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book review

In Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Nick Mount discusses the rise of Canadian authors such as Alice Munro, seen here in 2013, during the 1960s and beyond.Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

"The lasting impact of Expo 67 will be in the dramatic object lesson we see before our eyes today: that the genius of Man knows no national boundaries but is universal," prime minister Lester B. Pearson proclaimed at its opening on April 27, 1967. And Expo 67 boasted a special importance for Canadians: "Anyone who says we aren't a spectacular people should see this. We are witness today to the fulfilment of one of the most daring acts of faith in Canadian enterprise and ability ever undertaken. That faith was not misplaced."

Canada was no longer looking abroad; the world was now focused on Canada. This faith was particularly evident in Canadian writing. Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, Robert Kroetsch and Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee and Alice Munro, Alden Nowlan and Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy and Rudy Wiebe, all these writers and many more had their first books published in the 1960s. And the earlier writings of Marie-Claire Blais and Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler and Sheila Watson preceded this literary explosion by only a few years.

Nick Mount's Arrival: The Story of CanLit is a fine gathering together of so many people – critics, publishers and, of course, writers – to explore and explain the eruption that took place in the 1960s and early 70s in our culture. The fifties saw the publication of the Massey Report (1951) with its inquiry into the nature and development of the arts in Canada. After this, the Canada Council had its first meeting in 1957, the same year the New Canadian Library came into existence, and two years later the journal, Canadian Literature, began its publication.

In Mount's account of the sixties, writers were now approaching their less-than-celebrated public pasts, for example, Cohen's Kateri Tekakwitha or Atwood's Susanna Moodie. Others were studying their own pasts, Laurence's Vanessa MacLeod or Munro's Del Jordan. Still others were confronting their own positions in an uncharted landscape, Kroetsch's Hazard Lepage or Wiebe's Big Bear.

Mount recounts the critical work of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, which preceded this explosion. He also signals the unique contributions of publisher Jack McClelland (of McClelland & Stewart) and CBC radio producer Robert Weaver (who also founded the Tamarack Review). McClelland maintained his belief that he published authors, not books, and Weaver encouraged writers by buying their works for broadcast, thus creating a national community of writers and their audiences.

Mount writes accessible biographies of the major players in this developing universe. There are many details in the lives one knows, many details one does not know, and his enterprise is a kaleidoscope of fascinating people who shaped our country's growth into a literature respected around the world.

"All literature, all art," writes Mount, "is more about things lost than things gained. But there is something deeply elegiac about this time, both in what it produced and the way we remember it. The CanLit boom was an epitaph for a Canada that no longer existed, because the moment of Canadian literature's arrival was also the moment when such a thing as a 'Canadian' literature no longer seemed necessary."

A beautifully produced book, Arrival, published 45 years after Margaret Atwood's landscape survey of Canadian literature, Survival, and by the very same publisher, has one drawback. Placed throughout the book are 109 "brief assessments of the most popular, acclaimed, or otherwise remarkable books for the period." These capsule commentaries – ranging from Laurence's The Stone Angel to Cohen's The Favourite Game, complete with star ratings – are not in any way essential to Mount's story and impede the progress of his good account.

"We still had for many, many years a kind of colonial mentality, a great many people felt that a book written by a Canadian couldn't possibly be good," Laurence commented in 1972. "The whole cultural climate has changed incredibly, and particularly in the last decade."

Nick Mount's Arrival offers a series of informed reflections on the literary change in Canadian literature and in our understanding of ourselves.

One of the founders of the Giller Prize, David Staines has most recently written The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro. He is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa.

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