancouver: 100th Anniversary Edition

By E. Pauline Johnson, introduction by Sheila Johnston

Review By Carol Gerson

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 158-60


Growing attention to Native issues in Canada has led to increased interest in the part-Mohawk writer and performer, E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913). As well, Johnson now enjoys canonical sanctification from Margaret Atwood, who has written the libretto for an opera, titled “Pauline,” scheduled to première in Vancouver in May 2014. Although she was born and raised on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Johnson became closely identified with Vancouver after she settled here towards the end of her life. Her last substantial project was to write her own versions of Salish stories she had received from Joe and Mary Capilano; these appeared in the Saturday Magazine of the Vancouver Province newspaper before being collected into the volume titled Legends of Vancouver, issued in 1911 as a fund-raiser to support Johnson as she succumbed to breast cancer. Like Flint & Feather (1912), her last collection of poetry, Legends has always remained in print, apt testimony to its significance as one of the first enduring literary works associated with the Vancouver region.

With reprints of Pauline Johnson, the material presentation of her work interests me as much as the contents of the books. For the centennial of Johnson’s death, a new Vancouver press launched a reissue of Legends of Vancouver, described as the “100th Anniversary Edition,” whose illustrations situate Johnson as a link between past and present. Many of the early volumes of Legends included picturesque photographs (by Leonard Frank, among others) of sites of the stories, selected to create a sense of timelessness by avoiding references to human beings or their built environment. This new edition, however, features recent photos (by Anne-Marie Comte) that document the inescapable impact of modernity: for example, images of Siwash Rock include the Stanley Park sea wall, and a shoreline view from Deadman’s Island looks east to downtown skyscrapers. These images are interspersed with dramatic photos of unpeopled canyons and mountains, effectively juxtaposing the old and the new, as does the cover drawing of a sea serpent, by current Salish Musqueam artist Raymond Sim, which recurs as a unifying motif within the volume. Photos of Johnson in her Native costume and in a tea gown bring the writer into visual dialogue with the places that her stories describe, but this volume — like the 1997 edition of Legends from Douglas & McIntyre, which likewise incorporates a new selection of photos — lacks images of Joe and Mary Capilano, an oversight that could be easily corrected with a visit to the Vancouver City Archives. Also lacking is Johnson’s “Author’s Foreword” honouring Joe Capilano. Instead, there is an affectionate introduction by Sheila Johnston that is adequate for the general reader but lacks sources for its quotations and omits references to the important biographies of Johnson by Betty Keller and Charlotte Grey. This edition initially appeared in French, issued in 2012 by the same publisher, Louis Anctil, but with a different press, les presses de Bras-d’Apic, in Boucherville Quebec. Not only is this the first French version of this book, but this translation also marks the first appearance of anything by Johnson in French. Translated by Chantal Ringuet, who also wrote an eloquent introduction that contextualizes Johnson by linking her description of the BC forest with paintings by Emily Carr, Légendes de Vancouver promises to bring Johnson to a sector of Canada that has yet to make her acquaintance.

In contrast to the fresh vision embodied by this new edition of Legends of Vancouver, Michael Gnarowski’s compilation of Johnson’s selected poetry and prose constructs an archaic version of the writer by restricting its sources to the collections of her poetry and stories issued early in the twentieth century, even though many biographies and editions, from Marcus Van Steen’s book of 1965 to the edition that I prepared with Veronica Strong-Boag in 2002, have called attention to significant uncollected poems and  articles. These two volumes are ignored in Gnarowski’s erroneous introductory claim that his volume brings together “for the first time, her poetry and her prose” in one volume (11).

Adding to this sense of the archaic are two illustrations from the 1913 Musson edition of Flint and Feather which represent hokey romantic stereotypes of the Indian maiden. While Gnarowski’s collection contains a judicious selection of the poetry and prose that appeared in the volumes published during Johnson’s lifetime and shortly after her death, it represents a missed opportunity to broaden readers’ awareness of Johnson’s reach into areas that didn’t appeal to her early advisors and literary executors. Fortunately, a new selection of Johnson’s writings that demonstrates her relevance to the twenty-first century, edited by Margery Fee and Dory Nason, is forthcoming from Broadview Press.


Gerson, Carole, and Veronica Strong-Boag, editors, E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

 Gray, Charlotte. Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. Toronto: HarperFlamingo Canada, 2002. 

Keller, Betty. Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntye, 1981.

Van Steen, Marcus. Pauline Johnson: Her Life and Work. Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965.

Legends of Vancouver: 100th Anniversary Edition
By E. Pauline Johnson, introduction by Sheila Johnston 
Vancouver: Midtown Press, 2013. 148 pp. $14.95 paper

Pauline Johnson: Selected Poetry and Prose
Michael Gnarowski, editor 
Toronto: Dundurn, 2013. 240 pp. $26.99 paper