SHORTLY AFTER Christmas Day in 1946, crusty, hard-drinking Hugh Garner holed up in a grubby rooming-house on Toronto's St. Joseph Street to write the book that secured his literary reputation. Cabbagetown was a semi-autobiographical novel about a dissatisfied young man living among drunks, prostitutes, and other tormented souls in what was then the biggest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America. The mostly laudatory reviews spurred the book to amazing sales heights: 45,000 copies sold in a country where most people thought that the backs of bus transfers offered more interesting reading than Canadian novels
On a recent walk through Cabbagetown, I realized that there are no streets or lanes named after the local boy who published 14 books and won a Governor General's Award in 1963 .The absence of civic recognition saddened but didn't surprise me. This country has a lousy record when it comes to honouring prominent authors: there are plenty of public sites bearing the names of merchants and politicians but, as far as I know, no major city possesses a Morley Callaghan Boulevard, a Hugh MacLennan Park, or a Gabrielle Roy Bridge. (A few years ago, a group of Toronto artists suggested that a newly born waterfront thoroughfare be called Milton Acorn Street. The civic string-pullers decided that a foreign cleric was more important to the city than an eccentric people's poet; they named the street after Bishop Desmond Tutu.)
Our postal system isn't much better. Canada Post has a long-standing rule against honouring people who are still
among the living. Only members of the Royal Family are exempt from that archaic and unfairly restrictive regulation. So while John McCrea, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Louis Hemon have gotten their own stamps, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies haven't. Looking at Canadian literature from a philatelist's point of view, there is no indication that any writer of extraordinary merit has emerged since Canadian literature truly began to flower in the 1960s.
None of this is likely to change. Bureaucrats who can't steep at night because they get too excited going through reports comparing office spaces and leasing costs aren't inclined by nature to read an Alice Munro book, let alone recommend that the country pay her a special tribute. So maybe, instead of grasping the slender hope that government authorities will someday respond to the need, the Writers' Union and other cultural bodies should be beating the drum for a permanent institution that would ensure Canadian writers, past and present, are given the respect they have earned a national museum of literature.
Does that seem a little off the wall? It shouldn't. There are government and privately funded institutions across the land where you can view steel-wheel tractors, Lewis machine-guns, South American insects, and Asian pottery. And two years ago a troupe of Ottawa-based mirth-makers, the Tory party, got more belly laughs than any comedian ever did by announcing that they were contributing $5 million toward the price ice of creating an international humour museum in Montreal. Don't our authors deserve to be on equal footing with Peruvian butterflies and a collection bin for comedic memorabilia?
This doesn't mean I'm urging the federal government to toss the writers a bone. Nobody wants a dusty second-floor walkup managed by someone who once worked as a high-school librarian. I'm suggesting nothing less than a smartly turned-out building, at least as expensive as the humour museum, where - among mixed-media displays - readings and other cultural events could be regularly staged. A community gathering place, a sort of literary long-house, and not just a sombre depository for yellowing manuscripts.
Like the British Museum in London, the Canadian Museum of Literature could rescue revealing letters and original manuscript pages from academic archives and place them on permanent exhibit. There are, for instance, several interesting letters buried in a University of Toronto filing cabinet that Leonard Cohen wrote to family members. And the 20-year correspondence between Al Purdy and George Woodcock, stashed away at Queen's University, is chock-full of outrageous, and therefore highly readable, opinions. In one letter, for example, Purdy skewers Farley Mowat. "After reading Mowat, my own ego shrinks in shame," he comments. "But then what is the right amount of ego suitable for a human being, let alone a writer. Not as much as he has anyway." Surely Margaret Atwood, a master of the frosty put-down, has written similar remarks in her time that would delight museum visitors.
Another benefit would be having a place to present evidence that, despite the belief in some quarters that Canadian writing didn't exist before 1958 (the year Pierre Berton published Klondike) we actually have a literary history going back beyond the turn of the century. What better way to hammer the point home than by showing the evolution from the 19th-century settling-the-land books through the social realism fiction of the 1930s to the birth of House of Anansi, Oberon, and other publishing landmarks during the turbulent' 60s. Such a presentation might spark a renewed readership for regrettably neglected authors such as Edward Meade (Remember Me), Ethel Wilson (Swamp Angel) I and Albert Laberge (La Scouine).
What else should the museum have? Lots of videos, feature films, and documentaries, and maybe an electronic crawl carrying the kind of pungent quotations that John Robert Colombo excels at hunting down. Some frivolous items too. Barry Broadfoot's antiquated typewriter, W. 0. Mitchell's red turtleneck, Berton's bowtie, Mowat's kilt, family pictures, shopping lists, anything that reflects a writer's living habits or personality traits.
Skeptics will say that if they build it, nobody will come. But I strongly doubt that. Canadian writers are a hot number these days. Just ask the thousands of Torontonians who hand over $10 to $25 to be in their presence at Harbourfront and theatre readings. Just ask the folks in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and elsewhere who paid to hear the world's surliest public speaker, Mordecai Richler, vilify his fellow Quebeckers. Maybe the general populace wouldn't come by the millions but, I venture to say, there would be big enough crowds to justify the expense of giving our writers a place they can call their own.