Friday, August 17, 2007

Rare Reads: Tracing Toronto's Literary Genealogy

For a long time it seemed as if Toronto literature began around 1968, the year Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown was published in full, the year Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies first appeared in a very limited edition issued by the nascent House of Anansi Press. After that things began to move quickly. In 1969 Margaret Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, was published by McClelland & Stewart. In 1970 Mel Hurtig reissued Morley Callaghan's influential 1928 Toronto novel, Strange Fugitive (described erroneously by at least one literary scholar as "Canada's first urban novel.") In 1972 Oberon Press released Gwendolyn MacEwen's Toronto mythology, Noman. In 1974 the City of Toronto established the annual Toronto Book Award, and after that Toronto novels came thick and fast. By 1987, when Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion appeared, or 1996, when McClelland & Stewart published Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, it might have seemed difficult to keep up with the outpouring of Toronto literature.

It might have seemed difficult to keep up with if anybody had been keeping track.

But, as literary scholar Germaine Warkentin argues in "Mapping Wonderland", a fascinating and illuminating essay on Toronto literature published in the Literary Review of Canada in 2005, Torontonians have trouble remembering our own narratives. She writes,
A key difficulty in constructing the city's metaphors is the handling of meaning from one generation to the next, or across barriers of birth, class and circumstance. For a large part of its history, Toronto has been in a state of near-amnesia, seeking desperately for its own memory.
Warkentin suggests this amnesia is connected to Torontonians' propensity for tearing down the city's buildings in dreams of newer and more impressive monuments: "the urban scene changes with unimaginable speed ... the amnesia of the merchant class has destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt ..." In Warkentin's assessment, we might learn to navigate our cultural territory by observing how Toronto writers navigate the city's labyrinth of ravines, bridges, and intersections.

But it is not just the city's monuments we have neglected and rebuilt. We have done the same thing with the city's literature. If nearly every Toronto building is erected upon the ruins of its predecessors, so too does every Toronto novel has its shadow. And, in the same way that old churches refract and shatter against the new glass towers, early Toronto novels may be seen to reverberate and echo across their successors. And we might learn to navigate this ruptured genealogy by tracing it from one known point to another, as if we were traversing the city from one neighbourhood or ravine or mayoral regime to the next.

Germaine Warkentin traces the origins of Toronto literature to circa 1790s descriptive accounts written by Elizabeth Simcoe and the surveyor Joseph Bouchette. Warkentin's rendering of these early accounts, "from diary, through "statistical sketch," animal tale, short story, thriller, to the novel in its various forms", overlaps closely with William Keith's inventory in his detailed Literary Images of Ontario (University of Toronto Press, 1992). Neither account can do more than acknowledge First Nations depictions of the villages of Teiaigon (on the Humber River) and Ganatsekwyagon (a Rouge River settlement).

But even prior to the arrival of the Simcoes and their surveyors, the French had engaged in the Toronto area with the Senecas, the Mississaugas, the Huron, and the Iroquois for 150 years. Scholars are familiar with Percy Robinson's Toronto during the French Regime, 1615-1793 (1933; second edition 1965), but readers interested in this era of Toronto's past would do well to read George F. Millner's undeservedly forgotten Toronto novel, The Sergeant of Fort Toronto (published by the Gorham Press in 1914), which, thanks to a collaboration between the University of Toronto's Robarts Library and the Internet Archive's Texts Archive, can now be read online here. It is generally worthwhile to read historical fiction with an eye to the fantasy inherent in recreated events, but The Sergeant of Fort Toronto is vivid and engagingly written for its era, and provides insight not only into Toronto (once Fort Rouille) during the days of the French but also into literary preoccupations of the early twentieth century.

The Sergeant of Fort Toronto is, of course, far from the only forgotten Toronto novel about a nearly vanished aspect of Toronto's past. Recently I picked up a copy of Annie Gregg Savigny's long lost (some might say deservedly so) Romance of Toronto, first published in 1888 but reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 1973. Savigny describes Toronto in florid, overblown prose:
Toronto is a fair matron with many children, whom she has planted out on either side and north of her as far as her great arms can stretch. She lies north and south, while her lips speak loving words to her offspring, and to her spouse, the County of York; when she rests she pillows her head on the pine-clad hills of sweet Rosedale, while her feet lave at pleasure in the blue waters of beautiful Lake Ontario.
Savigny's novel may be painful to read, but its preoccupation with representing Toronto as more than a colonial backwater is telling. Further, its efforts to historicize Toronto anticipate subsequent decades of Toronto novels, including the bestselling-in-its-day but now long forgotten 'Toronto gothic' Telforth family saga (Serpent's Tooth, Time in Ambush, Lorena Telforth, and The Wise Brother) written by Isabelle Hughes and published between 1947 and 1954, which traces a fictional Kingsway family and the City's own progress from the 1830s onward.

Isabelle Hughes wasn't the only bestselling Toronto novelist of the era who has been forgotten since, either. Phyllis Brett Young, whose excellent 1960 novel The Torontonians, is being reissued by McGill-Queen's Unviersity Press this fall, also wrote Psyche, another set-in-Toronto bestseller, first published in 1959). Young's Toronto-based fictions might be considered as dated and deservedly forgotten as Savigny's Romance of Toronto, except that The Torontonians seems directly to anticipate many of the same proto-feminist themes Margaret Atwood takes up a decade later in The Edible Woman. Indeed, it seems an error to read Atwood's work without looking back to her predecessors and their renditions of Toronto, especially Phyllis Brett Young but perhaps also Hughes and maybe even Savigny.

As I pore over vintage Toronto novels uncovered through painstaking research or fortuitous luck, I am struck repeatedly by their connection to current works. Vincent Lam's Giller Prize-winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, for example which reminds me not only of Don Coles' Doctor Bloom's Story (2004) but of Sol Allen's salacious and perplexing medical novels including Toronto Doctor (1949) and The Gynecologist(1965). Gwendolyn MacEwen's voice echoing in Darren O'Donnell's Your Secrets Sleep with Me (2004) and Bruce Macdonald's Coureurs De Bois (2007). Connections between Henry Kreisel's forgotten 1948 novel of Jewish immigrant life in Toronto, The Rich Man, and David Bezmozgis' Natasha and Other Stories (2004) or John Millers' A Sharp Intake of Breath (2006).

Even the title of Germaine Warkentin's literary essay -- "Mapping Wonderland" -- has its echoes in Toronto's literary past. Warkentin connects her inventory to George Walker's now-cancelled Toronto-based television drama, This is Wonderland, which represents Toronto as a labyrinth of justice mapped against streets, ravines, buildings, faces. And yet, even Wonderland has a literary precedent, traceable at least as far back as Harry Wodson's The Whirlpool: Scenes from Toronto Police Court, first published in 1917 and describing an almost identical drama of corridors and labyrinths.

Toronto's literary genealogy can be traced back as far back, and perhaps even farther, than the history of the city itself.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and the imaginative qualities of cities. This commentary first appeared at Reading Toronto.]

1 comment:

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