The Book

Imagining Toronto book cover

Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, fall 2010) is available at most bookstores and online through Mansfield Press, Amazon or Chapters.

Imagining Toronto was shortlisted for the 2010 Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the Award of Merit, the highest honour given to a book at the 2011 Heritage Toronto Awards.

Upcoming Events

25-26 February 2012: "Going Native: Reclaiming Aboriginal Identity in Toronto Literature," “Landscapes of Difference, Espaces de Difference, Raume der Differenz” conference (Session: The Politcs of Place: Urban Sites of Contestation), Canadian Studies Association in German-speaking countries (GKS). Grainau, Germany.

Thursday 15 March 2012: Guest lecture, "The Imagined City," ARC 120, Contemporary Architecture. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto; Isabel Bader Theatre, 9:45-11:00 am.

Wednesday 4 April 2012: "Representing Toronto: Mapping the Role of the Artist in the Contemporary City. Panel discussion. Presented by Koffler Gallery in partnership with Diaspora Dialogues. 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 503; 7:00 pm.

Sunday 22 April 2012: Reading from Acts of Salvage at the Draft Reading Series. Details TBA.

Thursday 3 May 2012: "Literary Bodies." Panel discussion as part of Bodies in the City, a symposium of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.

Thursday 17 May 2012: "Imagining Toronto the Wild" at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Inaugural lecture of the TBG's new HortiCULTURE salon series.

Recent Events

Tuesday 18 October 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: Will the Real Cabbagetown Please Stand Up?: Regent Park, St. Jamestown and Cabbagetown in the Literary Imagination. Parliament Branch (269 Gerrard St. E.)

Saturday 1 October 2011, 2:00-3:30 pm: The Masseys and the Masses: Social and Spatial Ascendency in Rosedale and Forest Hill. Forest Hill Branch (700 Eglinton Ave. W.)

Tuesday 27 September 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: From Streetcar Suburb to Multicultural Community: Riverdale in the Literary Imagination. Riverdale Branch, Toronto Public Library (370 Broadview Ave.)

Click here for past events.

Rare Reads | Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians

Published to considerable acclaim in 1960, Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians (Longmans Green & Company) was a Canadian bestseller in its time but now appears long forgotten.

The book’s dust-jacket (reportedly one of the first to show the new City Hall on its cover; see cover image) describes the novel as “a brilliant presentation of the immediate predicament in which we all find ourselves, with Toronto the kaleidoscope through which we view it. To some this novel will be no more than a cynical glimpse behind the city’s staid facade, to others simply a modern drawing-room comedy or a delightful picture of successful marriage; to many it will be a nostalgic memoir of the past thirty years, to many more a penetrating analysis of the contemporary social scene.” The commentary adds, “these people are called Torontonians — and their city is unmistakably Toronto during its period of fantastic growth in size and sophistication”. The Torontonians appears to have been issued under a variety of titles to suit international markets, including as Gift of Time (1962) and as The Commuters (Pan Books, 1965).

I have just received the book and have added it to my reading pile. Once the teaching term ends in April, I plan to sit outside in the spring sun (please, oh please, let there be lots of it!) and catch up on a huge backlog of Toronto reading.

Initial research fails to turn up much on Phyllis Brett Young. Indeed, in Toronto: A Literary Guide (MacArthur, 1999), Greg Gatenby observes that Young disappeared from both literary notice and the public record long before her last recorded whereabouts in 1981. Despite this, Young received considerable acclaim for her work, which includes a number of novels: Psyche (1959), The Torontonians (1960), Anything Could Happen (1961), Undine (1964), and A Question of Judgement (1969). Young’s papers are apparently held by the Boston University library.

Further research turns up an increasingly interesting story. A search at the University of Toronto library reveals that Brett wrote at least one novel under a pseudonym: The Ravine (as Kendal Young, published in 1962). According to an IMDB entry, in 1971 The Ravine was made into a violent, salacious, and perhaps pedophilia-tinged film film called Assault.

From further research still, this time into the Toronto Star‘s “Pages of the Past” archive, I note the following references to Phyllis Brett Young (shown in the image to the right, which appeared in the Toronto Star on October 3, 1961):

(Friday October 21, 1960): Dennis Braithwaite writes, “Phyllis Brett-Young’s “The Torontonians,” comes out today and already Hollywood is interested in a movie version. … At any rate Chatelaine, which has published excerpts, got a phone call from 20th Century-Fox yesterday to that effect … They’ll probably make it a western and call it “Last of the Torontonians …”

(Saturday October 22, 1960): In an article titled “Coiffures and Books” (in which the hairstyle of The Torontonians‘ cover artist receives as much attention as the book itself), Lotta Dempser writes, “The Torontonians” is probably the first book to have the new City Hall on its cover. Jean [Miller, the cover artist], obeying what at first seemed like an impossible request from the author (to put a profile of the heroine and a sketch of the City Hall together), worked it out after a sudden brainwave. The profile dominates, and the building is dreamily sketched in with a cocktail glass motif.” [Miller also designed the cover for Young’s first book, Psyche.]

A Saturday December 10, 1960 advertisement by The Torontonians‘ publisher (Longman Green & Company), inserted likely to boost pre-Christmas sales, cites favourable reviews of the novel appearing in an array of Canadian newspapers, including one from the Winnipeg Free Press describing The Torontonians as “one of the most professional and satisfying novels, Canadian or otherwise, to have come along for many months.” (emphasis added; these days such a comment would be made as sarcasm.)

(Tuesday October 3, 1961; page 41): A long profile of Young, written by Lotta Dempsey, appears in the Toronto Star. In it, Young comments, “What I wanted most was to send some of Canada abroad — the vibrant, vital country I know; not the dull, gray-tone backdrop it so often seems to come out.” This comment seems to foretell the rise of urban Canadian literature, although its rise has never, to my knowledge, been associated with Young’s work. The article reports that Young’s first novel, Psyche, set in northern Ontario and Toronto (another addition to the Imagining Toronto library) was being made into a Hollywood film. Dempsey describes Young as the “Toronto-born housewife” of a Canadian diplomatic corps officer (unnamed) and the daughter of University of Toronto philosophy professor G.S. Brett.

My searching so far has not produced any further information, but I will add more should I come across it. I think I will write an article about vanishing mid-century women/Toronto writers, featuring Young, Joyce Marshall, and others whose work has been long forgotten. I have a strong suspicion that the subsequent generation of successful women writers (reading about Young reminds me immediately of Margaret Atwood) owes much of its existence to forerunners such as Phyllis Brett Young. Indeed, Margaret Atwood’s 2003 Toronto novel, The Blind Assassin (McClelland & Stewart) seems to have been written very much in the spirit of Young’s work. Intentional or otherwise, I think there is a connection worth exploring here.

***

Because commentators generally claim that Toronto-focused literature does not precede the 1970s (indeed, sometimes they are unable to reach further back than the 1987 publication of Michael Ondaatje’s iconic Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion), I am always eager to push the horizon back further. The findings, though, have been slim so far. Writer Anne Denoon (author of Back Flip (Porcupine’s Quill, 2002; a novel set in late 1960s Yorkville’s art community) told me about Joyce Marshall’s Lovers and Strangers (1957), a long-out-of-print novel I finally managed to track down this week (pending international shipping rates, it will arrive sometime in the next couple of weeks). There is also, of course, Morley Callaghan’s fiction, including Strange Fugitive (1929), a novel literary scholar Justin Edwards describes as “Canada’s first urban novel.”

I do not think it is so difficult to find earlier Toronto novels because few were published. On the contrary, I suspect a great many novels with Toronto settings were published, but because they were popular novels directed at general audiences in the years before Canada’s literati rewrote Canadian literary history as having begun with their own works (and the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts), they appeared to brief acclaim and vanished almost as quickly. Canada’s literary history since about 1965 has focused very much on works of high culture (novels exploring the great literary themes) rather than acknowledging the equally important role played by popular and pulp fiction in mirroring our own culture(s) back to us.

And so, in the coming months I suppose I will begin digging through the archives of Canadian Literature and the popular Canadian press (some of Phyllis Brett Young’s work was serialized in Chatelaine magazine, for instance), seeing what I can dig up about other long-forgotten Toronto best-sellers. At the same time, I think I will take more care in digging through the boxes of dusty mid-century novels while I cruise the city’s garage sales this summer.

If you know of any pre-1960s Toronto novels I haven’t mentioned here or listed in the Imagining Toronto library, I would love to hear from you.

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