Editing Modernism in Canada


April 14, 2011

Reading between the lines: The Crawley and Livesay archives

Over the past few days I’ve been ensconced in the Queen’s University archives, looking at the papers of Alan Crawley and Dorothy Livesay for my EMiC edition. This is a volume of correspondence between various figures involved in modernism – authors, critics, editors – with the working title Enduring Traces: Correspondence from Canadian Modernism’s Archives.

Working in the archive can

be a peculiarly seductive pleasure: no need to rehearse Derrida’s admonition about its “conservative production of memory” to a crowd who also no doubt feels the pull of the archive’s promise to clarify literary history, to pin down what really happened once and for all. Fortunately, reminders are constantly to hand about the contingency of the stories it tells. Livesay, for example, writes the script of a portrait of Crawley for broadcast on the CBC, which begins by calling attention to his blindness. Crawley writes to her, mentioning that he is uncomfortable with this emphasis, and asking for some other changes. From Livesay’s other drafts it’s clear that she revised the document based on his wishes. A print version of this portrait is then rejected by Maclean’s because it does not contain enough “lively anecdotes illustrating the character of Mr. Crawley”. This sequence of documents offers a tiny glimpse of some of the pressures Livesay was under as she put together a narrative about Crawley’s contribution to Canadian poetry (and this is to say nothing of the intriguing ways she narrativises various other aspects of the story of the founding of Contemporary Verse, such as eliding the gender of the poets who suggested him as editor).

Crawley’s letters also present some interesting editorial conundrums (conundra?) which have led me to reflect on the materiality of the technology he was using to write them. Some of the letters were typed by him, while others have been typed by his wife, Jean, and those typed by Crawley have the occasional line break in unexpected places. Wondering whether to reproduce these idiosyncratic line breaks, I found myself coming up with all sorts of hypotheses about what might have led him to make them, which I suddenly realised were all dependent on having actually used one of these clunky manual typewriters myself as a kid. (And no, I’m not that old – this thing was a dinosaur even back in the 80s, when other families were splurging on such sleek and speedy creatures as Apple IIes). While a sighted typist would have been able to see how much space remained until the end of the line, Crawley would only have had the aural reminder of the typewriter’s bell a few spaces from the end of the line, and his own memory of how long the line had gone on (something which it would be easy to lose track of if one paused to think in the middle of a line) to tell him when to hit the carriage return. Perhaps, I wondered, if he paused mid-line and forgot whether the bell had gone, it was simply easier to start a new line, which is something different to the intention to start a new paragraph.

My reasoning may well be wrong here, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for that ugly old typewriter. It’s one thing to hear the ding of a typewriter’s bell and to see its carriage return being used to move the paper down in the background of a scene from Mad Men; it’s quite another to have actually had to wrangle one of these machines yourself, and to know how the carriage return could not be relied on to produce perfectly even gaps between all the lines. Will editors in fifty years’ time find themselves needing this kind of knowledge about the vagaries of auto-correct on iPhone keypads, and haptic feedback on tablet computers?

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