“On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet”
Joni Mitchell, “A Case of You” (1970)
A good map tells a story. It shows us where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.
These vintage literary maps of Canada are beautiful reminders of how closely our culture and identity are tied to our geography. Our literary heritage, like our land, is vast. It is bold, brutal, bleak and beautiful.
It’s a bitter-sweet relationship, that both unites and divides us, and leaves an indelible mark. Like Joni Mitchell says “you’re in my blood like holy wine/you taste so bitter and so sweet.”
In 1936, William Arthur Deacon, Canada’s first full-time book critic, created this gorgeous literary map of Canada, showing important writers, books and literary landmarks:
A literary map of Canada, compiled by William Arthur Deacon; drawn and embellished by Stanley Turner (Toronto: MacMillan Co. of Canada, c1936)
In 1979, the literary map of Canada was redrawn to reflect the growth of CanLit across the land.
A Literary Map of Canada, compiled by Morris Wolfe and David Macfarlane, designed by Graham Pilsworth (Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, 1979)
These maps are lovely records of our history. But much has changed, and it’s time to redraw our literary map. A new map of Canadian Literature would/should include more Aboriginal writers, more women, more cultures and more genres than ever before.
And, while our literary culture is still shaped by our geography — it is not constrained by it. Modern literary giants, names like Atwood, Munro, Richler, Cohen, Ondaatje, Mistry and Wagamese have reached way beyond our borders — speaking to a much wider audience. They are loved not just in Canada, but around the world.
We remain, I’m happy to say, a land defined not just by our geography but by our shared values — freedom, tolerance and peace. And lots of great literature.
Something to ponder on this our 146th birthday: How would you redraw the literary map of Canada?
Happy birthday Canada.
Source for maps: Library and Archives Canada