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A Good Megaproject
by Clara Thomas

Thirty years after the publication of Norah Story's Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature (1967), the publication of the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, edited by Eugene Benson and William Toye, gives us cause for celebration. While as inevitable as death and taxes is a Companion's fate to attract its share of grumpy reviews, deploring some omissions and evincing astonishment at some inclusions, its appearance is always a cause of both rejoicing and amazement at the sheer magnitude of the undertaking, especially for those of us who were working in the Canadian literature field long, long ago. Story's volume was a landmark of the sixties, of comparable importance to the publication of The Literary History of Canada: at last our writers and their works were getting the recognition they deserved, and handsome reference works were establishing the value and dignity of Canadian literary studies.
Norah Story's volume was rightly described by William Toye, writing the introduction to its supplement in 1973, as "invaluable and formidable": its author was formidable, too. At the time of her Companion's publication, she came to my class at Glendon College and with brisk effectiveness opened the eyes of a hundred or so young students to her presence and the importance of her work. She did not make light of the challenge of its vast scope and the enormous stresses of her undertaking, and she was quite frank about her own background and training, inclining her toward history, not literature. An energetic, enthusiastic, and learned lady, she was a veteran of thirty years' service in the Public Archives of Canada; her introduction to the Companion is a roll call of individuals who were in the first rank of importance in the early gathering of Canadian literary and historical information. Her undertaking was made possible by one of the early grants of the then young Canada Council, its initiating was the work of I. M. Owen, the manager of the Oxford Press in Canada, and its successful conclusion owed an enormous amount to the devoted commitment of William Toye, the chief editor of the Press. Particularly gratifying now is Toye's presence as the guiding spirit of this second edition, three decades later. There is no "bookman" in the country today who equals him in length and distinction of service. Claire Pratt, the daughter of the poet E. J. Pratt, and herself a distinguished artist, was also a gifted editor working for Oxford at the time of the Story volume. The Companion's team was of championship calibre!,br> We who were working then in the Canadian field mark the mid-'60s as the beginning of the "Golden Years", a time of yeasty growth and excitement that lasted well through the '70s. Almost as soon as the first Companion was published, it became obvious that we needed still more information on literature; especially that we needed a volume concentrating on the literature of French Canada, which had not bulked large in the original edition. For the next seven years, William Toye worked with numbers of writers and scholars to remedy that comparative weakness: his Supplement to the Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature was published in 1973. A substantial supplementary volume and a useful one, it still did not satisfy the needs of a literature field that had by then grown exponentially. With a quite wonderful and remarkable combination of devotion, patience, and skill, Toye dropped the inclusion of history and embarked on what became the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, the reference work which, until this present publication, has served us well. He was joined in the editorship of this new volume by Eugene Benson of the Department of English, University of Guelph, also known for his work on The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre and The Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature. The Advisory Board spans Canada-Gwendolyn Davies, Acadia; Carol Gerson, Simon Fraser; Ben-Z. Shek, Trent; and Diana Brydon, Guelph. Similarly, the contributors' list reads like a roll call of Canadian academics, 325 of them. Even to contemplate the logistics of the enterprise, from A for "Aboriginal" to Z for "Zieroth, Dale", is mind-boggling.
The folkloric, bibliographical, aboriginal, and Métis sections of the first entry were written by Penny Petrone, who was a pioneer in the field and remains its greatest authority. Two considerable articles on Inuit literature follow, by Robin McGrath and Renée Hulan; in its totality, the Aboriginal entry provides an investigator with an excellent base of information ripe and ready for mining by a wide range of readers, from casual inquirers to serious scholars. The same vote of confidence may be given to an enormous roster of entries, from "Anthologies", subdivided by both language and content, to "Poetry in English" and "Poetry in French", major in both length and authority. Many of the long articles, on the novel for instance, will serve for years to come as a guide to readers in Canada and beyond. "The Novel in English" runs to 31,000 words; "The Novel in French" to 17,000. There are now at least twenty-five Associations for Canadian Studies in countries around the world, and Canadian literature is taught in conjunction with all of them. Their enthusiasm inevitably outruns their ability to keep abreast of events and to get texts for study. This volume is by no means designed for in-Canada use only; it will be a prime resource abroad.
The editors wish especially to draw their readers' attention to the inclusion of fifteen new headings, including "Awards", "Censorship", "Fantastic Literature in English and French", "Gay and Lesbian Literature", and "Southeast Asian-Canadian Literature". Because I taught Caribbean and African literatures for many years and retain a great affection and admiration for their writers, I looked them up early in my exploration. "Canadian-Caribbean Literature in English" is brief, too brief to satisfy me, though when I turn to the individual write-up on Dionne Brand I find her five books of poetry, her short stories, and now her prize-winning novel, In Another Place Not Here, given the kind of treatment she deserves. Now I am indulging in the kind of quibble I complain about in other reviewers, but in this one dust-over-lightly write-up on Caribbean literature, I do feel that we are failing one of our most strongly developing areas. I can find even more to quibble about in the South-East Asian entry, considering it absolutely ridiculous to class Michael Ondaatje as a South Asian; we thought of him as a Canadian writer with an exotic family past, and he seemed to be quite content with the designation, until his Running in the Family and the stunning success of The English Patient made his Sri Lankan roots of special interest, especially to English reviewers and a few American ones. The "South-East Asian" category seems right, however, for writers such as Uma Paramaswaran, Neil Bissoondath, and Rohinton Mistry, whose racial ties and experience have been the strong basis of all their work. The other new headings are both timely and well-described, I believe, and it is especially gratifying to contemplate the proliferation of "Awards".
This is a huge book now, with nearly 1,200 pages. Future editions will of necessity have to be fragmented. The latest Companion to be published in England deals exclusively with literature of the Edwardian years, and while the splitting up of the field means a certain overlapping of dates and commentaries, it does testify to the vigour of various periods, as well as to the lively interest of scholars and readers. One of the many impressive features of this second edition of the Canadian Companion is the involvement of scores of scholars in its making. To one who began teaching Canadian literature when we could count our colleagues on fewer than ten fingers, it is wonderfully satisfying to read through the ten pages listing all the contributors, an Honour Roll of Canadian scholars, critics, and writers. It is also highly gratifying to look for new entries among the individual write-ups and to find scores of those as well.
I have never understood why no Oxford Companion, here or abroad, has an index. Of course the alphabetical arrangement of entries makes for easy access, but in this volume, in the case of such substantial entries as those on the novel, an index would be wonderfully helpful. That is certainly a quibble and an ungenerous one, considering the abundantly satisfying production we now have in hand. Readers can find an entire survey of our literature, both in English and French, in these pages. Furthermore, they are treated to the facts and opinions of many minds, far far away from the pitfalls of prejudice or preference that beset single-scholar works. In fact, I wish that the many long articles which constitute in themselves a considerable literary history could be published as one compact volume, as well as finding their places among these pages. That too, however, is against the publishing conventions of the Oxford Companions in general, though the completeness and excellence of many entries certainly makes them tempting for pirates.
This second edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature has been planned and published with the very special quality that William Toye has brought to all the volumes since he began his enormous undertaking thirty years ago. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, now in its fifth edition, has no dedication page: not least among the grace notes that Toye has added to our volumes are their dedications: the first edition to Arthur Smith and Frank Scott; this one in memory of Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Hugh MacLennan, and Gabrielle Roy.

Clara Thomas is a Professor Emeritus at York University.


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