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Toronto: A Literary Guide

by Greg Gatenby

This may not come out right, but a couple of times as I was ambling happily through Greg Gatenby’s Toronto: A Literary Guide I had the waking dream that this was some kind of surveillance ledger I was reading, the secret archive of some painstaking Soviet-style police force, a literary Stasi that for the past 200 years has been dedicated to shadowing the city’s writers, gathering evidence. Such a writer lived in the house with the yellow door while writing such a book, then they moved up the street to number 62, where they were subsequently engaged in poetical activities. I may just have been suspicious, but I kept wanting to skip a few pages ahead to see whether any arrests were going to be made.

In fact, of course, the only force in play here is Gatenby, the author and long-time artistic director of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. Before it gets out that I think of him as some kind of spy master or commissar of secret police, I’ll hasten to say that his activities are as admirably anti-skulk, anti-shadow, and anti-Stasi as they come. Secret policemen, after all, are in the business of suppression and silence, forcible editing, erasure.

Gatenby, meanwhile, is out in the open, ardent, argumentative, tireless – why, I’d even venture heroic – in digging into, discovering, and declaring for Canadian (and more specifically, Torontonian) literature.

Any way you approach it, Toronto: A Literary Guide is a prodigious piece of work. Its formal beginnings, Gatenby writes in his introduction, date back 21 years. Over dinner one night in 1978, Morley Callaghan mentioned having met William Butler Yeats during one of the poet’s stays in Toronto. Gatenby was amazed to learn that Yeats had visited the city no less than four times. Just how large was the undiscovered neighbourhood of Toronto’s literary heritage? Gatenby decided then and there he was going to make it his business to find out.

Toronto: A Literary Guide packs in the fruits of that business so far; more than 500 writers, some of whom, like Yeats, only visited, many more who were born in the city and stayed all their lives. It’s organized into neighbourhood walking tours that have Gatenby shepherding you up and down streets, pointing out significant addresses, detouring at will into asides and anecdotes – and opinion. The opinions won’t surprise anyone who knows anything about Gatenby. He rails against the city’s colonial mentality, past and present. He attacks those who don’t respect history the way he does and those whose respect is wrongheaded. He minces no words.

The book’s full of familiar names whose Toronto connections are well-known; Atwood and Hemingway, Davies and Garner, Findley, Engel, MacEwan. Just as plentiful are those eminent writers whose links to the city haven’t been so well documented, the likes of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, and Bram Stoker. The American writer Mary Gaitskill, Gatenby tells, was employed for a time at Le Strip Club on Yonge Street. On one of the occasions Winston Churchill visited the city on a speaking tour, he was so disgusted with the sound system at Maple Leaf Gardens that he abandoned his microphone and delivered his speech unamplified. Writers with a medical connection to Toronto? Well, there was the week Agatha Christie spent nursing her sickened husband at the King Edward Hotel. And, amazingly, the American composer Moss Hart and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner checked into Wellesley Hospital the same week in 1960, Hart for a heart attack, Lerner for ulcers.

As rich as the book is in those sorts of oddments, Gatenby’s greatest gift may be his recovery of writers whose names and works we’ve forgotten. I know I’ve sought out and started to read Peregrine Acland’s unheralded 1929 war novel All Else is Folly, which was much admired by Ford Madox Ford. Who knows nowadays about the poet Wilson Macdonald (1880– 1967)? Gatenby judges that most of his verse doesn’t stand up, but that doesn’t mean he deserves oblivion. In his day he rivalled Stephen Leacock as the country’s best-known writer; “Canada must be proud of this great genius writing in her midst,” Albert Einstein advised. What about Frank “Toronto” Prewett (1893–1962), another poet, who was friends with Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon? How about Margaret Bullard, a transplanted Englishwoman who wrote a novel called Wedlock’s the Devil (1951)? Gatenby calls it “the most vicious attack ever mounted against Toronto in fiction,” and while it doesn’t sound like it’s worth resurrecting on any literary basis, he suggests another use. “Those who hate Toronto,” he writes, “may wish to come to 67 Alcina Avenue where Bullard lived circa 1947 to 1950, and genuflect in memory of her rage and perspicacity.”

I’ve done my share of literary pilgriming over the years. I’ve pursued Flann O’Brien and James Joyce in Dublin, Federico García Lorca in Granada, E. B. White and James Thurber in New York. In Edinburgh, I’ve trudged through a winter’s rain to see the house in which Robert Louis Stevenson was a boy. In Oak Park, Illinois, I’ve lingered on the lawn of the house where Ernest Hemingway was born, sizing up the big new barbecue that the present-day residents have wheeled out on the porch.

The question I’ve always ended up coming around to, in Ireland, Spain, and Scotland, has to do with what it is, exactly, I’m hoping to find. Something beyond the author’s books, obviously, and beyond biography, too. So is it plain old hero-worship? Am I paying homage, or wishing for ghosts that never materialize? Is it enough that I’ve put myself in the presence of architecture Stevenson and Lorca knew, that I’ve stood where they stood? I’ve never quite figured it out. Wandering through Toronto: A Literary Guide, I kept hoping for Gatenby’s thoughts on the matter. He’s a diligent researcher, a wonderful storyteller, a persuasive advocate, but he seems to assume – or presume – that everybody knows the reasons why it’s important to identify, honour, and visit literary landmarks.

In Dublin a couple of years ago, I remember an Irish writer telling me that writers were so much a part the civic infrastructure, that literature was so organically a part of the city, that removing them would be tantamount to cutting out the streets or stopping up the pubs: Dublin just wouldn’t work anymore. Without Gatenby I don’t think we’d be able to think of Toronto and its writers as having the same kind of organic connection. With him, we can, and for that we owe him thanks.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: McArthur & Company


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55278-073-2

Released: May

Issue Date: 1999-6

Categories: Reference