Editing Modernism in Canada


June 2, 2011

Hugh Garner

I really appreciated having the opportunity to discuss my editorial work during the EMiC roundtable last week–and especially all the helpful feedback both from those who attended, and fellow roundtable participants. Here’s a short run-down of what I discussed, for those who couldn’t be there.

With Jonathan Eburne, I’m currently working on a critical edition of the Toronto author Hugh Garner’s short stories. A few elements originally drew us to this project: first of all, the stories themselves, which cover a huge range of topics and experiences, united by Garner’s sensitivity to the plight of the underdog. We were also interested in the timeline of Garner’s short fiction, from his earliest writings in the late 1930s into the 1960s and 1970s (he died in 1979), especially as he seems to have edited and revised earlier published works throughout his career. Finally, the diverse publication histories of the stories is particularly fascinating to our research. Garner’s stories have been published in magazines and journals, broadcast as radio plays, performed as plays, and reprinted and translated in anthologies around the world. In our edition we want, as best we can, to reflect the varied media in which many of his stories have appeared.

The reason behind the wide-ranging publication history of his stories is that Garner was a shrewd businessman, who saw writing first and foremost as a job. He brags in his autobiography, One Damn Thing After Another, about trying to publish each story in as many formats as he could so as to make the most money from each one. Many of the writings that he claims to have done strictly for the money are also among his most famous, including “A Trip for Mrs. Taylor,” a story which went on to be repeatedly broadcast over the CBC, anthologized across Canada and the United States, published in Braille, and turned into a play–Garner claims it was published at least 36 times.

Garner’s outspoken position that writing was, for him, a job—a craft, not a higher calling—has made it easy for some to discount his work as proletarian, sentimental, lowbrow, whatever (and depending on the story, I wouldn’t always disagree!). I would argue, though, that this position was a carefully crafted public persona–and an important one to consider. Garner often emphasized not only how quickly he wrote, but also how proud he was of his working class roots. He frequently commented that he was perhaps the only Canadian author to set his stories in factories. In one instance he explains, “Some time ago an actor who has read many of my short stories on CBC radio wondered aloud to someone how Garner knew so much about gauges, calipers and parts-inspection procedures in a story about a farm implement factory, called ‘E Equals MC Squared.’ There’s no secret about it; I worked once as an inspector in the punch-press department of the Massey-Harris company. I’ve also been asked where I learned about ‘priming’ tobacco leaves, working in a carnival, crossing the ice of a Quebec river, life on a wartime Canadian corvette, selling products door-to-door, or whatever. My answer has been, ‘By doing these things,’ and sometimes adding, ‘from sheer necessity’.”

I’ve loved Garner’s writings ever since Dean first introduced me to Cabbagetown in an undergraduate Canadian modernism class at Dalhousie, and I’m really enjoying this opportunity to do more research on his work.

One Response to “Hugh Garner”

  1. Hannah says:

    I’m sorry I missed this roundtable! Your work on Garner sounds really interesting, and I’d love to hear more about the conjunctions between remediation and “low brow” literature in the early-mid 20th century. Understanding remediation as part of a crafted public persona as working class author seems like a perspective that could yield some interesting new thinking on the topic.

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