by Brian Busby


Brian Busby

I’m not sure when it was that I first read of “the flowering of Canadian literature.” George Woodcock uses the phrase as the subtitle of his 1987 collection of essays, Northern Spring, but it was much before that. I’ve seen it used by W.J. Keith, Jeet Heer, Jean O’Grady, Allen Weiss and Faye Hammill. The jury citation for last year’s Charles Taylor Prize includes the phrase, as does catalogue copy for my most recent book.

So, just when did our garden come into bloom?

In The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature Wynne Frances informs that 18th-century literary magazines like The Literary Garland “helped to prepare the ‘first flowering’ of Canadian literature in the 1880s and 1890s.” Robert Lecker disagrees in his study of early Canadian anthologies, Keepers of the Code, arguing that the 1920s marked “the first real flowering of Canadian literature.” Professors Frances and Lecker may not be of like mind, but they stand together apart from the crowd; all others mentioned place the flowering in the mid-20th century, with most zeroing in on the 1960s.

“The Flowering of Canadian Literature,” McMaster University Library’s online exhibit, presents convention:

During an era of renewed nationalism, Canadian literature came alive in the 1960s with an abundance of prodigious, literary talent and the emergence of small publishers such as Coach House Press and the House of Anansi. McClelland & Stewart played a significant role in transforming the landscape of Canadian authorship.

No botanist, I’ll withhold my opinion.

What I will do is suggest that it was in the 1960s – 1969 to be exact – that the flowery growth was first recognized. That year saw the launch of no less than three different series of monographs devoted to the country’s authors.

In 1923, Lorne Pierce had attempted something similar with the Ryerson Press Makers of Canadian Literature series. Ill-fated, the series stumbled from the start with Robert Norwood, which holds the distinction of being the most fawning study of a Canadian poet. “His correspondence is amongst the most brilliant, spontaneous, and delightful that it has been my privilege to receive,” writes the author, physician and psychical researcher William Durrant Watson. “His face presents a happy hint of Hibernia; his heart is of the new world; his mind is universal. Such is Robert Norwood.”

The next three years saw volumes on Peter McArthur, William Henry Drummond and Major John Richardson, ending with a twelfth volume, Antoine Gérin-Lajoie by Louvigny de Montigny. In 1941, as if to seal its poor reputation, the series returned for one final book, Victor Lauriston’s Arthur Stringer, which was made possible through Bobbs-Merrill, Stringer’s American publisher.

The Class of 1969 could only have done better.

McClelland & Stewart’s Canadian Writers was the first to appear. The brainchild of editor David Godfrey, who two years earlier had suggested the series to Malcolm Ross, it was presented as part of the New Canadian Library. Though the Library lives on – albeit in a lesser form – the Canadian Writers series is long dead.

It is not missed.

Seventeen titles, all 64-pages in length, looking through its list we see pairing both predictable (Margaret Laurence by Clara Thomas) and not (Mordecai Richler by George Wood­cock).

Michael Ondaatje’s Leonard Cohen, is the most notable, but only as a collectable. David Mason has listed a Near Fine first of the latter at US$229.95.

The very best of Canadian Writers, Stephen Leacock by Robertson Davies, is also the very worst. The Master of Massey College had interrupted his work on Fifth Business to concentrate on the project, and was rightly proud of the results. However, the finished book was a disaster: sections of text were missing, words were substituted, typographical errors abound, and one paragraph begins in mid-sentence. “The Leacock book is such a mess that I am ashamed to speak of it to my friends and could not dream of recommending it to my students,” Davies wrote to M&S editor Anna Szigethy. “It is humiliating to be associated with it.”

Even as the first Canadian Writers titles began appearing on bookstore shelves, a competitor was at press. A slim and slight product from Forum House (Coles Publishing under something approaching pseudonym), the Canadian Writers & their Works seemed curiously similar in format and name to Canadian Writers.

In comparison, Copp Clark’s series, Studies in Canadian Literature, appears elegant and weighty. George Woodcock writes on Hugh MacLennan, Frank Davey writes on Earle Birney and George Bowering has something to say about Al Purdy. The most interesting by far is Douglas O. Spettigue’s Frederick Philip Grove, a book that finds its author in the midst of research that would short years later expose the prairie novelist as Prussian Felix Paul Greve.

Is anything to be read into the fact that not one of these series fared well?

Forum House was first to go, issuing its sixth and last title in 1972. Two years later, Copp Clark pulled the plug on its series, leaving behind a list of promised forthcoming titles that included Michael Gnarowski’s Louis Dudek and Leonard ­Cohen by series editor Gary Geddes.

In 1972, David Godfrey resigned as Canadian Writers editor. The series continued, adding five anemic titles in six years before folding. Its final volume? Judith Skelton Grant’s study of disgruntled author Robertson Davies.

What does that say about the landscape of Canadian authorship that we have no monograph series today?

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