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ARCHIVED - Canada: A Literary Tour

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Literary Cities


The Birthplace
by Kareen Martel, University of Ottawa

Black and white portrait photograph of a man in an oval frame

Louis Honoré Fréchette, photograph by Notman & Sons, ca. 1890


The City of Québec has inspired many works of literature and many authors, including Octave Crémazie, the national poet of French Canada in the 19th century. Following his studies at the Petit Séminaire de Québec, Crémazie opened a bookstore with his brother, J & O Crémazie, which became a noted cultural fixture in the city. Crémazie's poetry, like that of Louis Fréchette and many other poets of that era, dealt with themes of history and nationalism. In Épigraphe pour les Anciens Canadiens (1862), Crémazie described the features that make up the unique and protective nature of Québec: its promontory and massive river, and its foundation of solid rock.

Black and white photograph of steamboats docked at a river harbourfront with a palatial building on a cliff in the background

The Château Frontenac perched atop Cap Diamant, photograph by Clifford M. Johnston, City of Québec, 1933


The writings of Roger Lemelin, another son of Québec, were part of the upsurge of stories about urban life in the 1930s and 1940s. Like his characters, Lemelin was from the Saint-Sauveur neighbourhood in Lower Town, which inspired the novel Au pied de la pente douce (published in 1944 and later translated as The Town Below). This story describes a city divided: the cultured, well-to-do people lived at the top of the slope, and the economically and culturally deprived workers lived at the bottom. Walking along Colomb Street, one cannot help but feel compassion for the character of Jean, who dies of an illness. Looking up the "gentle slope," it is easy to smile and imagine the Mulots, a gang of youths who steal fruit from the Upper Town and then charge back down to their homes. The top of the slope is also associated with another forbidden fruit: love. "It was the custom of a Sunday, when one had nothing to do, to ascend the slope and then take a rest at the top and see how the quarter looked when seen from above. But lovers would take this path every evening, on their way to the Parc des Braves, that large green-clad plateau furnished with convenient benches that seemed closer to the sky than to the earth."1

Black and white photograph of a woman sitting outdoors near some trees and a stone ledge

Anne Hébert, photograph by Harry Palmer, 1986


Québec is the adoptive home of novelist Jacques Poulin. Born in the Beauce region, Poulin sets most of his novels in the old part of the city. In Poulin's world, Old Québec is a protective mother who clutches her children tightly in her arms, symbolized by the ramparts that encircle the city, sometimes to the point of suffocating them. This lack of freedom in people's personal and social lives, as represented by the city, causes the main character in Mon cheval pour un royaume (published in 1967 and later translated as My Horse for a Kingdom) to blow up the monument in the esplanade near the Saint-Louis gate. Québec takes on a female and historical persona in the works of Anne Hébert, particularly in Le premier jardin (published in 1988 and later translated as The First Garden).


1 Roger Lemelin. The Town Below (S. Putnam, Tran.). Montréal: McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1961, p. 168.