Celebrating Barry Callaghan
- Priscila Uppal (Editor)
Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Douglas Ivison
In a career spanning over 40 years, Barry Callaghan has made significant contributions as a journalist, professor, critic, poet, prose writer of fiction and nonfiction, publisher, editor, and translator. Yet, despite (or because of) these diverse accomplishments, Callaghan is not widely known outside of literary circles, nor has his work received a great deal of attention from those working on Canadian literature. As a corrective to the lack of critical attention devoted to Callaghan to date, with this volume of Guernica’s Writers series editor Priscilla Uppal draws our attention to Callaghan’s work and achievements. As she writes in her introduction, “it is my intention with this book to generate discussion of Barry Callaghan’s work and life, a subject which has hereto garnered too-little attention considering its enormous significance to and impact on many aspects of public life” (25).
Uppal has assembled what she describes as a “nearly definitive book assessing and celebrating almost all aspects of Barry Callaghan’s career thus far” (10). The sprawling 500-page collection is a bit of mish-mash, comprised of previously published and original full-length critical articles, reviews, short anecdotes and appreciations (some only a few paragraphs), and memoirs. The book is organized into four sections: one devoted to his poetry (the longest section), fiction, and nonfiction, and a final one devoted to miscellaneous topics, such as his activities as teacher, publisher, and translator. The book concludes with a 2004 interview of Callaghan by the American novelist William Kennedy. Each section opens with a poetic (or in one case musical) tribute to Callaghan, followed by a short appreciation or review, before presenting us with a handful of more substantive critical pieces, interspersed with shorter pieces of various types. The structure is largely effective in providing a sustained focus on Callaghan’s major works, particularly the Hogg poems, which receive the most attention. For the most part, however, the shorter pieces—reviews, introductions, appreciations—distract from the insights being provided by the more substantive pieces, and often seem to be included more for their praise of Callaghan and his work than for the critical insights they provide. In particular, the short pieces by well-known writers (including Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, George Elliott Clarke, Anne Michaels, and others) seem intended solely to document Callaghan’s achievement and reinforce his status as a writer worthy of attention, and are rather insignificant in their own right. The collection would have been stronger without them.
Despite Uppal’s claims that the collection’s purpose is to assess and celebrate, its overall tone is more celebratory than assessing. Uppal’s introduction emphasizes her close personal and professional ties with Callaghan, and she describes herself as a “fan” (26). Many of the contributors are similarly friends, colleagues, and fans of Callaghan, and frequently situate themselves as such in their contributions. As a result, there are a few too many pieces ‘assessing’ Callaghan’s brilliance and not enough providing a more thorough analysis of his work and his contributions to Canadian literature. A collection that placed more emphasis on critical engagement with Callaghan’s work would ultimately have done a better job of demonstrating the significance of his achievements. For example, although the pieces on Callaghan’s literary magazine, Exile, are of interest in providing a history of that magazine from the perspective of those involved in its production, the collection does not really provide a critical assessment of Exile’s contribution to the Canadian literary scene. Similarly, the tributes and nostalgic memoirs do a good job of presenting a view of Callaghan as a larger than life personality, one who has had a great impact on the Canadian literary scene, but by their personal and anecdotal nature they provide us with little sustained assessment of Callaghan’s contributions as a publisher, critic, and teacher.
That said, Uppal’s collection does do a valuable service in drawing our attention to Callaghan’s writing, making a particularly compelling case for the richness of his Hogg poems. It should be noted, however, that most of the critics employ more traditional critical approaches, as the collection is noteworthy for the absence of pieces utilizing poststructuralist theory or contemporary poetics. As a result, Uppal misses an opportunity to demonstrate Callaghan’s continuing significance in the contemporary literary and critical environment.
Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works is a useful resource, providing insight into the literary and social context in which Callaghan has produced his work, collecting in one volume some critical writings that can form the basis for a critical assessment of his writing, and making the case that Callaghan is a figure worthy of more scholarly attention. Unfortunately, however, its lack of critical distance, its sprawling, diffuse nature, and its failure to submit Callaghan to examination through the lens of more contemporary approaches, ensure that it is less effective than it might have been in achieving its goal of “adding purposefully towards a fuller understanding of Barry Callaghan’s artistic visions, his literary commitments, his national and international impact, and his potential lasting contribution to arts and letters” (11).
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MLA: Ivison, Douglas. Celebrating Barry Callaghan. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 177 - 178)
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