17 April 2009

The Mysterious Question Mystery

The Canadian Century: English Canadian Writing Since Confederation
A. J. M. Smith, editor
Toronto: Gage, 1973

The Canadian Century is the tardy companion to The Colonial Century, a textbook that began life in 1965 as The Book of Canadian Prose: Volume 1. Worth the wait? I think so. Smith wastes more than a few of the 652 pages on things like Hugh Garner's 'One- Two- Three Little Indians', but this is more than offset by the inspired, accomplished and all too often overlooked. The reader is presented with writing by Edward Blake, Wilfrid Laurier, Northrop Frye, Leonard Cohen and Alice Munro. Louis Riel's eloquent, if confused, final statement in The Queen v Louis Riel is included; as is John Glassco's comic memoir 'A Season in Limbo', otherwise only available in an old number of The Tamarack Review. Preceding all is a piece titled 'The Mysterious Question', which Smith chose to include in his Preface.

'Perhaps I take a risk of including here a remarkable short story', the anthologist writes


The short work of fiction, first published in a 1951 issue of Northern Review, is a hoax. Attributed to 'John Goodwin of West Vancouver, B.C.', age 12, it was actually the work of editor John Sutherland (plagiarized from a story by Washington Irving). The prank fooled a great many people, including Ethel Wilson, who had been so impressed by the story that, thirteen years later, she wondered about its author in her essay 'Series of Combination of Events and Where Is John Goodwin?'

Smith knew the true identity of the author; in 1969, he and Glassco had exchanged correspondence about Sutherland's prank. Yet, the anthologist appears to have had no qualms in furthering the ruse... for a while. The Canadian Century was reprinted at some point. Hard to tell when. The title and copyright pages are identical, the design is unchanged, yet 'The Mysterious Question' has disappeared.

Object: Well, it's a textbook: bland layout and paper of a shade that induces symptoms not dissimilar to snowblindness. Simultaneous cloth and paper editions.

Access: Not as common as one might expect. A handful of copies are currently listed, the most expensive coming in at US$15. Seems everyone thinks that they're offering the first printing. Maybe they are. The second printing is scarce — in his A. J. M. Smith, An Annotated Bibliography (Montreal: Véhicule, 1981) Michael Darling writes that he'd been unable to locate a copy.

No comments:

Post a Comment