The History of Newfoundland Publishing


A Brief History of Newfoundland

Literature Review

Early Publications

First Newfoundland Publishers

Reading in Newfoundland

Cultural Revival


Cultural Revival

Perhaps one of the most important factors librarians and publishers should be aware of in Newfoundland’s history is the role of the cultural revival beginning in the 1970s and extending to present, and its role in strengthening the trade books of the province. Shortly after joining confederation, the Canadian and Provincial governments devised a plan to relocate isolated outport communities to locations where modern amenities and services could be affordably delivered to the population. This process was known as the resettlement program and under its auspice, over two hundred and fifty communities were relocated between 1954 and 1975 (Major 2001, 419). Out of this modernizing philosophy rose a cultural revival, which came to value and search out traditional Newfoundland history and culture. Beginning in the early 1970s, television and theatre shows such as Codco and the Mummers troupe developed dramatic and comedic forms to represent Newfoundland culture. The plays and TV shows focused on Newfoundland's sharp whit and humour and from them developed a new sense of Newfoundland culture that grew as islanders and Labradoreans began to embrace their history. Sandra Gwyn first discussed the notion of a cultural revival in her groundbreaking article “The Newfoundland Renaissance” published in 1976 in which she refers to the “Newfcult phenomenon” which suggested that there was a distinct Newfoundland style of art and performance different from anywhere else.

Building on the work of Gwyn, Shane O’Dea and James Overton argue that while Newfoundland is rich in history and culture, the revival that emerged in the 1970s was primarily a reaction against the “chrome chair” of modernity that was arising at the same time across the province and country (O’Dea 1986, 380). The reaction was an appreciation of an older outport way of life, and a form of resistance to the destruction of the “folky” outport way of life, which had long existed in Newfoundland (O’Dea 1986, 381). Gerry Bannister also discusses Newfoundland’s fixation with the past in the essay “Making History: Cultural Memory in Twentieth-Century Newfoundland”. Bannister argues that for Newfoundland it is thought that there is no present culture, only a past and a future. This, he argues, has resulted in the development of cultural and economic policies that are often nostalgic in nature, that fail to address the problems of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans in the present (Bannister 2002, 175).

A Culture into a Commodity?

Today the publishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador is surprisingly busy for such a small population. The cultural revival spoken of by Sandra Gwyn and others no-doubt was one of the reasons Breakwater books, and others were able to establish themselves as key contributors to the cultural revival of Newfoundland. However, the mass production of Newfoundland and Labrador culture in texts leads to questions about the possible comodification of that same culture. As James Overton argues in his collection of essays, Making a World of Difference the Newfoundland culture that is passed to tourists is based on a romantic idea of what Newfoundland is like (Overton 1996, Introduction). Likewise, Gerry Bannister argues that in Newfoundland “Folklorism has been used to promote the expanding tourism industry, and it has helped to fuel the rise of nationalism sentiment.” Furthermore, he argues folklorism has embraced “anti-modernism”, thus producing “an artificial distinction between real and fake Newfoundlanders” (Bannister 2002, 180-181).

For Librarians and students of history this leads to questions about the ability of the mass-produced trade book to properly promote and preserve “unique cultures.” For example, has mass production sanitized and romanticized the image of the outport community, eliminating from those areas the notion of poverty and isolation? Has pandering to the tourist industry (and the trade book industries close ties to tourism) eliminated the ability of “local” presses to present the opinions of dissenting voices? These questions lead to further questions regarding the truth and accuracy of the press that has regularly been discussed in class. So the question becomes how much of the publishing is mass-produced for the tourist market? And beyond that, how much of the culture has been customized or adopted/changed for the purpose of promoting Newfoundland? What is real Newfoundland culture?

While at first glance, it would appear that the literary and publishing history of Newfoundland would not hold many new lessons for librarians or historians outside of the province, there are some important facts that are worthy of broader consideration. The unique conditions in which Newfoundland publishing developed and evolved to become some of the most successful in Canada is alone worthy of the consideration of librarians and publishers. Publishers and communities across Canada, and elsewhere could use the situation in Newfoundland as a model for boosting their own fledgling publishing industry. Small publishers may utilize Newfoundland publishers as their guides for what can work. Promoting regional writing to both local and tourist populations would work in many communities where an interested local community and a booming tourist industry are present.

Yet, while the market is successful in the province, many Newfoundland authors are still taking their work to mainland firms including various University Presses, McClelland & Stewart, and Vintage Canada. While at first this seems contradictory to the goals of establishing a local publishing industry authors publishing outside the island provide new audiences for Newfoundland and Labradorean authors.

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This website was created by Sara House and is based on a paper written for Publishing LIS 519 at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.
Last updated July 31, 2010

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