Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'You Might Understand Toronto': Tracing the Histories of Writing on Toronto writing/'You Might Understand Toronto': Retracer Les Histoires De L'écriture Sur L'écriture De Toronto

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'You Might Understand Toronto': Tracing the Histories of Writing on Toronto writing/'You Might Understand Toronto': Retracer Les Histoires De L'écriture Sur L'écriture De Toronto

Article excerpt

At first they were inclined to resent Jane a bit, thinking she must know everything because she came from Toronto and would be putting on airs about it. (Montgomery 2014 [1937]: 12)

For over three hundred years this place that we call Toronto has been thought of, mapped, visited, occupied, fought over, forgotten and repossessed. (Hale 1956: 1)

Urban Canadian literary criticism is a boom area. Research on urban Canadian literature and cultures is growing exponentially in response to the sense, at the turn of the twenty-first century, that Canadian literary criticism had become strangely separated from both literary production and Canada's urban realities. Eva-Marie Kröller identified this problem in 2001, suggesting that Canadian literature 'requires re-mapping, and the speed of developments can be gauged in some measure from the currently more than usually wide gap between literary production and the reference works describing it' (p. 8).1 In contemplating this remapping, Walter Pache suggested that a 'fresh perspective on urban writing ... is bound to be revisionist' (p. 1156). Not only have contemporary studies of urban Canadian literature intersected with burgeoning concerns surrounding globalisation and transnational and postcolonial dynamics, they have also embodied such revisions in reopening and unsettling consensus viewpoints in Canadian literary history. No longer does Canadian literary criticism reflect Heinz Ickstadt's summation: 'that the literary imagination of Anglo-Canada has never been overtly attracted to the city is more or less a matter of critical consensus' (p. 299). Colin Hill's Modern Realism in English-Canadian Fiction (2012) and Amy Lavender Harris's Imagining Toronto (2010) substantially revise Toronto's literary canon. Hill's work studies some 'modern realists who played important roles [but] have been forgotten almost entirely, if they were ever known at all' (p. 6). Among those forgotten modern realists are three writers who set works in Toronto: Philip Child, Joyce Marshall, and Len Peterson. Peter Donovan and Hopkins Moorhouse might also be added to this list.2 Harris's study is farther-reaching in its bibliographic implications, also recovering late nineteenth-century writers who set works in Toronto, such as Annie Savigny, Thomas Stinson Jarvis, Graeme Mercer Adam, and Ethelwyn Wetherald (p. 25). Neither study is focused on Toronto's literary history, but both are landmark texts within that history. This article re-examines a textual history concerned with literary representations of Toronto's cityspace, considering academic criticism, anthologies, book reviews, and the literary texts they highlight. In this way, Toronto writing is brought into focus, and the texts we now find reclaimed for the present can be seen as part of a history of reception, discursive positioning, and selective omission.

The recent resurgence of criticism on Canadian urban literature reflects a broad field and a broad term. Brandon McFarlane's call for more geographic precision in critical usage of the term 'urban' is persuasive. Noting that much of the Canadian literary canon is actually made up of small-town or rural literature that engages with and evokes the processes of urbanisation, McFarlane highlights how influential the urban has been to Canadian literary history. Under shifting definitions, he notes that much Canadian critical work commonly avoids geographic precision for a looser catch-all term whereby 'urban typically serves as an avatar for a secondary concept' (p. 23). Depending on the critic, this secondary concept might be Americanisation as part of an urban/rural national division, but could just as easily be cosmopolitanism. Similar concerns surround the deployment of Toronto as a qualifier for literature, signalling the bifurcation of the city's name as the place itself and its traditional symbolic significance as a powerful hub within broader national and international hierarchies of governance, industry, and communication. …

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