A Fit of CanLit
If you were a young Canadian writer in the late 1960s, even if you weren’t on drugs, you lived in an exciting time. Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit alleges that Canadian literature took a qualitative and quantitative leap in the late 1950s to the early 1970s. In terms of CanLit’s collective energy and self-awareness, his time frame could be advanced from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. As a chronicler of his chosen period, Mount is good. As an analyst of what it all meant, not so much.
Mount argues that postwar affluence, fuelled by the fact that “America wanted what Canada had, and Canada wanted what America made,” led to more public and private funding, more time to write, more leisure to read. “This is the society that established the Stratford Festival, dozens of new university and college campuses, the National Library, the National Ballet, a national television network, and a national arts council. It’s the society that made the CanLit boom possible.”
He downplays the Canada Council’s 1960s-1970s role as a saviour of little magazines, small presses, and new writers: it “played a part” but, especially outside Quebec, “its role was small.” Rather, he asserts that leading the CanLit pile-on were people associated with the brand-new House of Anansi, publisher of his book, and Coach House Press. In their early years, both were quasi-incestuous enterprises, tending to publish a coterie of friends with shared tastes. Coach House, nominally headed by the gifted printer Stan Bevington but editorially shaped by the poets bpNichol and Victor Coleman, took an especially long time to shake off its in-group image.
Anglophone or francophone, CanLit was a predominantly male, white-skinned, white-bread society of writers, editors, and publishers. The Trinidad-born Harold Sonny Ladoo and the Barbados-born Austin Clarke were much more typical of the present day were minority exceptions to the rule. First Nations writers seldom saw themselves in print; and neither, for that matter, did Canadians whose origin was Latin, Slav, or Asian.
Mount appoints heroes: Robert Weaver, producer of CBC-Radio’s Anthology and founder of the long-running Tamarack Review, was regarded by some then-struggling writers as a cross between a father figure and a patron saint; Jack McClelland, publisher of the then-independent McClelland & Stewart, a zealous and ingenious promoter; poet, editor, and talent scout Dennis Lee, a founder of Anansi also involved in Rochdale College, a grossly misconceived attempt to start a counterculture inside a highrise (the counterculture became a drug culture－not that there was ever much difference between them).
Mount often chummily begins his chapters with a potted biography of a writer or other figure as a springboard to discussing associatedwriters and related themes. A few of the writers were US draft-dodgers or military deserters; our small-scale cultural ferment went on against the brutal backdrop of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the two Kennedys.
Given how many names Mount puts in play, it’s perhaps churlish to deplore omissions. He has much to say about the beachhead of American poetics established in Vancouver, but leaves out R. G. Everson and the much younger Susan Musgrave. He ought to have devoted a few lines to Malcolm Lowry, who lived in Canada for much of his writing life and completed Under the Volcano and other works in a shack near Vancouver. In a chapter on Quebec writing he observes that the Canada Council gave a disproportionate number of grants to Quebecois writers who were sometimes avowed separatists. But although he cites Sheila Fischman’s work as a prose translator he ignores John Glassco’s major contribution as an anthologist and translator of verse. He touches on theatre, television, and pop music to supply cultural context, but spurns genre and commercial fiction; so no Arthur Hailey, whose novels such as Airport and Hotel sold 170-million copies worldwide. He gives George Woodcock merely half a line. The prolific author was born in Winnipeg, spent many years in England, then repatriated himself to found the serious but not solemn journal Canadian Literature. (Today’s scholarly Canadian Literature should be renamed Canadian Sociology.) Surprisingly, he sometimes quotes from E. A. Lacey, an alcoholic world-travelling poet who passionately hated Canada.
On occasion, he seems wrong-headed, or maybe just confused. Contrasting Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, Mount writes: “Both were fundamentally religious thinkers, but McLuhan had the Catholic’s affection for mysteries that stay mysteries, Frye the Protestant’s rebellious desire for answers.” As if Catholics never desire answers. As if Frye was rebellious.
Overall, Mount writes cleanly, though at one point he voguishly employs the verb “curate”: “In 1967 Al Purdy curated a selection of West Coast poets.” (The only thing my friend Al Purdy ever curated was a collection of beer bottles.) He’s occasionally cutesy. Milton Acorn was “a Second World War veteran with a metal plate in his head”; of Acorn’s failed marriage to Gwendolyn MacEwen, “He was nineteen years older than Gwen, a cigar-smoking caveman to her Isis reborn.” Quote is correct Referring to Mordecai Richler’s permanent return to Canada in 1972, he writes, “Richler sat down and started typing. He stopped in 2001.” Meaning he died.
In chronicling Canlit, Mount assumes an objective stance, but he also exhibits personal crochets and biases. In the margins, visually enlivening sidebars include miniature covers of books, capsule critiques of their authors, and a rating of one to five stars－like hotels. One star: “got published,” five stars: a “world classic.” Among the former are Margaret Laurence and George Bowering. Mount predicts that Laurence and Bowering will “likely be remembered for only a book or two once the generation that loved them has gone.”
Even that status would be lost to a one-star like Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear: “Judging by the number of typos alone, Wiebe’s editors had the same problem with his fourth novel that legions of undergraduates have had staying awake while reading it.” Most sidebars are attached to familiar names, but Mount makes one discovery in Phyllis Brett Young’s three-star (“very good”) The Torontonians. It’s “a smart insider account of the affluent society, especially its women.” Harold Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body was “nasty, brutish, and short.” (So was the life of Ladoo, one of Dennis Lee’s finds: he was beaten to death during a return visit to his homeland.) Lee’s five-star Civil Elegies and Other Poems “is the closest that Canadian literature has come to a founding epic－our Waste Land, but also our Aeneid.” Of bp Nichol’s The Martyrology Books 1 & 2, “There is nothing quite like it in Canadian or any other literature.” Al Purdy’s Selected Poems is the “one book of Canadian poetry to give to a friend from another country.“ He adds, “The Journals of Susanna Moodie might scare them.” Five stars also to Sheila Watson’s much-admired novel The Double Hook that, despite its brevity and terseness, surely rivals Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers for unreadability.
Mount gives Atwood a book-leading eight sidebars and never less than three stars. The Journals of Susanna Moodie is “her masterpiece.” Another sidebar tells us that Survival is “an incredibly important book, a book that gave courage, ammunition, and a ready-made syllabus to many teachers and professors.” Atwood dominates Arrival, just as she’s dominated CanLit for more than four decades. He entitles two chapters (“Surfacing” and “Procedures for Underground”) after her works. He says that a $6,000 Canada Council grant she received in 1969 “helped her write three books that confirmed her career and defined Canadian literature: Surfacing, Survival, and Power Politics. As Atwood points out with a wry smile, measured in her subsequent income taxes alone, that just might be the best $6,000 the people of Canada ever spent.” More times than I care to count, Mount quotes her, refers to her, defers to her. She deserves a co-author credit. The merit of Atwood’s work has been augmented by her infallible topicality, expert timing, and quiet genius for self-promotion.
Canada has made a small but credible mark internationally, in prose if not poetry. Canadian novelists often appear as finalists or winners of prizes like the Man Booker. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, but not the equally worthy Mavis Gallant or Leonard Cohen who, unlike Bob Dylan, was a poet. Still, the mark isn’t as indelible as, say, Poland’s. Perhaps we need an unhappier history.
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, the self-serving guide that Anansi published and Atwood wrote with a little help from her friends, imagined a literature of victims and wounded survivors, is a prime exhibit of the non-evaluative thematic criticism that Frye espoused (never mind that selection is evaluation.) It’s one thing to say that good writing has a theme; another to say it’s good because it has a theme.
Echoing one theme, Mount says that CanLit embraced “an entire literature of loss－poem after poem and novel after novel about lost people and lost places.” This time round, some foreign-born writers self-identify with a diaspora; others seek identity, and occasionally prestige, through victimhood.
Since the sixties, much has changed. Compared to the triumphal Expo ’67, last year’s sesquicentennial celebrations had a glib, vaguely spurious air. In place of piddly Governor General’s Awards, we get rich prizes like the Giller for fiction and the Griffin for poetry－the latter endowed by Scott Griffin, Anansi’s owner. Rich prizes for the lucky few, not to mention social-media self-raves, are no substitute for broadly based, intelligent, informed criticism of which, compared to the sixties, there is now pitiably little. In Mount’s view, “What’s really changed is that the whole context for Canadian writing－its production, reception, and definition－is changed. The Canadiana section at the bookstore is no more.”
Arrival departs in a bundle of contradictions. CanLit, the author concludes, was a naissance, a birth, not a renaissance, a revival of classics. Canadian literature hardly existed before the CanLit boom, and, he implies, only exists now in post-national guise. “As Northrop Frye said as early as 1967, Canada moved faster and farther than most countries toward the emerging post-national world. Much the same happened with its literature, which became a post-national literature almost in the moment of its arrival as a national literature.” So we’re post-national. But no. A sentence later, Mount says, “For Frye, and for me, it’s just part of the inevitable maturing of a capitalist society, a society that is now politically national, economically international, and culturally regional.” And “Canadian literature?” It’s “now just the sum of its parts, a useful abstraction. But that abstraction did not exist until the CanLit boom of the 1960s, and that’s the legacy of that remarkable time.”
Any country or literature is the sum of its parts; any country or literature that deserves the name is more than the sum of its parts. Right now, we’re in the process of deciding whether we are more.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, January 2018
Origin of Species
by John Metcalf
Although Nick Mount dispenses considered doses of piercingly funny literary criticism en passant, his new book, Arrival: The Story of CanLit, sets out not to judge but to record. He records what some of the writers thought of as the “naissance” of Canadian literature, a spurning of the word “renaissance” on the grounds that there was little or nothing prior to the sixties worth revisiting or reviving.
“In most parts of Canada,” said Mordecai Richler in 1961, “only Mazo de la Roche and snow have been there before you.”
Mount sees the birth of CanLit in heroic terms. He would agree, I think, with Philip Marchand’s description of the period as “the heroic age of Canadian literature.” Mount refers to Dennis Lee in precisely these terms.
“Civil Elegies is the closest that Canadian literature has come to a founding epic—our Waste Land but also our Aeneid.”
(I can’t agree with Mount over the poetry as poetry, but I am in entire agreement about the poem’s importance.)
In his memoir, Typing, Matt Cohen wrote of the sixties:
Those years were crucial not because all the best books were written then (they weren’t), but because the universe of Canadian literature mutated into a new existence at that time, and has retained approximately the same definition even as it evolved over three decades into something much richer and more unpredictable than its narrow base might have suggested … Within a few years a visible explosion had begun, a burst of energy that transformed CanLit from a curiosity sometimes talked about at Commonwealth Conferences into a prominent world literature.
One of the (many) joys of Arrival is that it is untainted by the glop of postmodern “critical” verbiage and “thought,” an affliction that, in the words of Merton Professor of Poetry John Carey, “pretty clearly calls for a spell of sedation and devoted nursing.” Mount’s writing is consistently pleasurable, buoyant, witty, aphoristic; it consistently offers such entertainment as:
Before the 1960s, nobody but an anthropologist would have used the words culture and Toronto in the same sentence. Culture was elsewhere, in London or New York, even Montreal, cities with restaurants and bars and theaters, cities where you didn’t have to fill out a form to buy a bottle of whiskey.
… the story of the CanLit boom is also the story of how Toronto finally became the cultural capital English Canada never had.”
And: “One reason the writers of the 1960s were so well noticed then, and are so well remembered today, is not that they were so many but that they were so few.”
And the final brilliant sentence of Mount’s preface: “This book is about the past, but like all such books it’s for the present, a book that I hope helps explain how we got from there to here, from a country without a literature to a literature without a country.”
In the opening chapter, Mount sketches in the historical and economic conditions under which CanLit made its appearance:
By 1949, over 80% of all manufactured goods imported into Canada came from America. America wanted what Canada had, and Canada wanted what America made. For Canada, the result wasn’t just an “unprecedented rise in the standard of living.” It was also a large though not unprecedented rise in anxiety about the source of that rise, America and its stuff.
This is the economic context that put televisions in Canadian homes and then built a theatre in Stratford…. It’s the context that produced the economic continentalism and the cultural nationalism of the 1960s, both Canadian and Québécois, including the literary explosion in both languages.
The birth of CanLit is played against this backdrop. As a bit player in the shaping of this drama through editing, anthologizing, and teaching, I can attest to the astonishing accuracy of the anecdotes, episodes, and portraits that enliven the narrative. It all reads as if Mount himself had been omnipresent, an illusion created by ten years of endless reading, research in archives, and lengthy interviews with survivors. His depth of knowledge of the period speaks of devotion. This aspect of Arrival reminded me of that touchstone book, T.H. White’s The Age of Scandal.
The anecdotes shine a vivid light: “After the war Purdy ran a taxi/bootlegging business with his father-in-law in Belleville …”
George Jonas “came to Toronto and drove a taxi the first few years, making extra money running customers to floating crap games.”
Mavis Gallant writing in Madrid in 1952 was so poor “she pawned her typewriter for fifteen hundred pesatas, her clock for a breakfast …”
Jack McClelland writing to an abusive Austin Clarke, “What you need more than anything else is a good swift kick in the ass.”
Many of us speak of “sweating blood”; Mount records Alice Munro at the University of Western Ontario struggling financially to get through her second year by working in libraries and the cafeteria and by “selling her blood.”
As CanLit gathered steam, universities started buying writers’ papers. John Newlove sold his to the University of Toronto and, with the proceeds, bought false teeth, teeth that bedevilled my own life years later as he often set them on the bar or dropped them into the beers of other topers and then phoned me to rescue him from the resulting unpleasantnesses.
Arrival covers the entirety of the growth of CanLit: the Massey Commission, the resultant creation of the Canada Council, CanLit and the universities, Jim Foley and his Canada Days, Expo ’67, the specialist CanLit bookstores, (The Double Hook in Montreal, Toronto’s Book Cellar and Longhouse and The Village Bookstore, Vancouver and Victoria’s Duthies and Munro’s), the coffee shops and jazz clubs where poets emoted, the First Floor Club, the Isaacs Gallery, the Bohemian Embassy, Robert Weaver and his CBC program Anthology, the beginnings of the journal Canadian Literature, and the magazine of sixties, The Tamarack Review, Coach House Press and its books declaring themselves printed by “mindless acid freaks,” and the House of Anansi, run by the perpetually enraged Dave Godfrey, but soothed into success by Dennis Lee.
And then there are the writers Mount discusses, a veritable cavalcade: Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Dave Godfrey, Margaret Laurence, Gwen MacEwen, Al Purdy, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Milton Acorn, B.P. Nichol, Mavis Gallant, George Bowering, Alden Nowlen, Alice Munro …
Mount also records the various literary “movements,” the West Coast writers, for example, the Tish group. Tish was home to George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Frank Davey, Fred Wah, and lesser lights. Robert Duncan, visiting US eminence, suggested Tish as a title for their flagship magazine, Tish being an anagram for Shit. What a brilliant title! How naughty! Prophetic, too.
Mount comments gently on Davey’s dreadful book of verse, D-Day and After: “… the Tish practice of stripping away adjective and other ornaments risks overexposing the arrogance.”
“I lose a pen this morning / the third / in two weeks / and my last / and now / I must go out and buy another.”
Mount says in his preface that he did not wish to evaluate the books and writers, to “separate great books from honest work,” because time and readers “generally do a better job than critics of preserving the books that matter.”
But for those who hoped for evaluation, Mount—“because I am a reader too”—has placed throughout Arrival “brief assessments of the most popular, acclaimed, or otherwise remarkable books from the period.”
These “sidebars,” headed by a tiny photo of the book’s cover, comment on a book’s readability and rate it by a one to five star system. These evaluations are not what we have come to expect from academics in good standing. Mount, as practical critic, through his selection of fiction for The Walrus magazine, has made his bones. These snippets are, thank God, brutally honest and sometimes brutally funny.
Of Dave Godfrey’s Governor General’s Award-winning The New Ancestors “… the least enjoyable novel I have ever read. All I can say about it with confidence is that it takes place somewhere in Africa and that Margaret Laurence thought it was a work of a genius. I’d say a madman, but the line between them is sometimes thin.”
Of Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, “These stories are a step up from magazine melodrama, popular fiction lit up by a dose of symbolism and reflection on serious subjects. As Honor Tracy said in her review for the New York Times, ‘Were this collection to be judged by women’s magazine standards, she would doubtless receive an A-plus.’ Like most of Laurence’s fiction, it strikes me as an enjoyable and even important read in its day, but not good enough to survive its time.”
Of Rudy Wiebe’s Governor General’s Award-winning The Temptations of Big Bear “… Wiebe’s plodding style—obese, ungainly sentences that trudge across the pages like the story’s vanishing buffalo.”
Margaret Atwood compares the beginnings of CanLit to “opening a floodgate or the eruption of a volcano: forces building for years and finally breaking out.”
“We opened the box,” says Graham Gibson. “Out came the writers.”
My image of that blissful dawn was the simultaneous appearance from the House of Anansi of the five Spiderline novels, a clarion call, a mobilization order.
In 46 BC, Cicero wrote: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
Arrival is a wonderful act of re-creation; it simply could not be bettered. It is fascinating from page to page, measured but mesmerizing. It will give to readers and writers too young to have been there a vital understanding and appreciation of their inheritance.
—From CNQ 101, Winter 2018