OK, I have mixed feelings about the project. Purdy is a remarkable example of a self-educated poet, as Bowering’s 1970s monograph documents, and an encouragement to any young writer to persist no matter how weak one’s early poems. The A-frame is said to have been hammered together mostly by him and his wife, Eurithe. Purdy is the author of numerous remarkable lyrical responses to Canadian places and people. He could also, alas, find humour in misogyny and romance in racism, as well as in the often unrequited labour of eastern Ontario’s U.E.L. settlers. He’s been called by critic Sam Solecki “the last Canadian poet” – i.e. the last to be able to assume that being male, white,
beer-loving and British-descended was the Canadian mainstream. But Solecki could be wrong.
The question of why save his A-frame is also the question of why preserve any building because of its literary associations. In a way such preservation is anti-literary – an act that draws people’s attention to things other than words. Proponents argue that Wordsworth’s house in the Lake District leads one back to his poems – which in a few cases it likely does. But for most visiting a literary house is a way of being literary without having to read – an architectural version of a Readers Digest condensed book for a similarly bourgeois audience. Or it’s an event with
As well, which buildings with literary resonances get saved, and which don’t, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with writing. Rural properties are less expensive to embalm than urban ones, smaller or cheaply built ones like the A-frame cheaper than stone mansions. Properties associated with popular writers like Purdy or Service are more likely to be located and saved than those associated with the lesser known – there is a Mark Twain House, an Emily Dickinson Homestead, an Edgar Allen Poe House and a William Carlos Williams Home but, as far as I know, no Hart Crane or Mina Loy building. Touristic potential also contributes – as in the case of PEI’s Anne, Orillia Ontario’s Leacock, and the Yukon’s Service and, presumably, of Ameliasburg’s Purdy – particularly when the writer and the images associated with him or her are one of the few games in town. Buildings associated with global historic causes, such as the Anne Frank house, can often be financially easy to save and publicize – although the much older Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden Ontario has not been. Similarly, there’s a small plaque on the Fort Square building in Gloucester MA where Charles Olson lived – a memorial that pales beside the preservation of his library at the University of Connecticut; but in nearby Worcester MA the “boyhood home” of minor poet Stanley Kunitz has been preserved by the Worcester Library and Kunitz’s “friends.” Fortunately for the Ameliasburg A-frame, though apparently not for his library, Purdy also had friends.
Personal disclosure: I am probably one of those friends – I donated three signed posters of visual poems to a fund-raising auction held by the A-frame committee; as well my late wife and I most likely conceived our son in the single bed of the A-frame’s loft. (My son and I are expecting an appropriate plaque.) I don’t remember whether Purdy’s extensive library was worthy of preservation – the question didn’t occur to me. But I do know that the contents of the Library of Alexandria were of more value than the Library's undoubtedly interesting building.
Of the various Canadian literary buildings available for preservation, is the A-frame – despite its creativity-inspiring loft – the best candidate? What about Irving Layton’s Montreal house, the one with the front door to which he nailed his then-wife’s Gucci bag? What about A.J.M Smith’s cottage on Lake Memphemagog? What about the Kroetsch family farmhouse with the garden in which young Robert – as he recalls in Seed Catalogue – nearly got “planted.” What about Margaret Atwood’s present house in Toronto – maybe she could be persuaded to leave it to the city? Or does her childhood home in Leaside still exist? My own childhood home in Abbotsford BC is probably available for saving if anyone is interested – and if it hasn’t already been demolished to make way for an apartment building. But what about P.K. Page’s stately home in Victoria’s “Uplands” now that she has left us – like those two Atwood properties, it’s probably much too expensive. But couldn’t it be transformed into an art gallery, like the Marmottan mansion in Paris, and her numerous paintings be hung on the walls? Victoria, however, doesn’t have a great record for saving artistically significant buildings. In 1992 Emily Carr’s cottage-studio would have been demolished if my late wife’s first husband had not volunteered the rear of his own property as its new site.
Similar buildings have been less fortunate. The Mission BC mansion of the third son of Lord Bulwer-Lytton, author of the popular Victorian novel The Last Days of Pompeii, met its own last days around 1957– at the hands of people who knew what they were destroying. What a rich ‘Museum of the Remittance Man’ that house and its historically complex library could have been. Malcolm Lowry’s ocean-front squatters shack in Dollarton BC was similarly destroyed in 1954 – the site, however, is now plaqued. Not yet plaqued is the home of Warren and Ellen Tallman in Vancouver, where TISH magazine was founded, where Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley gave early lectures, where Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg warily co-resided during the famous1963 summer workshops, where Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen, and Donald Allen visited, where Daphne Marlatt, bill bissett, Roy Kiyooka, George Bowering, Fred Douglas, Phyllis Webb, Maxine Gadd, David Bromige, Fred Wah, James Reid, Carol Bolt and Lionel Kearns attended parties, lectures or the Tallmans' regular Sunday afternoon salons. Much has been made by the A-frame committee of the well-known literary figures who frequented the Purdy home. “If these walls could talk”, journalist Erin Knight exclaims in her article about the A-frame restoration. If the walls of the Tallman house could speak there would be a crescendo of new art forms. Personal disclosure: I was at many of these lectures, parties and salons – though there I helped conceive no one.
But of course walls don’t talk – at best they can shelter writers-in-residence or perhaps stimulate would-be writers to think they hear voices. Unfortunately, commercial forces govern both the price of real estate and potentials for tourism and thus the range of wall-conveyed voices. Writers who have always lived in apartments will never have a named house. Urban writers are mostly priced out of a museological afterlife. So too writers who live far from tourist routes or from university towns. Do writers aim to achieve a memorial house? – like Browning’s bishop ordering his tomb? There’s more evidence that they aim for an archival remainder, like Earle Birney in his later years building his fonds at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Library. He’s the author of, among many other more interesting things, the satiric “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin.” I’ve not seen a plaque on any Birney house, but in Salford, Ontario, there’s a memorial plaque for Aimee.