Literary History in English 1960-1980 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literary History in English 1960-1980

The period between 1960 and 1980 was a definitive moment in Canadian literary history. Energized by the country’s centennial celebrations and widespread cultural nationalism, authors were excited by the prospect of Canadian literature as a means to help develop a national identity.

The period between 1960 and 1980 was a definitive moment in Canadian literary history. Energized by the country’s centennial celebrations and widespread cultural nationalism, authors were excited by the prospect of Canadian literature as a means to help develop a national identity. Rather than relying on American or English literature and traditions, writers were considering what it meant to write Canadian literature and readers were consuming Canadian content in earnest. Of course, Canadian writing was not uniform and debates about the merits of a national literature, and Canadian writing more generally, were waged in emerging literary communities, workshops, theatres, presses, magazines, university courses and academic journals. The authors who fuelled these flourishing institutions lived through important moments in Canadian history. Universal health care, the Ministry of Multiculturalism and the CRTC’s Canadian content regulations were created. The October Crisis and Expo 67 impacted Canadians and occurred alongside global events such as the Vietnam War and the counter culture, women’s liberation and civil rights movements. Canadian writers were socially conscious. They engaged with their world through techniques that placed the individual into these larger social contexts in ways that challenged the dominant conception of the past and emphasized the lives of women and marginal communities.

Writers whose careers were established prior to 1960 also published some of their major works after, including Mordecai Richler with St. Urbain’s Horseman (1970), Dorothy Livesay with The Unquiet Bed (1967), P.K. Page’s Cry Ararat! (1967), and three books of lyrics by PhyllisWebb: The Sea is Also a Garden (1962), Naked Poems(1965) and Wilson’s Bowl (1980). Livesay’s book marked a shift in emphasis in her work, from public politics to the sexual politics of being alive. Page’s book revealed her twinned interest in poetry and painting. Webb’s books, in precise images and controlled cadences, revealed a lyrical intensity of feeling, whether alluding to sexual identity or conjuring the character of friendship and loss. In addition, Malcolm Lowry’s short stories, assembled by Earle Birney and Marjorie Lowry as Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), probe such ideas as paradise, translation and the elusive character of identity.Popular books of the time include Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull’s clever analysis of social structure, The Peter Principle (1965), and four widely read children’s books: Pierre Berton’s The Secret World of Og (1960), Christie HarrisRaven’s Cry (1966), Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang (1975) and Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie (1974). Many books from the period have maintained significance, including writing by Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and Timothy Findley.

Communities, Organizations and the Institutionalization of Canadian Literature

Support for the Canadian Centennial encouraged a wave of renewed national pride, expressed in part by attention to the arts both before and after 1967. Enthusiasm for writing as a practice as well as a cultural and monetary commodity manifested in the formation of writers’ organizations and groups (the Writer’s Union of Canada), festivals (the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront), government grants (Canada Council for the Arts) and the incorporation of literature into school curriculums. Not least of these important developments was the launch of a number of literary journals, including the Malahat Review, This Magazine, Ganglia, Descant, TISH, ellipse and White Pelican (see Literary Periodicals, Literary Magazines). Together with Sheila Fischman, the influential poet-critic Douglas Gordon (D.G.) Jones founded ellipse in 1969 to provide a venue where anglophone Canadian writers could appear in French translation, and francophone writers in English. Fischman also translated Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir! that year, and founded the Literary Translators Association of Canada in 1972; she went on to translate more than 100 titles by 2012.

In Edmonton, White Pelican writers included Stephen Scobie, Douglas Barbour and the surrealist poet-dramatist Wilfred Watson. The TISH poets in Vancouver— primarily George Bowering, Frank Davey, Fred Wah and Lionel Kearns; Daphne (Buckle) Marlatt was also affiliated — turned away from the techniques of 1950s Canadian poets, championing Black Mountain poetics instead (primarily the poetry and theory of Americans Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley). Their practice markedly altered the aesthetics of Canadian poetry for some years, as did the multimedia arts scene of the Véhicule poets, who gathered in Montréal in the mid-1970s. They included Endre Farkas, Artie Gold, Ken Norris and Stephen Morrissey. In Ontario, Margaret Avison also adapted American poetic models to her poetic quest for Christian revelation. bpNichol founded Ganglia Press in 1965, experimented with concrete verse, then in 1970 joined with Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and Rafael Barreto-Rivera to form the sound poetry group called The Four Horsemen. Nichol published the first volume of his multi-volume long poem, The Martyrology, in 1972. In New Brunswick, The Fiddlehead magazine, which began as an eight-page stapled pamphlet in 1945, continued under Fred Cogswell’s editorship (to 1981) to represent the work of Atlantic poets; Fiddlehead Books (est. 1954) evolved after 1981 into Goose Lane Editions.

Literary coteries at this time still printed their work in mimeograph format, but as photo-offset printing technology developed, small press publishing (Véhicule, Coach House, Talon, Porcépic, House of Anansi, Brick Books, Coteau, Turnstone, NeWest, Oolichan, Douglas & McIntyre) became economically viable, often outside established centres. Publication numbers increased, and with publicity (Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literaturebegan in 1972 as advertising for Anansi titles), public interest in Canadian books renewed. Technology became an artistic paradox: as a literary theme it often implied the enervating routine of mechanization and the perceived dangers of American influence, but as an aid to literary production it opened new freedom of technique. The sophisticated design possibilities of new publication methods enhanced the printing of concrete poetry, the visual/verbal compositions of Joe Rosenblatt (Bumblebee Dithyramb, 1970) and the syllabic sound poetry of bill bissett (see English Language Book Publishing).

Creative writing programs expanded to help develop the skills of apprentice (and established) writers — the Iowa Writers’ Workshop trained such Canadian writers as Clark Blaise, Dave Godfrey, W.P. Kinsella and W.D. Valgardson. Practical training in related fields was no more evident than in dramatic writing and performance (see Drama in English, English Language Theatre). Across the country, twenty new theatres opened, including Tarragon, the Arts Club, Citadel, Neptune, Factory Theatre Lab and Paul Thompson’s Theatre Passe Muraille. Theatre schools, theatre for children, and the Charlottetown, Lennoxville and Shaw Festivals all further encouraged stage production. New playwrights included Carol Bolt, David Fennario, Dennis Foon, David Freeman, David French, John Gray, Robert Gurik, Herschel Hardin, Ann Henry, John Herbert, George Ryga and BeverleySimons. The comedy group CODCO formed in Newfoundland and a renewed film industry drew attention to the work of Canadian directors Norman Jewison and Claude Jutra, among others.

Canadian schools began teaching Canadian literature in more detail. This development was not supported universally, however. There was concern over lack of literature, teaching resources and qualified teachers. Nevertheless, academic journals were created and provided space for the scholarly discussion of Canadian writing (ECW, Journal of Canadian Studies, Studies in Canadian Literature, Canadian Children’s Literature, Room of One’s Own). Studies like Margaret Atwood’s Survival (1972) and T.H.B. SymonsTo Know Ourselves (1975) encouraged the study of Canadian literature in schools, and academic organizations like the Association for Canadian Studies emerged. Other critics worried that the study of Canadian literature would become too popular, thereby displacing and distracting scholars and readers from engaging with the British literary tradition. This concern is fictionalized and critiqued in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners(1974) as the protagonist Morag emerges as a Canadian writer in opposition to Brooke, her husband and professor of British literature. Morag’s eventual triumph over Brooke can be read as an allegory in which a maturing Canadian culture breaks from British traditions. Likewise, Margaret Atwood’s Survival made a distinction between Canadian writing and American and British writing. Her popular study demonstrated the depth and value of Canadian literature to a country that was interested in its own identity. Survival resulted in debates about how one should study Canadian literature: Atwood and other thematic critics (John Moss, D.G. Jones and Northrop Frye) were interested in literature’s relation to national identity, while others like Frank Davey argued that this focus was too exclusionary and instead preferred to study literary form. The debates surrounding Atwood’s study exemplify the intense efforts that scholars were putting into the study of Canadian literature, which now had institutional support, and existed as an important industry with its own publications, movements, communities and readers.

Politics and Multiculturalism

Following the Centennial, after the first wave of baby boomers reached their 20s, signs of civil dissatisfaction began to appear; these, too, affected the arts. Social attitudes (regarding marriage and divorce, birth control, marijuana (see Non medical Drug Use), gender roles (see Women’s Movement), conventional religion, classical education and ethnicity were changing. While sharing some similarities with social changes in the United States, one way that Canada was markedly different was due to Québec. After the death of Québec’s Premier Maurice Duplessis in 1959 and the reforms of Jean Lesage’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, a new wave of separatist politics led to violence (the 1970 October Crisis), response (the War Measures Act), and an alternative definition of nationalism, all of which became literary topics, as in works by Al Purdy and Brian Moore. As Québécois came into wider use, joual became a literary vernacular, and allophone a familiar term. Translations from French and other languages multiplied, bringing anglophone attention to works by Hubert Aquin, Louky Bersianik, Roch Carrier, Jacques Ferron, Anne Hébert, Antonine Maillet, Josef Škvorescký and Michel Tremblay. Ethnic heritage, already heterogeneous in colonial times — Canada was never a monoculture — became a more prevalent literary concern during these decades: numerous works of fiction engaged with Italian, Hungarian, Czech, Ukrainian, West Indian (see Caribbean People), Jewish and Chilean heritage (see Latin Americans). The Canadian census, however, did not acknowledge the possibility of a person having more than one heritage until 1981, and did not accept “Canadian” as a separate ethnicity for one decade more. By the 1980s, these social changes had helped produce a working, though by no means uniform, or unanimously accepted, multicultural society. In fact, critics of Canadian multiculturalism argued that its focus on culture downplayed the material inequalities that many non-dominant communities faced on a day-to-day basis.

Such issues urged essayists to take up a range of causes, from anti-establishment politics (Milton Acorn and Tom Wayman, in left-leaning “workers’ poetry,” and Rick Salutin, both in prose and in his collective play 1837) to the preservation of nature (Andy Russell, R.M. Patterson). John Porter exposed the vagaries of Canadian egalitarianism by writing The Vertical Mosaic (1965). George Bowering challenged conventional images of Canadian literature and history in his fictions A Short Sad Book (1977) and Burning Water (1980). George Woodcock wrote a history of intellectual anarchism. George Grant published his conservative treatises Lament for a Nation (1965) and Technology and Empire (1969), which opposed the technological Americanization of Canada. Grant’s perspective influenced the poets Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee (as in Civil Elegies, 1972), and the publisher and fiction writer Dave Godfrey (as in Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola, 1967). In his novel The Last of the Crazy People (1967), Timothy Findley cast Ontario as the site of gothic upheaval, and in The Wars (1977) he recreated the fiasco of the First World War as a way to attack a blundering autocracy and affirm his passion for fairness (see First World War in Canadian Literature).

History, Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

Numerous literary autobiographies appeared (for example, by Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, David McFarlane, Kildare Dobbs, David McFadden and Fredelle Bruser Maynard), each interpreting the contexts that surround and permeate contemporary lives. Henry Kreisel wrote of his experience in a Canadian detention camp during the Second World War (published in White Pelican, 1974) and Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee (in a dual account) of a year they spent in Calcutta. Much fiction and poetry was also autobiographical (or “autobiologic,” to use George Bowering’s term), as in the work of David Watmough. Blaise’s stories repeatedly draw on his complex upbringing and international wandering; Mandel's poetry and criticism overlap; Daphne Marlatt’s poetry and prose render “life writing” as a phenomenological engagement with the world. Several other writers focused on an individual historical figure as an icon of significant psychological and historical moment: playwrights Carol Bolt and John Gray respectively dramatized the political implications of the lives of Emma Goldman and Billy Bishop. Samuel Hearne appears in a poem by John Newlove; Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont in works by Woodcock and Rudy Wiebe, among others; the jazz musician Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1976); and the Trudeaus in a play by Linda Griffiths. Such “life writing,” whether cast as truth or recast as some form of fiction, reflected changing notions of subjectivity. As the reliability of a fixed “truth” came into question, writers tried to reveal the indeterminacy of identity. Clark Blaise, for instance, referred to the truths that people live by as “usable fictions.”

Writing Canada’s past, through autobiography and fiction, prompted some writers to explore the consequences of colonialism. Herschel Hardin, George Ryga and Michael Cook wrote plays dealing with the isolation of First Nations women or the problems connected with Euro-Canadian colonization of the north. Novelists who dealt with related issues include James Houston, Alan Fry, Wayland Drew, Rudy Wiebe, Anne Cameron, W.P. Kinsella and Margaret Laurence. At the same time, there was an outpouring of Aboriginal writing that engaged with colonialism and its effects on contemporary communities. Métis writers included Beatrice Culleton, Duke Redbird and Maria Campbell whose influential autobiography Halfbreed (1973) demonstrated the horrific effects of government policy and racism on Métis families. Like Campbell, the Stó:lō writer, Lee Maracle also wrote an autobiography, Bobbie Lee: Indian Rebel (1973), which emphasizes the struggles placed on Aboriginal women. Other Indigenous writers include Maracle’s grandfather Dan George, who was a poet, public speaker and an actor in theatre and Hollywood; Basil H. Johnston, who wrote children’s books, non-fiction and comic stories about life on reserves in Moose Meat & Wild Rice (1978); the poet Rita Joe, whose collection The Poems of Rita Joe was published in 1978; and George Clutesi,who compiled Tseshaht (see Nootka) stories. These authors were writing during a period which saw the foundation of the National Indian Council (1961) and The American Indian Movement (1968), assimilationist federal policies such as the Trudeau government’s 1969 White Paper and the ongoing residential school system, and developments that allowed Aboriginal people to vote in federal elections while retaining status. Reports such as Thomas Berger’s Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977), which argued for a pause on pipeline construction until Indigenous land claims were solved, helped alter attitudes toward conservation and land.

Much writing about the land engaged with Indigenous issues, but authors also approached the land by way of the emerging global environmental movement. Canadians played a significant role in this movement: the important environmental group Greenpeace was created in Vancouver in 1971 to dispute nuclear testing and world renowned environmentalist David Suzuki began to broadcast on scientific issues during the 1970s. Farley Mowat’s children’s book Owls in the Family (1961) cultivated care for wild animals, a concern that was revisited in a number of works including Whale for the Killing (1972), which recounted an incident in which Newfoundlanders acted violently toward a beached whale. Based on a real-life event that took place in Burgeo, Newfoundland, where Mowat was then living, this book was, perhaps unsurprisingly, ill received by other town residents. This was not Mowat’s only controversy; however, having written over 15 popular books in this period that brought environmental concerns to the general public, his importance to Canadian environmental writing cannot be understated. Other works such as Matt Cohen’sThe Disinherited (1974), Robert Kroetsch’s The Ledger (1975), Alistair MacLeod’s The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and Don McKay’s Long Sault (1975) consider humans’ often negative influence on the environment. Daphne Marlatt’s book Steveston (1974), with photographs by Robert Minden, is an exemplary collection of environmental poetry. Her focus on British Columbia’s Fraser River— a location that is fixed, yet always flowing — allows her to ruminate on the relationship between movement and place. She considers the migrating salmon as well as the large group of Japanese-Canadians who returned after being interned during the Second World War and the accompanying racism, sexism and environmental degradation found in this industrial area.


Margaret Laurence’s career flourished in the 1960s and 70s; she emerged as one of the most admired literary figures of the time and influenced future writing about gender. Her early work, including The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories (1963), sensitive both to traditional tale-telling and the impact of modern history, emerged from years she spent in East and West Africa. Subsequent work addressed the lives of women in Manawaka, a fictionalized version of Neepawa, Manitoba. The “Manawaka Cycle” traces women’s history from Edwardian affirmations of stability, through various forms of rebellion, to the ongoing process of reconciliation — with family, the past and whatever comes under the category of “Other,” whether in the community or in the person herself. Such novels and stories include The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966, filmed as Rachel, Rachel, 1968), A Bird in the House(1970) and The Diviners (1974). By demonstrating how to tell her own stories — the stories that emerged from local places and expressed the local voice — Laurence actively encouraged the writers of the next generation, including Jack Hodgins, Joan Barfoot and the numerous accomplished storytellers who illuminated the lives of women during these decades and beyond, writing about sisters in families, mothers and daughters, women alone, childbirth and aging, wives and health and madness on the Prairies and elsewhere. Among such writers are Ann Copeland, Marian Engel (whose Bear (1976), parodies Sir Charles G.D.Roberts’ The Heart of the Ancient Wood, 1902), Edna Alford, Sandra Birdsell, Sharon Butala, Janice Kulyk Keefer and Carol Shields.

Writers also asserted the voice of women in other ways: Betty Lambert and Margaret Hollingsworth in plays; Rachel Wyatt in satiric comedy; Patricia Blondal in conventional narrative; Sharon Riis and Ann Rosenberg in allusive, more experimental prose; Jane Rule, affirming the ordinariness of lesbian relationships; poets Dionne Brand, Judith Fitzgerald, Sharon Thesen, Anne Szumigalski, Suniti Namjoshi, Eva Tihanyi, Judith Copithorne, Colleen Thibaudeau, M.T. Lane, Erin Mouré and Pat Lowther interrogating the gendered implications of language itself. The poems of Claire Harris and Lola Lemire Tostevin drew respectively on West Indian and Québécois idiom so as to fracture and re-empower the English they used. Audrey Thomas’ early fiction, like Laurence’s, emerged from years spent living in West Africa; the motif of the lost child — Mrs. Blood (1970) is a stream-of-consciousness account of a stillbirth — recurs in her later fictions, including Intertidal Life (1984) and Coming Down from Wa(1995). Margaret Atwood’s early fiction and poetry, often sardonic, puts feminism as well as male assumptions under a lens. Among the 17 books she published before 1980 are The Edible Woman (1969), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and Life Before Man (1979). Ranging across literary modes, they incrementally established her substantial international reputation: as a consummate lyricist, a contemporary narrative voice and a fiercely articulate champion of social justice. Alongside literary achievements, Florence Bird’s Royal Commission report on the Status of Women in Canada (1970) initiated slow changes in social practice.

Genre, Structure and Form

While some works of the time, playing with changing ideas of representation (for example, by Keath Fraser, Juan Butler, Leon Rooke and Michael Bullock) attempted surreal or discontinuous points of view, more books expressed broadly realistic approaches to narrative (for example, writings by David Helwig, Terrence Heath, Austin Clarke, David Adams Richards, Ken Mitchell, John Metcalf, Hugh Hood). Hood’s stories and sketches, as in Around the Mountain (1967), reveal the effect of narrative pacing, and the twelve volumes in his “New Age” novel cycle, beginning with The Swing in the Garden (1975), follow one character through his life, balancing the secular world against his Catholic beliefs. In one of the more far-reaching developments of the time, Hood and Metcalf joined with Clark Blaise, Ray Fraser and Raymond Smith to form “The Montreal Story Tellers.” Initiated as a performance group, to attract attention to the artistry of the short fiction genre, the group stressed the importance of voice to a story, and in effect re-established the genre in Canadian literary history. Blaise (as in A North American Education, 1973) emerged as the pre-eminent practitioner of the five. Metcalf would become a major editor (with Porcépic and Biblioasis Press) and mentor. Their contemporaries include Norman Levine, Kent Thompson, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, George Elliott and Alistair MacLeod, whose “The Boat” (1976) would be much reprinted, all of his stories praised for their insight into behaviour and their evocative rendering of Cape Breton rhythms. Elliott’s elliptical The Kissing Man (1962) fascinated many readers. Gallant’s stories, particularly those collected in The Pegnitz Junction (1973) and From the Fifteenth District (1979) adapted Modernist techniques (such as “free indirect discourse”) to the understanding of how people behave, both in ordinary circumstances and under duress in wartime and after. Munro, who brought south-western Ontario vividly onto the page in such collections as Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974) and Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) had emerged in the 1950s in the shadow of the “urban realist” Hugh Garner, but soon overtook him in critical and popular esteem. Readers responded to Munro’s characters (who often refuse to forget the past or apologize for their actions, but who also embrace the limited possibilities of the present); they also learned to appreciate the intricacies of Munro’s style: the irony, imagery and effective handling of the story-within-a-story form.

Still other fiction looked for indirect ways to express social commitments, drawing on the growing influence of mythopoeic thought and countercultural narratives. In the wake of Northrop Frye’s theories of myth (applied to Canadian literature in The Bush Garden (1970), several writers constructed fables or Jungian archetypes for a narrative framework. In poetry, Jay Macpherson’s Welcoming Disaster (1974) tracks a spiritual quest into the underworld of the female psyche. D.G. Jones imagined the implications of conjunction, which he configured as “Butterfly on Rock.” The later fictions of Robertson Davies — like the posthumously published novels of Malcolm Lowry and the plays and poems of James Reaney — adapted myth to the analysis of culture and mind. Davies’ Deptford trilogy in particular, beginning with Fifth Business (1970), tracks the role that Jungian figures (friend, enemy, anima, animus, persona) play in the evolution of psychological and social balance. In Davies’ analysis of Canada, as in the poetry of Robin Skelton (a self-styled “witch”), myth and magic constitute a counter force to Protestant restraint. In other modes, W.P. Kinsella’s work and Monica Hughes’ novels for children play with fantasy, Paul St. Pierre's with anecdote. Atwood and David Arnason wrote parodies of fairy tales — parody being newly defined as a strategy calling not for dismissal of the story being alluded to but for “oversetting” on it the new story being told, so as to hear them together, to hear the tension between the two. Less deliberately Jungian, more indebted to such literary paradigms as Odyssean quest and comedic chaos, the writings of Robert Kroetsch and Jack Hodgins hint at the 1970s appeal of works by the South American “magic realists” Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, in which the exaggerations of ordinary life blur the boundary between a narrative of history and a narrative of invention. Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man (1970) and Badlands (1975), together with his long poem Seed Catalogue (1977) and Hodgins’ novel The Invention of the World (1976), furnish examples. At once raucous romp and serious comment on the appeal of extravagant illusion, these works explore the sexuality of desire, the passion of memory and the boundary lines of marriage and romance. Canadian literature, while nationalist in regards to certain themes and its institutionalization, was heterogeneous in its engagement with genres, techniques and topics. It is the tension between the overwhelming influence of cultural nationalism and a myriad of other local, regional and international social and artistic concerns that define Canadian literature between 1960 and 1980.

See also Literature in English; Literature in English: Language and Literary Form; Literary History in English 1620–1867; Literary History in English 1867–1914; Literary History in English 1914–1940; Literary History in English 1940–1960; Literary History in English 1980–2000; Literary History in English in the 21st Century.

Further Reading