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HUSTON, JAMES (baptized Jacques), typographer, journalist, office holder, and author; b. 17 Aug. 1820 at Quebec, son of William Huston, a carpenter, and Théotiste Audette, dit Lapointe; d. there 21 Sept. 1854.
While still young, James Huston became an apprentice in a printing-house at Quebec. He educated himself by reading on his own, and early manifested a concern to further the interests of French Canadians. On 19 June 1842 he was elected one of the secretaries of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. On 10 October he and another typographer, Charles Bertrand, launched L’Artisan, a bi-weekly with reform leanings which was intended for the working class. However, the venture was not successful and publication ceased on 13 July 1843. Stanislas Drapeau* revived the paper in January 1844 but changed its contents substantially. Huston’s brief sally into journalism did, nevertheless, make him known, and enabled him in 1846 to obtain the post of assistant French translator to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. From then on he followed the government to its various capitals.
In Montreal he found a milieu favourable to the intellectual endeavours he had in mind. He took part there in the founding of the Institut Canadien, becoming an active member on 25 Jan. 1845. In August 1847 he delivered a lecture to it entitled “De la position et des besoins de la jeunesse canadienne-française,” in which he denounced with singular courage the injustices suffered by educated young people in Lower Canada: “Since 1759 French Canadian youth have vegetated on [their] native soil, without hope, without a future, without receiving any support, any encouragement, any advice either from the men of their own race, or from the government.” He spoke in the same vein as Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau*, who had just published in 1846–47 his “Charles Guérin, roman de mœurs canadiennes” in Album littéraire et musical de la Revue canadienne (Montreal) to stress identical problems.
Huston was elected president of the Institut Canadien on 4 Nov. 1847, and during his term of office the institute founded on 5 April 1848 the Association des Établissements Canadiens des Townships, which sought to halt the steady stream of emigration to the United States. Louis-Joseph Papineau*’s return to the political scene led to the formation of a radical wing within the reform party and the politicizing of the institute, moves that Huston refused to endorse. Huston’s opponents, among whom were the leading figures of the newspaper L’Avenir, nominated Toussaint-Antoine-Rodolphe Laflamme* for the presidency of the institute. At the session of 4 May 1848 Huston was defeated by 36 votes. Antoine Gérin-Lajoie* contested the results, but a second ballot, held after several officers resigned, confirmed Laflamme’s election. When the parliament buildings were set on fire in 1849, Huston left Montreal with the government; he stayed in Toronto for some time before returning to Quebec, where he died prematurely.
Huston is known primarily as the compiler of Le répertoire national, a collection, according to the prospectus published in L’Avenir, of the “best works of Canadian writers, now scattered in the numerous French Canadian newspapers which have been published for half a century.” It was to comprise two 384-page volumes and to appear in 32-page instalments fortnightly from the date when 250 subscribers had signed up. The instalments began to reach readers on 26 Feb. 1848, appearing with some regularity until the end of the year. On 13 September L’Avenir published the introduction to Le répertoire national. The selections, presented chronologically, were not necessarily forgotten masterpieces, but in Huston’s view their publication would “certainly do honour to the country and to its writers.” The suggestions made in the newspapers, as well as by subscribers and friends, “to pass less rapidly over the different periods and be less severe in your choice,” led Huston to publish two new volumes, whose instalments were spaced out until 1850. In 1853 Huston published in Paris a second collection entitled Légendes canadiennes, which brought together some short narrative pieces already in Le répertoire national.
Huston’s decision to eliminate political writings from Le répertoire national placed him in an uncomfortable but understandable position. The majority of French Canadian authors were politicians who had taken sides at the time of the recent rebellion, and militant texts were legion. The compiler was not far enough away from the events to be able to make an impartial selection. Despite his unequivocal political convictions, Huston therefore chose not to touch the problem. He presented a watered-down selection and gave an incomplete idea of the period his work was supposed to represent. Napoleon Aubin*, the former editor of Le Fantasque, seems non-committal, a writer of nerveless prose; so does Joseph-Édouard Cauchon*, who had taken such categorical stands. Papineau, a dominant figure in the first half of the 19th century, does not even appear in Le répertoire. On the other hand, there are innumerable inoffensive and rather colourless pieces. Joseph Quesnel*, Joseph-Guillaume Barthe*, François-Magloire Derome*, and Pierre Petitclair occupy an enviable place. Poems, chronicles, narratives, short stories, and lectures on innocuous and general topics give a very limited notion of the real literary production of the time. It would, however, be unfair to make no mention of the substantial texts included, such as the poems of François-Xavier Garneau*, the addresses of Étienne Parent*, and the “Essai sur la littérature” of Louis-Auguste Olivier, which were all without specific political orientation but clearly had a nationalist thrust.
Despite its bland character, Le répertoire national attained its object of preserving and disseminating Canadian writings. It may not have given an exact picture of French Canadian literature, because the most dynamic and living elements had been excised. But the majority of commentators, from Edmond Lareau* to Pierre de Grandpré, have held it in special regard as a reference work. These men have perpetuated an image to which James Huston, in his endeavour to avoid incurring political attack, had unintentionally lent credence.
James Huston is the author of “Visite à un village français, sur la frontière américaine: le cap Vincent,” which appeared in the work he compiled, Le répertoire national, ou recueil de littérature canadienne (4v., Montréal, 1848–50), 2: 283–93. He also gave a paper before the Institut Canadien in Montreal on 12 Aug. 1847 which was published under the title “De la position et des besoins de la jeunesse canadienne-française” in L’Avenir on 21 Aug. 1847 and reprinted in Le répertoire national, 4: 122–55. Excerpts from Le répertoire national were published by Huston in Paris in 1853 as Légendes canadiennes. Le répertoire national was itself republished in 1893 by Adolphe-Basile Routhier*, and the original edition was reprinted in 1982.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 18 août 1820, 22 sept. 1854. PAC, MG 30, D1, 16. L’Avenir, 23 oct., 6, 13 nov. 1847; 4 mars, 6, 24 mai 1848. Le Pays, 3 oct. 1854. Beaulieu et Hamelin, La presse québécoise, 1: 121–22. DOLQ, 1: 650–52. Réginald Hamel et al., Dictionnaire pratique des auteurs québécois (Montréal, 1976). P.-G. Roy, Fils de Québec, 4: 43–45. H.-J.-J.-B. Chouinard, Fête nationale des Canadiens français célébrée à Québec en 1880: histoire, discours, rapport . . . (4v., Québec, 1881–1903), 1: 27–28. J.-R. Rioux, “L’Institut canadien; les débuts de l’Institut canadien et du journal L’Avenir (1844–1849)” (thèse de des, univ. Laval, Québec, 1967). D. M. Hayne, “Le répertoire national de Huston,” BRH, 56 (1950): 49–51.