Unearthed recordings reveal the early days of the literary powerhouses who gave birth to CanLit in the 1960s.
From 1969 to 1970, radio interviewer Earle Toppings recorded sixteen Canadian writers and poets who went on to become pillars of Canadian literature. These emerging icons of Canadian literature, including Margaret Laurence, Sinclair Ross, and Al Purdy, captured in Toppings’s interviews and readings, give intimate and compelling views of their developing prose and poetry, in their own words.
The Earle Toppings tapes provide a distinctive and special glimpse into the workshops of emerging CanLit authors, revealing their thoughts about writing, about their successes and failures, about their place in Canada and in Canadian literature. This written version of Toppings’s recordings presents exact transcripts of the spoken interviews, complemented by brief biographies and bibliographies. The interviews were carefully compiled by the inaugural group of four Northrop Frye Research Centre Undergraduate Fellows at Victoria College. This rare portrait would not have been complete without an interview with Mr. Toppings himself, sharing his personal recollections of the authors he recorded and his own insight into their works.
About the author
Anne Urbancic is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Italian Studies and the Mary Rowell Jackman Professor and coordinator of VIC ONE (Northrop Frye and Lester Pearson Streams) at Victoria College, University of Toronto.
- Commended, Dewey Divas and the Dudes Fall 2017 pick
Excerpt: Literary Titans Revisited: The Earle Toppings Interviews with CanLit Poets and Writers of the Sixties (edited by Anne Urbancic)
Imagine the trepidation but also the excitement of a first-year student sent to the Victoria University Special Collections (or any archival facility, really) to choose an interesting subject whose letters, diaries, papers, artefacts, and ephemera could result in a fine final grade — if the student reads them and analyzes them appropriately. Where to start? How to organize all the information? And, finally, when to finish? Because as we all know, when we have discovered a treasure trove, we’d like the exploration to continue indefinitely.
This is what many of my students experience as they approach their major assignment in my first-year historiography and cultural memory course at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. I am always astonished by their discoveries, how carefully and thoughtfully they analyze and present their findings, and, most of all, how many of them are inspired to pursue more archival and primary source research as they continue their studies.
The historiography course is the genesis of the project that has turned into the little volume you are reading. It began with a young woman, Griffin Kelly, whose name will appear again later; the treasure box she examined contained papers, notes, and booklets but most significantly, a series of compact discs. Intrigued, she probed further and contacted the donor, Earle Toppings, who still resided in Toronto. He joined the class the day she pre¬sented her findings and then stayed to chat. Thanks to Earle Toppings, the end of the course was the beginning of our project.
What Griffin found on the compact discs were the interviews and readings of sixteen Canadian authors and poets. These sixteen are the pantheon of writers whose work heralded the birth of what is now affectionately called CanLit. As a genre, Canadian literature arrived late. Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets, but they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century. Why? Many of the interviews you will read here will give you reasons to ponder and some insights. The interviewees acknowledged that, sadly, their works had been largely overlooked, except, perhaps, by an academic elite.
Nevertheless, as you read their interviews and poetry, you will soon discover that they are writers with universal appeal. They are uniquely Canadian but not narrowly academic. Their artistry meets all literary standards of excellence, and their themes speak to all of us. These sixteen writers were the powerhouses of literature in the 1960s and early 1970s. They provided the energy, the encouragement, and the inspiration for the fine poets and prose writers who have followed.
When former editor turned radio host and literary aficionado Earle Toppings chanced upon some unclaimed academic funds, he decided to record the voices of this pantheon. He used reel-to-reel tapes, which had become an obsolete medium years later when he tried to find a way to preserve them. The master tapes were no longer available. Undaunted, he found a technician, Dean Allen, who agreed to transfer the reel copies to compact discs. Even more happily for our project, Toppings donated the discs and relevant papers to Victoria University Special Collections where Griffin found them.
Transcribing the tapes ensured a new life for the authors Toppings cap¬tured on his tapes. These writers are all gone now, but in the pages of this book they remain fresh: perceptive, fascinating, sometimes almost prescient. Their words abound with acute observations and thoughtful reflections on their lives, on life in Canada, on Canada’s life. It does not take long to real¬ize the universality and timelessness of their work. Their writing explores themes that our society continues to grapple with today, almost half a century after they sat down with Dr. Toppings in a closet-size recording studio in downtown Toronto: the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice. Toppings expertly invites them to reveal the inner workings of their writing and their thoughts — not their “third divorce” as Toppings says in his own interview, but the fundamental elements that shaped their words, their sentences, their rhythms. Sixteen writers in frank conversation. Then, as a lagniappe, in his interview with the students, Toppings shares his own memories of the recording sessions to enrich our knowledge and thrill us with his interpretations of the writers and poets who sat opposite him at the recording table.
While the written page does not offer the timbre and cadences of their voices, it nonetheless brings back to us their conversations and readings that inform and delight. To revisit Gwendolyn McEwan’s words in “The Compass,” for example, is to envisage the shy exchange between the two writers on the same train: the eloquence of the young poet is meaningfully juxtaposed with the illiterate old man just learning to trace the letters of the alphabet, even though he, unschooled as he is, is the one who literally holds life’s compass in his hand through his experiences. To read of Hugh Garner’s difficult youth in his own parlance and contrast it with Mordecai Richler’s contention that working at hard jobs would have made him more of a writer than having published a novel at age nineteen gives us pause to reflect on how our own selves are shaped by daily challenges. Raymond Souster evokes a cheeky but sympathetic smile with his image of two lovers in an amorous embrace, zipped up in a sleeping bag in front of City Hall. Is theirs a comment on restrictive social convention or an act of freedom? Earle Birney asks the same question in his poignant lines about the bear on the road to Delhi: the lumbering animal is taught to dance to earn small sums for his impoverished trainers. Are the trainers any freer than the bear? Miriam Waddington considers how her Jewish heritage affects how she sees the world; Irving Layton is also concerned with how being Jewish influences his poetry. In his self-recognition of being a father and a son, his poetry also reflects the interplay, sometimes gentle, sometimes gruff, of family. Eli Mandel presents a mythopoeic worldview, combining elements of myth and reality into a life lesson. Neither didactic nor pedantic, his lines evoke traces of tales told before recorded time, tales that continue to be relevant today. Dorothy Livesay describes how her own growth into personhood resembles the Canadian environment, and she envisages herself as the prairie wind or the silence of the vast country that envelops her. This metamorphosis is almost imperceptible to her as she engages in the act of creating poetry, and only later does she realize that her work marries nature and art. She does this in lines that imaginatively intertwine a Bartok concerto and a sunlit geranium brightening her windowsill.
Other writers also contemplate the influence of the Canadian landscape on our collective psyche: what does Canadian landscape mean? How does it vary across the thousands of kilometres of this political entity that is Canada? How does it change over time? How does it feel to be part of it? Read the interviews of Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan, and Margaret Laurence: all were established internationally before they gained the often grudging acknowledgement of Canadians. Nevertheless, they were all anxious to showcase the Canada they knew. In their words on tape, they celebrate their Canadian perspectives, as does F.R. Scott who delves into the promise of Canada’s future with his invitation to give new names to the Canadian landscape. Why new names? For him the Canadian land is free, it is fresh; it is not burdened with the traditions, the histories, and the troubles of Europe; and therefore it deserves new, unencumbered names. Not so for Sinclair Ross, whose interview reveals an underlying but unmistakeable bitterness for not being read, not being understood, not being accepted. Al Purdy is not so harsh. For him it is true that Canada is not perfect, as he points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken Indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations. His lines call for us to come to some understanding of who we are as Canadians and of how to accept the many generations that came before us, despite the brokenness. Just how many generations are needed before we understand our essential nature as Canadians? James Reaney suggests “1024 great great great great great great great great grandparents”; these are the generations that lead to the birth of one child.
The four undergraduate students who transcribed the tapes made a profound engagement with Canadian literature. The winners of Victoria College’s first Northrop Frye Centre Undergraduate Research Award, they spent hours beyond their regular academic obligations researching, listening, typing, discussing, and, I’m quite certain, fretting over the final manuscript. Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Griffin Kelly, and Vipasha Shaikh are each responsible for four chapters of this book. They were helped immeasurably by Pratt Special Collections librarians Agatha Barc and Colin Deinhardt, who prepared training sessions for the specialized research demands and mentored the students throughout the project. With them, of course, was Earle Toppings, who patiently answered inquiries and himself agreed to an in-depth interview, moderated by Agatha Barc. His conversation with the students fills in many gaps, offers additional facts, and provides a comprehensive context for the complete project, both the original one and this written version.
From the first days of this project, we realized its significance as a personal history of the early years of CanLit. It is personal because it is told through the words of the poets and authors who nurtured Canadian literature into what it has become. It is a history because it records and preserves the nature and status of Canadian literature in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Perhaps the awareness that the writers display about their work and its place on the literary stage was prompted by the highly successful Canadian centennial celebration, especially Expo 67, the world exposition held in Montreal. Expo 67 marked a milestone moment when Canadians from sea to sea to sea began to take a new look at themselves and their society. And, despite tensions, they liked what they saw. That this present volume should celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial is a wonderful and appropriate coincidence. We see what they saw, and we like it very much.
Just a final note: as we worked we noticed that in many cases the poems read by our poets differed from their published versions. We have noted substantial discrepancies. We have chosen to respect the lines as read on the audiotapes.
The affectionately used term CanLit is much matured now. Tens of books have already come out to focus on the many various issues of that era. Hundreds more could be expected in near future which will give a true picture of CanLit boom scenario. Literary Titans Revisited can be cited as an exemplary one, for the literary enthusiasts and for general readers as well.
The Daily Star (Bangladesh)