Louis Hémon (1880-1913) was a French novelist best known for his "Maria Chapdelaine," in which the pioneering regions of Quebec are so vividly presented that the work long over shadowed novels by native Canadians.
Born in Brest, Louis Hémon was educated in Paris, where his father was an inspector general in the education ministry. Hémon qualified for the colonial service but decided not to become a civil servant. Instead, he traveled in England, working occasionally as a commercial traveler. He developed an interest in various sports and wrote for sporting journals. In these he also published his first stories, mostly based on his observations in England. Little is known about his personal life except that he had a daughter in 1909.
In 1911 Hémon arrived in Canada, spending his first winter in Montreal. Then he set out for Lake St. John, where he was engaged as a farmhand in Peribonka. Hémon's taciturn nature and laconic correspondence have left the way open for legends, such as that of the over civilized Parisian seeking a simple natural life or the atavistic Breton in need of adventurous travel. What is certain is that he was a keen observer, detached enough to record the externals of pioneer life, yet involved enough to comprehend the myths of the French Canadians.
It is the combination of detachment and involvement that makes Maria Chapdelaine: Récit du Canada français into a major Canadian novel, despite the objections of many Canadians who feel it gives a distorted picture of their life. The premature death of the hero results from a heroic gesture but also from an impossibly hard environment. The death of the heroine's mother is precipitated by ignorance and isolation but at the same time reveals the courage and endurance which give the people its pride. The final choice of the heroine, to marry a poor pioneer like her father instead of a neighbor who has "deserted" to become an American factory worker, has excited both disgust and admiration.
The style of the novel ranges from cold, naturalistic description to lyrical effusion. Its general import goes beyond a mere local problem to evoke a feeling for human dignity in a bleak world. Hémon apparently wrote the novel in his sparse leisure time at Peribonka and left during the following spring. He dispatched the manuscript to Le Temps, a onetime sporting journal, where it was published in serial form (1914). The author meanwhile had set out for the West but was killed in a train accident at Chapleau, Ontario, in July 1913.
Maria Chapdelaine was published in book form in 1916 but not rescued from oblivion until 1921. Four other books were subsequently published from Hémon's manuscripts.
There is scant information on Hémon in English, but he is mentioned in several works that also serve as useful background: Lorne Pierce, An Outline of Canadian Literature (1927); Ian Forbes Fraser, The Spirit of French Canada: A Study of the Literature (1939); and Jack Warwick, The Long Journey: Literary Themes of French Canada (1968).
Deschamps, Nicole, Le my the de Maria Chapdelaine, Montreal: Presses de l'Universite de Montreal, 1980.
Dube, Marcel, Jean-Paul Lemieux et le livre, Montreal: Art Global, 1988.
Hémon, Louis, Itineraire de Liverpool a Quebec, Quimper France: Calligrammes, 1985.
Hémon, Louis, Lettres a sa famille, Montreal: Boreal Express, 1980.
Lemieux, Jean Paul, Jean Paul Lemieux retrouve Maria Chapdelaine, Montreal; Paris: Stanke, 1981.
Levesque, Gilbert., Louis Hémon, aventurier ou philosophe?, Montreal: Fides, 1980.
Thom, Ian M., Maria Chapdelaine: illustrations, Kleinburg, Ont.: McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1987. □