Academic journal article Text Matters

Thoreau and Spadina Dreamers Unite: Idealistic Communities in Canadian Publishing

Academic journal article Text Matters

Thoreau and Spadina Dreamers Unite: Idealistic Communities in Canadian Publishing

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2012 mass student demonstrations filled the main boulevards of downtown Montreal. Police on horseback boxed hundreds of students at intersections, arrested them and carted them off to detention. A short fifteen-minute bike ride across town, in my leafy neighbourhood, one would not have had a clue that anything was amiss in the city. A similar experience-seemingly absurd but somehow common in moments of historical importance-is described in Stefan Zweig's posthumous memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig reports that life in his corner of Austria in the mid-thirties-collapsing as it was under the pressures of rising fascist politics-retained a relative calm and routine from the point of view of the local street corner. Newspaper readers in London, he felt, had a better understanding of the shifting ground than those in the immediate vicinity of change. Zweig was witness to shattering events, yet his sense of our experience of important cultural shifts is applicable to less momentous occasions as well.

In the spring and summer of 1988, quite unknowingly, I was a bystander to the dismantling of one of the key idealistic enterprises of postwar Canadian creative life. At the time I was a twenty-four-year old wouldbe writer between graduate programs, who had offered his services to the designers and printers at Toronto's Coach House Press. The press was run out of modest red brick buildings that were found by way of an alley behind Huron Street, in the neighbourhood of the University of Toronto. My luck was good the day I wandered into the place, though I was shabbily dressed and brought no background experience in bookmaking or design with me, and the owner-manager and house genius of the Press, Stan Bevington, and his book designer Gord Robertson took me on. I would learn to strip up film, which is how type and book covers were set in those days. In the meantime, in the background, at board and editorial meetings I did not attend, the relationship between Bevington's Coach House print shop and its better known publishing arm was collapsing, the beginning of the end of one of the most idealistic and influential independent cultural outfits in post-war Canada.

The founding of Coach House Press predated by two years the brouhaha and government largesse surrounding Canada's 1967 centenary. But its haphazard early years echoed aspects of the counterculture. In 1968, Bevington was appointed house printer at Rochdale College, which was housed in a concrete apartment tower on nearby Bloor Street. A shortlived experiment in student-run education and co-operative housing, it reflected a tentative meeting ground between mainstream goals and the city's counterculture. At Rochdale, Bevington shared an apartment with Rochdale's semi-official "writer in residence," the still green and as yet unpublished fiction writer Matt Cohen. Cohen's appreciation of Coach House in its earlier years-its peculiarity and its difference from other mainstream publishers-is noteworthy:

What was liberating and unique about Coach House was that it was a community that had given itself over to the exploration of aesthetics and aesthetic experience, in truth more visual than verbal. Oh, the scorn that was heaped on these bedraggled hippies for caring more about art than commerce. But why? At twenty-five years old should poets be worrying about how to increase their audience to 113 people or should they be exploring the possibilities of verbal expression? . . . Although Coach House did print and sell books, in the late sixties and early seventies, it was less a commercial press than a movement. This put it in step with the new political currents of the time, but of course in opposition to the much more old-fashioned political and literary precepts of the old-line houses like M&S and Macmillan. . . . At Coach House everything was questioned: the nature of narrative, the very acceptability of narrative itself, the nature and construction of sentences. …

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