The first written accounts produced in what became Saskatchewan were the diaries, letters, and reports of explorers, fur traders, government employees, and missionaries. The late 19th century saw the production of well-meaning but hopelessly derivative poetry and prose, in part through the encouragement of local literary societies (Regina and North Battleford, for example, had thriving clubs by 1885). Saskatchewan also sometimes provided the setting for Westerns on the American model of formulaic action and violence. In 1885, the North-West Resistance was still in progress when Torontonian Edmund Collins published The Story of Louis Riel, followed by a sequel, Annette, the Métis Spy. Ralph Connor’s The Foreigner: A Tale of Saskatchewan (1909) typifies the many popular romances that followed: they feature forward-looking, optimistic celebrations of muscular outdoor life on the prairie. Production that can more narrowly be called “literature”—writing with an achieved aesthetic component—did not begin, however, until the 20th century.
Saskatchewan literature comes of age with the publication of Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House (1941), a grim evocation of physical and psychological hardship in a small town, and W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), an at once realistic and idealized evocation of the small-town imaginative and spiritual resources available to an impressionable boy. Both writers grew up in Saskatchewan but eventually left the province; their famous novels were written while they lived elsewhere in Canada. Many others followed the familiar Saskatchewan story of out-migration while remaining powerful influences for aspiring Saskatchewan writers; they include Eli Mandel, John Newlove, Fred Wah, Lorna Crozier, and Dennis Cooley.
Institutions have been crucial in the development of literature in this province. The Saskatchewan Arts Board, the first of its kind in the English-speaking world outside Great Britain, was founded in 1948. It provides financial assistance to individual writers, and from 1967 to 1991 it ran the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts at Fort San in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Its successor for writing, the Sage Hill Experience, began in 1990. The 1970s witnessed an explosion of institutional literary activity. The province’s professional theatres came into being in those years: Regina’s Globe Theatre in 1966, Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre in 1974, while the 25th Street Theatre became professional in 1975. The founding of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in 1969, and the 1975 establishment of Coteau Books and Thistledown Press, primarily to publish Saskatchewan writers, signaled an explosion of literary activity. Scores of writing groups nurture the ambitions of local writers throughout the province.
Ken Mitchell must head the list of writers who have participated in and benefited from this support. Other Saskatchewan-born writers who did not have to leave the province in order to publish and make a living include Guy Vanderhaeghe, Sharon Butala, John Hicks, Gary Hyland, Robert Currie, Glen Sorestad, Andrew Suknaski, Byrna Barclay, Connie Gault, Dianne Warren, Marlis Wessler, Brenda Baker, Geoffrey Ursell, Barbara Sapergia, and Don Kerr. Others were born elsewhere but have flourished in the supportive provincial literary community: Anne Szumigalski, Bonnie Burnard (at the beginning of her writing career), Elizabeth Brewster, Dave Margoshes, Ven Begamudre, David Carpenter, Steven Michael Berzensky, Steven Ross Smith, and Sean Virgo.
Given the overwhelming surround of the land and the cycling seasons, it was once predictable that most Saskatchewan writing would be centrally concerned with the environment. Canadian literature in general used to be preoccupied with the effect of landscape on its inhabitants, and Saskatchewan is one of the prairie provinces that produced a large part of the Canadian fiction canon (Ross, Mitchell, Vanderhaeghe, Newlove, Rudy Wiebe, Robert Kroetsch, Margaret Laurence, Martha Ostenso, Gabrielle Roy). Although the natural world remains an important theme in Saskatchewan literature, it is by no means the only one: in fact, the writing is now so diverse that no useful thematic generalizations can be drawn. The recent appearance of creative non-fiction and First Nations writing is contributing to the diversity. The most influential Saskatchewan First Nations writer was Maria Campbell; the emerging generation includes Randy Lundy and Louise Bernice Halfe (Sky Dancer). Formally, Saskatchewan literature remains rather traditional. Realism is still the dominant mode in prose, and the poetry tends toward an anecdote-based lyric, often featuring a distinctive vernacular voice. Finally, postmodernism has not been a strong feature of the province’s literature.