Book Review – Arrival: The Story of CanLit

Arrival: The Story of CanLitIn 2018, we take it for granted that Canada has an abundance of authors with international reputations. But sixty years ago – not that long ago, really – there was no such thing as CanLit. Great authors came from elsewhere, from countries with a history, not from a northern colony.

All that changed in the 1960s, and Nick Mount documents why in Arrival: The Story of CanLit (House of Anansi Press, 2017). Part social and cultural history, part mini-biography, and part snappy book reviews, Arrival artfully weaves together the various strands that produced the “CanLit” tapestry.

Mount is a professor at the University of Toronto, but as he states in the preface, he has not written an academic book. He manages to condense ten years of research into an insightful, accessible, and entertaining story about the awakening of Canadian writers – and publishers and readers – to the talent under their own noses.

Many of the authors that emerged from what Mount calls “the long decade” from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s are still read today – Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Farley Mowat, Marie-Claire Blais, Dennis Lee, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, and Pierre Berton, to name a few.

Why did they surface when they did?

Mount attributes the “explosion” in Canadian literature mainly to economics. Postwar affluence meant that people had the money and time to buy and read books. Canadians began to consciously buy Canadian, wanting to define themselves against America and its stuff. Expo ’67 reinforced this new national pride.

The federal government stepped up with funding for authors, small presses, literary awards, libraries, and universities.

Little magazines flourished, new bookstores opened, and CBC Radio shows like Critically Speaking and Anthology broadcast Canadian plays and short stories to a national audience. Poets were popular! The baby-boom generation, then in college or university, fed the demand.

This confluence of factors opened a “floodgate.” Suddenly there were places for writers – who had been there all along, albeit not in large numbers – to publish and find readers.

Mount credits two personalities in particular – Robert Weaver and Jack McClelland – in godfathering the CanLit boom. Weaver, an avid reader, actively sought out Canadian writers and broadcast their voices into kitchens across the country. He paid them well, too. The flamboyant Jack McClelland of McClelland & Stewart put authors first, and did more for them than any other publisher.

Arrival is organized thematically into 18 chapters exploring different reasons behind the boom. Each chapter begins with a mini-biography of an author, many of whom are “characters” in their own right. There’s the hot-blooded and egotistical Irving Layton, the moody and mystical Leonard Cohen, and the big-hearted boozer, Al Purdy.

There’s Gwendolyn MacEwen, who dropped out of high school to become a poet. She married another poet, Milton Acorn, “a Second World War veteran with a metal plate in his head, a socialist chip on his shoulder, and a serious case of chronic depression.” She left him eight months later for “a painter who conducted séances on Ward’s island and claimed to be from another planet.”

Mount is not above delighting in literary gossip.

Another fun feature of the book is Mount’s Goodreads-style rating system. Only eight titles published between 1959 and 1976 get five stars, which means they’re not just excellent; in Mount’s view, they’re “world classics.” Here they are:

  • The Double Hook (1959), by Sheila Watson
  • My Heart Is Broken (1964), by Mavis Gallant
  • The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), by Margaret Atwood
  • Lives of Girls and Women (1971), by Alice Munro
  • The Martyrology: Books 1 & 2 (1972), by bpNichol
  • Civil Elegies and Other Poems (1972), by Dennis Lee
  • Selected Poems (1972), by Al Purdy
  • The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976), by Alistair MacLeod

I wish Mount had written this book back in the 1980s when I did a master’s in Canadian literature. In those days, we were taught close reading of the text, but no context. And I would not have graduated, like I did, without reading The Double Hook.

My only quibble is that the story at times gets lost in the details. The hazard of knowing so much, which Mount clearly does, is including too much. The many players are hard to keep track of (the 18-page index is mostly names), the chronology leaps around, and chapter titles don’t match the epigraph or featured writer.

But this quibble is just that. This book stands out for its wisdom, wit, and stellar writing. Mount has the ability to render personalities on the page, to reveal them from the inside out – the result, no doubt, of years of immersive research and reading. He is a master of story and sentence craft.

Ironically, Mount argues that by the time CanLit arrived, the need for it had passed. Borders mattered less and less, inspiring what Mount calls “a literature of loss.”

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