Post Your Opinion
Anansi's 30th - Clara Thomas gives an Academic's View
Once upon a time, in the glory year of the Canadian literary renaissance-we're talking about Centennial Year, 1967-Douglas Fetherling arrived in Toronto and met Dave Godfrey. Godfrey and Dennis Lee were just then in the process of founding the House of Anansi Press, one of the many entrepreneurial projects then simmering among young Toronto activists. Fetherling's Travels by Night, the first volume of his autobiography, contains a warmly reminiscent account of those magic days when anything seemed possible and many remarkable things were. Those of us who were a part of that time, whether in the midst of the yeasty brew or on the margins, as I was, a specialist in Canadian literature at the fledgeling York University, remember the time with affection and gratitude. Our literary landscape changed then, immeasurably for the better.
No-one has really sorted out the facts about which university first taught a course in Canadian literature. Was it MacMechan of Dalhousie in the teens or Rhodenizer of Acadia in the twenties? Was it Sedgwick of UBC, Broadus of Alberta, Carlyle King of Saskatchewan? Claims have been made for all of them, and probably more. Certainly it is fifty years now since I taught my first course for the University of Western Ontario. Though I took a course in Canadian literature there in 1939, it was Carl Klinck's arrival there in 1947 that established a Canadian component in the English Department's curriculum.
From 1947 to 1961 I taught for Western at summer schools and extension centres across southwestern Ontario, and then in 1961 I became a full-time faculty member at York. The American-Canadian course was my stand-by, especially the Canadian portion, for which I, like a few other hardy cross-Canada pioneers, had a missionary zeal. It was, of course, a Johnny-come-lately to the accepted canon and was far from having the prestige of Victorian poetry or the heavyweight offerings of Shakespeare or Milton. During the fifties, however, we made significant headway: the New Canadian Library, thanks to Malcolm Ross and Jack McClelland, gave us paperbacks where previously we had depended on anthologies for course texts and, consequently, had been heavily slanted toward poetry. Furthermore, the first four volumes published Grove, Leacock, Callaghan, and Sinclair Ross-riches in the neglected fiction field. George Woodcock's quarterly, Canadian Literature, capped the decade's advances: fine to look at and fine to read, it dignified our efforts, justifying and vindicating our faith in the field.
The sixties began in an atmosphere of confidence-misplaced, as it turned out, because with the great university expansion of that decade we were embattled in the face of an influx of imported colleagues who knew nothing of and cared less for Canadian literature. It was a bewildering decade, marked by great gains, and threatened by the very real possibility of great losses to the fragile academic structure that had thus far been established. However, the publication of The Literary History of Canada in 1965 was a great and positive landmark, the continued flourishing of the New Canadian Library was another, and for me, the publication of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel in 1964 added a whole new order of magnitude to our literature. Most important of all, as enthusiasm for our centennial gathered strength and students became ever more vocal about their wants and needs, a groundswell of demand for all things Canadian built up.
It was on the crest of this wave of optimism and enthusiasm that Anansi was launched by Godfrey and Lee, two of the busiest movers and shakers of cultural nationalism. Dave had been a teacher with CUSO in Ghana, hence the adoption of the name Anansi, the ubiquitous spider and trickster god.
To a generation accustomed to the variety and, often, the elegance of design and production of contemporary Canadian books, the sheer surprise and visual satisfaction of Anansi's innovations must be stressed. For decades of students, the Department of Education's prescribed high school text, Short Stories & Essays, and the University of Toronto's undergraduate text, Representative Poetry, had inflicted on the young the absolute nadir of book design and publishing. We teachers were accustomed to the visits of salesmen from the publishers, most of whom seemed to take a perverse delight in discouraging suggestions for new publications: "You couldn't guarantee us any sale on that," or, "We'd never make any money on that-or that-or that" were the common responses. Now, suddenly to see Margaret Atwood's The Circle Game, or Godfrey's Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola was to have the door open on another world. Both of them were among the first half dozen of Anansi's publications and wonderful to behold!
But even more important for the spread of Canadian literature throughout our school system were the splendidly innovative works that Anansi published: where before, the few of us who taught the literature were always its most hopeful proselytizers, suddenly people were talking about, people were buying, people were reviewing Margaret Atwood's Survival, Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden. Our field was given a powerful and continuous momentum from the outside: in the fall of 1968, teaching the first graduate course in Canadian literature at York, I had three students; in 1969 I had twenty-two. As Jim Polk wrote in his Forum article of 1982, Anansi's publication of Roch Carrier's La Guerre, Yes Sir!, translated by Sheila Fischman, "almost overnight became the book a student reads to learn about The Other Solitude." That book alone was also largely responsible for my speedy introduction of a course on English and French Canadian literature in translation, still one of our undergraduate stalwarts.
Anansi made a difference! There were other small presses who followed in those heady days, but it was the first and its innovations are the most gratefully remembered. It remains and prevails, a long-ago landmark and an important presence among us. 

Clara Thomas is the author of Margaret Laurence, The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence, Our Nature, Our Voices: A Guidebook to English Canadian Literature, Canadian Novelists: 1925-1945, Love & Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson, and Ryerson of Upper Canada. She lives in Toronto and Strathroy, Ontario.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us