(Re)collecting Urban Culture
- Alana Wilcox (Editor), Christina Palassio (Editor), and Jonny Dovercourt (Editor)
The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Birk Sproxton (Editor)
The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century. Prairie Fire Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maia Joseph
How does a city become a space of vibrant and meaningful cultural production? Two recent Canadian essay collections explore this question, one by looking to the past, the other with an eye on the future. The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century examines Winnipeg’s literary arts community of the 1940s and 1950s, the “writing lives” of the title capturing both this focus on literary production, as well as the other primary aim of the collection—to present what editor Birk Sproxton describes, in his introduction, as “a partial biography of the city,” by bringing various forms of reminiscence together with cultural and historical documents. The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto, for its part, provides a snapshot of Toronto’s contemporary arts community through an extensive collection of short essays by local artists, scholars, journalists, editors, and administrators. As the follow-up to uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, in which essayists shared their imaginings of and for a “better” Toronto, The State of the Arts endeavours to build on the conversation initiated by its predecessor.
In the introduction to their 2005 essay collection Downtown Canada, Douglas Ivison and Justin D. Edwards called for greater attention to the significant but often disregarded role of the city in Canadian writing. By exploring and conceptualizing the dynamics that link Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman, Jack Ludwig, John Marlyn, Sinclair Ross, and a host of other intellectuals and artists to mid-century Winnipeg, The Winnipeg Connection makes an important contribution to this emerging area of Canadian literary criticism and history. Sproxton, in his introduction, outlines a range of metaphors governing conceptualizations of the Winnipeg cityspace in the collection. Winnipeg was and is, he suggests, at once an island (following Desmond Cole’s description of Canada as archipelago), sand and sandbox (Sproxton’s figure for the relationship between Winnipeg’s satellite communities and the central city), a network (here, of course, Sproxton is borrowing from Winnipeg-raised McLuhan), and a seat of composition. The multiple descriptors help explain the expansiveness of a collection that makes room for both Jack Ludwig—who claimed in the introduction to his novel Confusions (reprinted in The Winnipeg Connection) that his complex experience of community in Winnipeg proved integral to the shape taken by his novel—and for Sinclair Ross, who produced much of his most important work while living in Winnipeg but claimed that his writing “drew on Manitoba not at all.” (Dennis Cooley proposes, in his contribution to the collection, that despite Ross’ focus on isolated characters in a desolate prairie landscape, an obliquely articulated sense of the city as a “rich and involved” space lurks in his writing.)
Notably, the need to make a case for a relationship between writer and city varies among the collection’s essayists. In his article on McLuhan, for instance, Jim Scott makes no attempt to identify particular ways in which Winnipeg shaped McLuhan’s scholarship, whereas Di Brandt, in a lively essay, posits Winnipeg as “source and inspiration” for James Reaney’s conceptualization of literary regionalism, despite the obvious and intrinsic influence of southwestern Ontario on Reaney’s work. In effect, The Winnipeg Connection seems to engage Edward Soja’s notion of the city as habitat, as a space where various forms of intersection and interdependency—not all of them causal or deterministic—proliferate.
Significantly, while big names like Laurence, Ross, and McLuhan get their due in The Winnipeg Connection, the collection’s devotion to both expansiveness and a degree of eclecticism allows a more complex portrait of Winnipeg’s mid-century cultural community to emerge. Refreshingly, often overlooked author Patricia Blondal receives a significant amount of attention: an untitled poem from the Blondal papers is included in the collection (eloquently introduced by Laurie Ricou), as are numerous essays on her work. Notable too are reminiscences by United College fellow and University of Winnipeg professor emeritus Walter Swayze, who offers an enlightening window onto the intellectual ferment and genuine excitement about Canadian literature in Winnipeg’s academic circles during the period. The collection also makes brief forays into theatre, radio, music, television, and film, with essays treating (among others) theatre director John Hirsch, composer Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté, and musician, radio personality, and university professor Chester Duncan. A final highlight is the essay “Crossing Portage and Main,” in which the mother and son team of Dawne McCance and Carson McCance combine personal and local history with the work of René Descartes and Walter Benjamin to produce a trans-generational meditation on the “figurative and literal intersections” (“storytelling as well as service-routing”) that give shape to a thriving urban centre.
Whereas The Winnipeg Connection focuses primarily on Winnipeg’s writing community, and only secondarily on cultural production more broadly, The State of the Arts explores Toronto’s contemporary cultural scene in all its remarkable diversity, and attempts to think critically about the work of fostering the arts in the city. Readers hoping for a comprehensive portrait of the work currently being produced by writers (or musicians, or visual artists) in Toronto will be disappointed. But as editors Alana Wilcox, Christina Palassio, and Jonny Dovercourt note in their introduction, the chief aim of The State of the Arts is for the collection to serve as “a nexus for disparate communities, encouraging further discussion.” The volume generally achieves this goal, covering everything from urban photoblogging to the reinvention of laneways, and addressing topics of concern to a range of stakeholders, such as the concept of the “creative city.” Some of the most engaging essays explore the tensions, connections, and fragments of common ground between communities: Kate Carraway offers a rather gutsy comparison of corporate culture and the city’s independent arts community (especially its pervasive DIY ethic), Karen Hines crafts an incisive satire of bohemian artist and urban professional lifestyles, and Kevin Temple investigates Toronto’s somewhat beleaguered, if also quirky, culture of visual arts patronage.
A small selection of essays in The State of the Arts deals specifically with local literature and literary production. Stephen Cain, responding to the lack of attention paid to Toronto poetry in uTOpia, explores the possibility of a “poetry of engagement,” connecting his reading of bpNichol’s Martyrology with psychogeographic investigation. Cain makes the intriguing argument that poetry might be used as a guide to the practice of urban dérive: “One could move to the space referenced in a poem, but then ‘drift’ from that location to examine the surrounding area and discover micro-climates of emotion and significance,” he proposes. In another essay, Amy Lavender Harris—who is currently engaged in a larger project of mapping Toronto’s literary terrain—compiles and reflects on literary representations of the CN Tower. Essays by Stuart Ross on Toronto’s small-press community and by Sandra Alland on “fair-trade” policies for fostering local writing, presses, and bookstores extend the collection’s coverage to publishing and the literary marketplace.
Ultimately, with essays just long enough to outline the scope of particular ideas and issues, and written for the most part with a combination of earnestness and infectious enthusiasm, what The State of the Arts does particularly well is inspire. The book’s principal achievement is, arguably, that it sustains the sense of unabashed hope which characterized the essays in uTOpia, while engaging in the work—always unfinished—of bringing new voices into the conversation about city-making.
- BC Before the Logo by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: Downriver Drift by Tim Bowling and The Paperboy's Winter by Tim Bowling
- (Re)collecting Urban Culture by Maia Joseph
Books reviewed: The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century by Birk Sproxton and The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto by Jonny Dovercourt, Christina Palassio, and Alana Wilcox
- In search of ... by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures by Wade Davis, The Green Labyrinth: Exploring the Mysteries of the Amazon by Sylvia Fraser, and Discovering Eden: A Lifetime of Paddling Arctic Rivers by Alex M. Hall
- Cadence, Country, Voice by Nicholas Bradley
Books reviewed: The Cadence of Civil Elegies by Robert Lecker
- Recuperating the City by Maia Joseph
Books reviewed: City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties by Lawrence Aronsen and Imagining Toronto by Amy Lavender Harris
MLA: Joseph, Maia. (Re)collecting Urban Culture. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 182 - 184)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.