The best friend the Canadian short story ever had
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 January 2008)

They were nobody's idea of revolutionaries, the people who founded The Tamarack Review. If you saw them at work in 1956, as they prepared their first issue, you couldn't have guessed that this was the first act in a drama that would end with English-Canadian literature transformed. But six Toronto literary people, steered by Robert Weaver, turned out to be pioneers who pushed Canadian writing toward a new confidence and a new era.

Weaver, who died on Saturday at the age of 87, was impatient with the low quality of Canadian literary journals. He wanted a magazine with rigorous standards and an elegant design (which William Toye supplied) to present writers in a context of excellence. Moreover, all writers would be paid. Not much, of course, but paying anything was, for a literary quarterly, a revolutionary gesture.

The Tamarack never sold more than 1,000 copies, but those of us who occasionally wrote for it knew, from the reactions of our friends, that we were lucky to be in it. The cover of the first issue featured Ethel Wilson, Timothy Findley (his first story ever published), George Woodcock and Brian Moore. Many years later, when Weaver was forced out of the CBC, Moore wrote to say he would never forget the encouragement Weaver gave him "at that vital stage when such help is --or seems --all important."

When its first issue came out in 1956, the Tamarack was a rather lonely voice. But by the time it died in 1982, its readers knew it was the best literary magazine English-speaking Canada had produced, possibly the best we would ever produce. It was also the most influential of the many influential projects in Weaver's long, creative career as coach, guide and cheerleader for the best writers of the time -- Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler, Al Purdy and Hugh Garner, and many more.

Weaver's day job for all of his adult life was at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he served as literature's ambassador to radio. He edited Anthology, a half-hour weekly program of fiction and poetry, he organized fiction for a culturally ambitious program called CBC Wednesday Night and he kept himself busy hectoring CBC executives to devote more time and money to the writers of the country and maybe a little less to celebrity interviewers.

His literary judgement was shrewd. At the Tamarack or the CBC he could explain why one short story worked and another didn't. That naturally made him Canada's chief anthologist of stories. He was editor or co-editor of 10 anthologies for Oxford University Press, plus three or four more for other publishers. He thought that in a country with limited resources the short story had the best chance of developing. By 1986, as co-editor with Margaret Atwood of The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, he was able to write, accurately, "Today the position of the short story in Canadian writing is unassailable."

Among editors Weaver was an exceptional loyalist. If he admired a writer, Weaver stuck with him or her, year after year. Years before most people took Alice Munro seriously, Weaver was singing her praises and writing her long, encouraging letters. Once Weaver decided that Norman Levine or Garner was valuable, he remained committed till the end. Levine was impoverished all his life, because he never learned how to do anything except write short stories, some of them superb. Weaver understood, and knew that Levine was relying heavily on the modest cheques Weaver could send his way, for CBC or Tamarack material. Garner, while more versatile (a novelist and journalist as well as a short-story writer) was a binge alcoholic who relied on Weaver to provide comfort, reassurance and a little cash to carry him over the rough spots. Garner dedicated a book to "Bob Weaver, the best friend the Canadian short story ever had." That was true in general, and especially true in the case of Garner.

Recently Weaver had not been well, but his friends and colleagues were hoping to see him tomorrow afternoon at Massey College, for the launch of Robert Weaver: Godfather of Canadian Literature (Vehicule Books), by Elaine Kalman Naves. John Fraser and Barry Callaghan were among those scheduled to pay tribute to him -- though everyone knew that, in his usual fashion, Bob would be embarrassed by what would certainly be lavish praise.

With its central figure dead, the event will go forward, but as a wake rather than a promotion party.

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