Roughing It in the Bush: The Politics of the Book in Early Canada

Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy

In Imagined Communities, the seminal study of the emergence of national feeling, Benedict Anderson devoted a chapter to the case of creole nationalism. He linked the rise of nationalism and republicanism with the rise of a literate middle class in the New World, and argued that the ideological common ground of the new imagined communities of North and South America was facilitated by print capitalism which spread content that made it possible for native-born colonists to think of themselves as culturally, and then politically, distinct from their mother countries.[1]

Anderson’s discussion of belonging in the New World did not account for Canada, whose political evolution diverged from the clear-cut pattern he identifies in the hemisphere. Together with the brief independence of Texas, Anderson dismissed Canada as an unexplained “failure” of the American model of nationalism anchored in republicanism which, he implies, was the norm everywhere else.[2] Yet, the internal dynamics of the Early Canadian political and literary cultures can be better understood as the local manifestation of parallel models of transition to modernity that were not all focused on the creation of the nation-state through revolution and republic, and which allowed for more than one way to imagine community in North America and, possibly, elsewhere. Print capitalism was still part of the story.

Between the 1837-38 Rebellions and the Confederation of 1867, the colonies of British North America fiercely debated their political and institutional futures, their relationships with Britain and with the United States, and the choice between monarchy and republicanism. As my research shows, literature was part of this process, and it distilled for the broader public the abstract political parameters of the debates into shared cultural markers of belonging organized around continuity, rather than revolutionary break. At the same time, Canadian literary content was enjoyed by readers that hailed from different political contexts, its flexibility illuminating the fluidity of the incipient national boundaries in North America and the mutability of colonial identities in this transitional moment.

The nineteenth-century transatlantic literary market was fractured by emergent national categories, but united by language and trade.[3] Due to their North American subject-matter, colonial Canadian writers were unwittingly drawn into the ideological duel between monarchy and republicanism. Their books’ editorial trajectories followed the political divides of the age even when the topics were not political themselves. Although in the post-Confederation era, such colonial writers became integrated into the national project and hailed as founders of Canadian national literature, during their lifetimes, they were more likely to be identified and marketed by editors as British, colonial, or even ‘American’; furthermore, their texts were often altered (sometimes by the authors themselves) in order to suit the political views of their various audiences.

Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Susanna Moodie’s first and popular Canadian book is a case in point.[4] Roughing It in the Bush was a collection of essays and poetry written in the 1830s, after the Moodies’ immigration to Canada, and then reworked in the format of a memoir in 1852. It was published in London by editor Richard Bentley who marketed it ­­to English audiences as an emigrant handbook and a true story of an English gentlewoman’s struggles on the Northern outskirts of the Empire. The Bentley edition was the basis for several other impressions over the next years and for a second English edition in 1854. Both editions featured multiple patriotic epigraphs and poems that celebrated Canada’s imperial membership, including three rebellion poems that excoriated William Lyon Mackenzie’s 1838 anti-colonial uprising. Scattered throughout the book, ran Moodie’s critical commentaries on the differences between customs in England and the social mores in the colonies, which, the writer lamented, were “corrupted” by the proximity to the U.S. and its pernicious republican and democratic culture. The Canadians whom Moodie encountered in the bush were “Yankeefied Britons,” and “Yankeefication” was the general process through which American political ideas sapped the loyalty of the colonies. The second British edition largely kept the structure and tenor of the first, but added an essay by Moodie’s husband, John W. D.  Moodie, which provided a broad account of the economic and political situation in the colonies, and explained the British-American tensions over British North America to an implied metropolitan (English) audience.

Editor Charles Frederick Briggs (1804-1877), Wikimedia Commons

In Canada, Bentley’s Roughing It circulated alongside American-published versions of the book which were easier to obtain, and presumably more affordable. The first American edition was published in New York by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, only a few months after the 1852 London edition. However, its text was radically altered by Putnam’s editor, Charles Frederick Briggs. Without Moodie’s permission or knowledge, Briggs excised many of the epigraphs and most of the pro-British patriotic poems. Gone are also all textual expressions of loyalty to the British Crown, as well as the words ‘ultra-republican,’ ‘republican,’ and ‘democratic,’ which Moodie customarily used as pejorative terms whenever describing the egalitarian social mores of the colonies. John Moodie’s chapter on Canada and the U.S. was also expurgated, and the result was marketed as a sort of frontier adventure, an exotic ‘far-west’ romance of life in the Canadian backwoods. This version was the basis of numerous impressions, by Putnam and by other American publishers, which were reprinted widely across North America over the next decades.

By contrast, Susanna Moodie was directly involved in the alterations to the book’s first Canadian edition, published in Toronto in 1871. Still smarting from the negative colonial reception of the first edition of Roughing It two decades earlier, the author purposely removed “many objectionable passages” that might still “arouse [the] anger” of her Canadian readers, and drafted a new introduction that praised Canada’s economic, political, and social progress in its journey from colony to Dominion.[5] Overall, the textual changes toned down the book’s old pro-imperial tone, and shifted the focus on Canada’s potential as a young country, away from the immigrant nostalgia which dominated the first edition.  The pro-British epigraphs were eliminated, as were the sections commenting directly (and negatively) on colonial social mores and the Americanization of Canadian society, including all the rebellion poems. In fact, in a radical volte-face, the new introduction rehabilitated Mackenzie, converting him from republican “felon leader” (in the British edition) into proto-national hero, the driving force behind Canada’s move towards colonial reform and the healthier state of affairs in the colony after Confederation.[6] According to Carl Balldstadt, the 1871 Toronto edition “played a significant role in sustaining and renewing Susanna’s reputation as an important Canadian author,” and was the basis for later republications in the twentieth century.[7]

For most post-Confederation readers and critics, colonial writers such as Susanna Moodie constructed and mediated a Canadian culture which they were taken to represent even before the political construct named ‘Canada’ came into being.  As Moodie’s case demonstrates, the Canadianness of colonial literature was a slippery construct, easily manipulated in order to appeal to readers in different ideological or national contexts. This mutability of identity and perspective reveals the gradual process by which the political boundaries dividing the literary world of nineteenth-century North America were gradually solidifying around the ideological poles of empire and republic, and the active role that literary texts played in this process.


Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy is an Associate Teaching Professor of American Studies in the Global and Intercultural Studies Department at Miami University, Ohio. Her research focuses on transatlantic and hemispheric studies, settler colonial literatures, and the relationship between fiction, film and political ideologies. Her latest book, Between Empire and Republic: America in the Colonial Canadian Imagination, came out in 2022.



[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991), 64.

[2] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 46.

[3] George Parker, “Courting Local and International Markets,” in The History of the Book in Canada, Patricia Lockhardt Fleming and Yvan Lamonde eds., Volume I (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2004), 348.

[4] See the list of the editorial changes in Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush: or Life in Canada, Carl Ballstadt, ed. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995), 660–665.

[5] Susanna to Katie Vickers, 15 Aug. 1871, in Susanna Moodie, Letters of a Lifetime, Carl Balldstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman, eds., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1985), 297.

[6] Susanna Moodie, “Introduction to the 1871 Edition,” in Roughing it in the Bush: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism, Michael Peterman, ed. (New York: Norton, 2007), 347-8.

[7] Carl Balldstadt, “Editor’s Introduction,” Roughing It, (1995), xxxvii.


Featured image: Boutique de M. Dentu, libraire, dans la galerie d’Orléans, en 1829, (Wikimedia Commons).

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