Dave Godfrey may have been physically short and wiry, but the 76 years of his very full life bring to mind Walt Whitman's famous self-description: "I am large, I contain multitudes."
As Ellen Godfrey, his wife of 52 years, said recently: "He had more energy than any two or three people put together." That energy coalesced in many forms, many careers – scholar; Governor-General's Award-winning author; publisher of writers as varied as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye; mentor, teacher and administrator; Canadian nationalist; cultural-industries advocate; Internet pioneer; new-media expert; owner of an organic vineyard; and vintner. Somewhere in there, too, he found the time to become a proficient jazz trumpeter as well as the father of a daughter and two sons.
When in the early 1980s, an episode of ventricular fibrillation nearly killed Mr. Godfrey, friend and writer W.D. Valgardson voiced the surprise of many at the time: "God, I thought he was immortal."
Mr. Godfrey went on to make a full recovery and to live more than 30 productive years longer. But when the end finally came, it came swiftly, in a Victoria hospital on June 21, just seven weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
William David Godfrey was born Aug. 9, 1938, in Winnipeg. He was the second of three children born to Marguerite (née Hutchison), a teacher, and Richmond Godfrey, a Saskatchewan native who practised law with future prime minister John Diefenbaker. Both parents had literary inclinations: As Dave Godfrey's daughter, Rebecca, a novelist and creative writing professor at Columbia University, noted in her father's eulogy, Marguerite "could recite Shakespeare sonnets from memory," while Richmond "in his own last days wrote these lines from King Henry VI, Part 3: 'Yield not thy neck/To Fortune's yoke. But let thy dauntless mind/Still ride in triumph over all mischance.'"
In 1946, the Godfreys moved to Cooksville, Ont., 30 kilometres west of Toronto (now part of Mississauga). Dave Godfrey aspired to be a mechanical engineer, but a summer creative writing class at Harvard at 18 changed his mind and in fall 1957, he entered the honours English program at University of Toronto's Trinity College. That academic year was an unhappy one. He dropped out and, under the auspices of Frontier College, headed to an Alberta lumber camp where he felled trees by day and taught literacy at night.
Mr. Godfrey briefly returned to Trinity, but was asked to leave after he vigorously protested against the electroconvulsive therapy prescribed to a fellow student for depression. Mr. Godfrey then left for the United States, where he would stay for almost seven years, returning to his home and native land only during the summers to work as a "gandy dancer," repairing and maintaining railway tracks.
His time in the United States was life-changing. He obtained a BA in English from the University of Iowa in 1960, an MA from Stanford the next year, an MFA in creative writing from what is now the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1963 and a PhD from there in 1966. He was mentored by the novelist Hortense Calisher, taught by Malcolm Cowley, played tennis with Philip Roth, hung out with Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Ken Kesey as Mr. Kesey worked up the manuscript for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and made wine with Raymond Carver.
In 1960, at a reception for first-year Stanford students, his blue eyes locked with those of fellow freshman Ellen Swartz. They joined a poker game – a game she neither knew nor cared to play. "But you know how people can click when they just see each other? That's what happened with us," the former Ms. Swartz recalled recently. Mr. Godfrey taught her the rules, whereupon Ms. Swartz proceeded to "thrash him," with positive results: "He was just enchanted!"
"Now tell me: How many guys in 1960 would be enchanted when someone, especially a woman who's never played poker before, wipes the ground with you? Dave was the first man – and I would have to say one of the few men in that era – who treated women as people."
The couple married in 1963 and soon found themselves in West Africa, where Mr. Godfrey had agreed to teach for Canadian University Services Overseas. Two years later, they returned to academic life in America. By this time, Mr. Godfrey had grown disillusioned. Initially, America had excited him: It represented a way to "rebel against the British colonial attitude that characterized the Toronto of his youth," he told Silver Donald Cameron for a profile published in 1971. Now, though, he saw America's "dynamism" as nothing short of a "catastrophe," manifested by the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, the ghettoization of America's cities and the suppression of the civil rights of African-Americans.
Meanwhile, Mr. Godfrey's stories were appearing in Canadian literary magazines. And as Roy MacSkimming wrote in The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada's Writers (2003), he had "refused an invitation to appear in an anthology of best American stories" when the publisher wouldn't honour Mr. Godfrey's request to "change the title to Best American and Canadian Stories." By 1966, with his wife and two-year-old son Jonathan in tow, Mr. Godfrey had returned to Toronto to teach at Trinity College. (Daughter Rebecca was born in 1967, another son, Samuel, in 1971.) Visiting the U of T Book Room one day, "surrounded," Mr. MacSkimming said, "on all sides by [stacks filled with] American and British titles, [Mr.] Godfrey came to a startling realization: Canada was invisible." Something had to be done.
Mr. Godfrey's path crossed that of Dennis Lee, a lecturer at U of T's Victoria College who had written a collection of poems, titled Kingdom of Absence, that he was keen to publish. The prospects looked grim: Margaret Atwood's first book of poems, The Circle Game, had recently received the Governor-General's Literary Award, but no copies of it were to be found. Its small Montreal-based publisher, Contact Press, had only printed 200 copies and, as Mr. Lee recently recalled, "didn't do reprints." Over drinks, Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Lee agreed to start their own press to publish Kingdom of Absence, perhaps followed by The Circle Game, a collection of Mr. Godfrey's stories and one or two other titles.
The press, Mr. Godfrey said, would be called House of Anansi – Anansi being the mythological West African spider-god "who'd roam the countryside playing practical jokes and telling stories." And so it issued 300 copies of Kingdom of Absence in spring 1967. Pioneering Canadian publisher Jack McClelland said the imprint – operating with one paid employee (salary: $20 a week) out of the funky basement of the Godfreys' rental house on the edge of campus – would be lucky to last 18 months.
Today, of course, Anansi still exists, home to the acclaimed writers Rawi Hage, Lynn Crosbie, Kathleen Winter and Lynn Coady. "Dave instituted most of the practical steps that turned Anansi into a reality," Mr. Lee said. He was no "idle theoretician," more a "whirlwind of energy." Mr. Lee recalls how his partner made Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada Anansi's first big bestseller in 1968, and invited Michael Ondaatje to bring his manuscript for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid to Anansi.
Mr. Godfrey wasn't satisfied to start just one publishing house; he went on to create two more. The first, in 1970, called New Press, saw him partner with Mr. MacSkimming, who'd worked for Clarke, Irwin & Co., educational publishers, and former Macmillan Canada editor James Bacque, to create an imprint more professional and political than Anansi. Its first title was The Struggle for Canadian Universities. Soon, communications giant Maclean Hunter offered to buy a 30-per-cent stake in New Press. The prospect pleased Mr. Godfrey, who was, in Mr. MacSkimming's formulation, "an anti-capitalist social idealist," but was not above playing the stock market or giving friends investment advice. "Wear masks of capitalism," he would advise his confreres. When 26-year-old Mr. MacSkimming blurted out, "What's a cash flow?" during a meeting with Maclean Hunter executives, it was Mr. Godfrey who kicked him under the table.
In late 1970, Mr. Godfrey published his first novel, The New Ancestors. Dense, difficult, experimental, set in the fictional African country of Lost Coast, the book was deemed "brilliantly accomplished" by novelist Margaret Laurence in The Globe and Mail. The Toronto Star called it "a grand novel in the Dostoyevsky manner – only more ambitious than The Brothers Karamazov." It soon won the Governor-General's Award for fiction and was selling "fairly well" for an unabashedly literary tome.
Three years later, Mr. Godfrey and his family were living in Erin, a farming community 80 kilometres northwest of Toronto. It was a sentimental journey for Mr. Godfrey who, "ever since his grandfather had lost his farm in Saskatchewan during the 1930s," had wanted to own rural land, Ms. Godfrey explained. The family raised cattle and grew wheat and, predictably, started a publishing house, Press Porcépic. Mr. Godfrey also helped form both the Independent Publishers' Association (precursor to the current Association of Canadian Publishers) and the Association for the Export of Canadian Books (now Livres Canada Books) while co-editing Read Canadian, a 276-page "hitchhikers guide to the unknown galaxy of books" by and about Canadians.
In 1972, thanks in part to Mr. Godfrey's lobbying, the Canada Council created its first major programs to fund Canadian publishers. Around this time, he and fellow nationalists urged federal legislation to ensure that by 1977, "all book publishers publishing in Canada would be 100-per-cent Canadian-owned." For ambitions such as this, author Scott Symons dubbed him a "mystical Canadian nationalist Maoist."
Porcépic continued to operate out of Erin for several years, publishing up to 17 titles a year. The enterprise shifted to Victoria, however, in 1977, when Mr. Godfrey was named head of the creative-writing department at the University of Victoria. He held the job until 1982 and continued to work in the department until his retirement in 1998.
By this time, Mr. Godfrey's wife had become an acclaimed writer of mystery fiction. Mr. Godfrey himself, however, was becoming less enamoured of the idiom and in 1978, Porcépic issued his last work of fiction, the story collection Dark Must Yield. Ms. Godfrey says his motivation for abandoning fiction was "a big mystery. … He didn't seem to know, himself. Perhaps he felt fiction separated you from real life. Whatever the reason, his later writing was very experimental, very abstruse, as if he'd lost interest in the storytelling part of fiction. Perhaps it was just Dave moving on; I used to tell him he seemed to have a seven-year interest span and then he'd be on to something else."
This next something turned out to be computers and their cultural implications. In 1979 and 1981, he co-wrote, respectively, Gutenberg Two: The New Electronics and Social Change, and The Telidon Book: Designing and Using Videotex Systems. In 1983, he and his wife started Softwords, a technology company focusing on distance-learning software. It soon had 22 employees and annual sales of $1-million, according to B.C. Business. Softwords served as the springboard for Pacific Interconnect, one of Vancouver Island's most successful Internet service providers. In 1995, it merged with two other ISPs to become CSP Internet, later renamed Entirety. The Godfreys sold their stake in 2002 for what Mr. Godfrey said was "a couple of million dollars."
After retiring from UVic, Mr. Godfrey again embraced agrarian life, this time as an organic grape grower and vintner in Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley. His interest in wine, he told wine expert John Schreiner in 2001, dated back to his youth in Cooksville, where "lots of immigrant families [were] making wine with imported grapes." Mr. Godfrey called his 50-hectare operation Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards, "Brownell" being a nod to a distant relative who, in the 1880s, had homesteaded the first parcel of Cowichan land Mr. Godfrey bought.
He "mellowed over the years," his daughter said, but in his younger days, Mr. Godfrey could be, even according to friends, "sarcastic," "abrasive" and "bristly." Mr. MacSkimming said: "I think he knew he was smarter than practically anyone else. And sometimes you kind of felt that intellectual arrogance … I remember [his] legs twisted around each other … a tightly coiled spring ready to explode. Sometimes the explosion would be anger, sometimes laughter; you could never be sure." But he was always a good listener, always sincere, polite, and sensitive, more often than not.
After his death, colleagues spoke of his generosity and supportiveness. Marilyn Bowering, a two-time Governor-General's Award nominee who published nine books with Mr. Godfrey as editor, said: "This is a huge loss; I'm afraid he is irreplaceable."
Mr. Godfrey was predeceased by his 16-year-old son Jonathan in 1981. He leaves his wife, Ellen; daughter, Rebecca; son, Samuel; brother, Brock Godfrey; sister, Margo Tooley; and three grandchildren.