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Arrival: The Story of CanLit

by Nick Mount

JulyAugust_Reviews_ArrivalTheStoryOfCanLit_CoverThe vicissitudes of time and gentrification notwithstanding, it can be difficult to comprehend Toronto through its writers. The bust of poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, who dropped out of school in 1959 at age 18 to teach herself ancient languages and write occult, mystical poems, is marooned on a prim traffic island in a part of the Annex where no one with such outlandish ambitions could afford to buy these days. A block north, near Jean Sibelius Square (“Sibelius Park” in Dennis Lee’s iconic 1972 collection, Civil Elegies and Other Poems), the gothic houses, whose “squiggles and arches and / baleful asymmetric glare” are reflected in the eponymous poem’s unmoored left margin and restless tone, now sell for seven figures.

Which is just as well, because throughout Canada’s literary awakening from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, poetry was “an easy and inexpensive challenge to bourgeois respectability within the safety of bourgeois respectability,” according to University of Toronto professor Nick Mount. In Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Mount posits that the lasting contribution of the likes of MacEwen and Lee has been how they “mythologized each other and themselves” at a time when Canada “needed storied writers even more than the stories they wrote.”

In an increasingly anticolonial climate and an increasingly cosmopolitan nation, it suddenly behooved a self-aggrandizing chauvinist like Irving Layton, in 1956, to call out the country’s oldest press for refusing to distribute a book in which he called churches “‘haemorhoids upon the city’s anus.’” (In fact, doing so landed him a publishing deal with McClelland & Stewart.) Between 1963 and 1972, the Canadian population increased by 17 per cent. At the same time, the number of Canadian-authored, Canadian-published literary books increased by 250 per cent, while sales increased by 320 per cent.

The book’s jacket copy credits Mount with unearthing what caused the CanLit boom, but Arrival is more a survey than an excavation. Mount’s writing is energetic and breezy. Transformed by increasing immigration and affluence after the Second World War, mid-20th century Canada was eager to escape the constriction of British colonialism, but wary of the gaping maw of U.S. cultural hegemony. Where data on Canadian publishing is inadequate (and for much of this period it is), Mount tells stories about the writers, readers, and institutions that navigated CanLit through the confluence of these historical factors and, in doing so, shaped the literary infrastructure that exists today.

In the orbit of the Atwoods, McClellands, and ubiquitous Masseys, Mount traces a constellation of the literary boom’s lesser known drivers: the bookstore and café owners on whom writers could count for a small loan or a place to sleep, the editors and producers who subjected an unsuspecting public to their writing, and a public that responded by actually buying their books. It’s almost enough to make one long for a simpler time. But perhaps more than anything else, Mount’s exploration of CanLit is a story of contradictions.

Though less than a handful of small literary magazines existed before the 1960s, the rise of mainstream magazines like Star Weekly in the 1950s gave alternative magazines a reason to exist, namely “successful commercial models and a booming consumer culture to define themselves against.” Mount not only casts America’s entire cultural industry as a Goliath for “Canadian cultural nationalism … to define itself against,” but also credits the American counterculture for giving Canadians “their most visible and exciting examples of political, social, and cultural rebellion.”

It’s not an entirely galvanizing narrative, to be sure, but then Arrival is not out to perpetuate myths. Irving Layton’s self-proclaimed sexual prowess is acknowledged and expeditiously debunked; admired writers are shown to have empowered themselves through structural racism and misogyny; iconic works are composed not as paeans to the remote landscape but because a far-flung college happens to be hiring after the author’s grant falls through. Mount’s passion for CanLit is palpable, but restrained; his very brief assessments of individual books from the period – dozens of them separated as sidebars throughout Arrival – are pointed but not unfair. Of the first collection by Ottawa poet and professor George Johnston, a writer of sentimental and occasionally memorable lyrics, Mount says, “If Philip Larkin had been a happy man, these are poems he would have written.”

Presumably such pithiness is necessary if Mount is to cover so much territory without getting bogged down. Arrival is, after all, packaged as a book for lay readers. Still, Mount seems capable of more than he’s delivering here. Aside from a couple of brief chapters and occasional forays into the east and west coasts, Ontario and Quebec dominate this book. Compared to his efforts to bring the appraisals of Al Purdy and Margaret Laurence down to earth, Mount’s attempt to place lesser-known authors like Harold Sonny Ladoo and Juan Butler within Arrival’s broader origin-seeking thesis feels somewhat perfunctory. What would have elevated Arrival from a good and useful book to a truly memorable one is a bit of selective lingering, a zooming in on some of the overlooked territory Mount scans in his panoramic view.