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“Modernism has come to Canada”: the enduring legacy of Dave Godfrey

Dave Godfrey, who died of pancreatic cancer earlier this week, embodied a series of contradictions. He was a staunch cultural nationalist who set his best-known work of fiction in Africa; an author who prized linguistic style over traditional plot and character in his fiction but retained a strong business savvy and focus on market growth as a publisher; and an enthusiastic advocate of new technologies who abandoned that field for the artisanal craft of winemaking. In 1967, Godfrey co-founded House of Anansi Press in Toronto; some 30 years later, he would partner with his wife in launching Softwords, a software company, and Pacific Interconnect, an early internet service provider. While remaining ahead of the curve well into the 1990s, before turning his back on technology in favour of work as a vintner, his involvement with the online technology that would prove so disruptive to the industry he was instrumental in founding was at the very least ironic.

But Godfrey was, by all accounts, a man of prodigious interests, and never one to be tied down to any one approach or subject or dogma. “I most admire him for making sudden turns in his idea of how to use one’s life, and then going all-out in the new activity,” says author George Bowering, himself no stranger to changing tacks in extremis.

As a young upstart, what energized Godfrey most was the idea of a vibrant, living national literature that could stand as a bulwark against the encroachment of American cultural hegemony (an encroachment that has never gone away, notwithstanding the growth of the Canadian publishing industry in the years since Godfrey and Dennis Lee started Anansi).

“I remember Dave bounding into our quonset hut in Iowa City one night,” recalls Godfrey’s friend Clark Blaise, “excited by a book he’d just reviewed (it might have been for Canadian Dimension, but we’re talking 50 years ago). He said, ‘Modernism has come to Canada!’ And it was Hugh Hood’s Flying a Red Kite, which he left for me to read.” What Godfrey admired in Hood – and Robert Kroetsch and Al Purdy – was the ability to break Canadian writing out of what he perceived as the sclerotic nature of much domestic literature at the time.

“Once you start writing about Canada,” Godfrey told Graeme Gibson in an interview included in the latter’s Anansi-published volume of non-fiction, Eleven Canadian Novelists, “you get into the problem which I ran into in [my first story collection] Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola, and that is, reticence is the natural form, you know, and you write these kind of tight-lipped stories. You can see it in the best Canadian fiction too, in a way.” It was precisely this reticence that drove Godfrey out of Canada to Ghana for the setting of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel, The New Ancestors. “I work a lot backwards from language, you know,” Godfrey told Gibson. “[T]hat is, just almost visually I work with words, and musically I work with words.”

The musicality Godfrey was looking for he found in the rhythms of African speech, not those of Canadians (though he would also express to Gibson regret that he didn’t recognize the vivacity of working-class Canadian dialects when he was first exposed to them). This seems passing strange for a publisher who launched what would become a foundational independent house in part out of a feeling that Canada was invisible to Canadian readers. In his book The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada 1946–2006, Roy MacSkimming recalls Godfrey asking a Trinity College professor in 1957 when the university might inaugurate a Canadian literature program. “Maybe in 10 years,” was the response, “if the right people die.”

Of course, Godfrey the publisher was not content to wait for the right people to die; in his conception, the “right people” were not those on the cusp of old age, but rather the young, daring, and innovative writers – Gibson, Atwood, Ondaatje, Marian Engel, Matt Cohen – Anansi helped bring to the fore. As the publisher of Press Porcépic (later Beach Holme Publications), Godfrey was also responsible for publishing work of iconoclastic Canadian writers such as Dorothy Livesay, Mark Anthony Jarman, Susan Musgrave, Keith Maillard, and Marylin Bowering, as well as an early book of poetry by a then-unknown writer named Jane Urquhart.

Reading the Gibson interview, the one thing that is striking is a pervasive unease about Godfrey’s own writing – an unease born of a tension between the novel as an individual creation and a social work. “I mean, when you’re adolescent, life is so intense to you that you don’t mind cutting it all off to write, because it’s just impinging on you,” Godfrey says. “But as you get older, your son is seven years old and you realize he is never going to be four again; and you have another son who is 16 months, and you can just sort of sit and play with him for hours, knowing that it’s all going. And art is all around you; you know, you’re living in it. You get really greedy for life, and you want to grow crops and play music and dance and the whole thing. And it’s harder to cut yourself off.”