17 May 2009

Elizabeth Smart Burned and Banned?

Reading The Dead Seagull last week, I turned repeatedly to By Heart, Rosemary Sullivan's very fine life of Elizabeth Smart. The biographer devotes seven pages to George Barker's book, a work she describes, quite rightly, as having a 'profound and complex misogyny' lying beneath its surface.

By Heart is recommended, not only the story of Smart's extraordinary, but for the glimpse it provides of an Ottawa that is no more. In this city the Smart family enjoyed a position of influence and privilege due to father Russel, a lawyer. Elizabeth Smart's mother, a society hostess known as Louie, considered By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept a work of 'erotomania', and famously set her copy aflame. But, as Sullivan tells us, she didn't stop there: 'Louie had learned that six copies of the book had been seen at Murphy-Gamble's, a local dry-goods store in Ottawa; she immediately rushed down, bought, and burnt those books also. Louie was always thorough. She then approached her friends in External Affairs and requested them to ensure that the book would not be imported into Canada.'

Sullivan suggests that By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept may indeed have been banned in Canada. We'll probably never know; records of publications banned during wartime were frequently destroyed.

Conspiracy theorists, take note: It wasn't until 1981, thirty-six years later, that Deneau published the first and only Canadian edition.

One wonders what Louie Smart would have thought of Library and Archives Canada and their 'Canadian Writers' display, located a mere two kilometres from the former Smart family home. Here we find not only images of the book she so hated, but also pages from the manuscript.

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