When I look at this picture of David Godfrey in the early days of the founding of Anansi I am overwhelmed by how impossibly young he was. Hard to believe that this young man had founded a company that would become one of Canada’s preeminent publishing houses.
In 1967, David Godfrey approached Dennis Lee to talk about his poems while both were teaching at the University of Toronto. Once Dave had read the full collection he was determined to publish them. As Dennis remembers it, Anansi really started life as a “one shot” enterprise the sole purpose of which was to publish Dennis’ collection, Kingdom of Absence. In a recent conversation Dennis told me he “admired Dave’s literary judgement” and felt he couldn’t turn Dave down because he was so enthusiastic. When they went to print they realized that it would be good to have the name of a publisher on the spine of the book. They spent a couple of hours mulling over a name. Dave had been travelling and teaching in Ghana with CUSO, where he encountered Anansi tales. Naming the press House of Anansi, after an African spider god, and a trickster to boot, seemed the right thing to do! And the rest is history. Well, not quite. It all could have ended there if it weren’t for Dave’s “go get ’em attitude.” Dennis recalls Dave’s tremendous energy, and that he was really a force of nature. He had “no fear of jumping off the deep end.” And so they pushed forward with their first full list in the fall of 1967, which consisted of four titles. The first was a reissue of Kingdom of Absence (they had spelled Anansi with an e instead of an i in the first edition!), followed by The Absolute Smile, a first collection of poetry by George Jonas, and a first collection of short fiction by David Godfrey called Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola, the first work of fiction on Anansi’s first publishing list! And according to Dennis, it was Dave’s idea to get in touch with Margaret Atwood to see if she would be willing to have Anansi reissue her Governor General’s Award–winning collection of poetry, The Circle Game, which was the fourth and final book on the list. And Anansi’s first offices in Toronto were housed in the basement of David and his wife Ellen Godfrey’s home at 671 Spadina Avenue, just up the road from our present location.
A number of Anansi’s most significant titles were brought to the house through Dave’s initiative; these included new work from Michael Ondaatje and Graeme Gibson. And, our first unexpected bestseller, Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, was a Dave Godfrey acquisition. It was a time of firsts, and while Dave Godfrey remained at the press for only 18 months his impact on the place has been far-reaching. As Dennis Lee recalls, “He sowed the seeds that were so important to him. He has not received the credit he deserves for much of what he set in motion.”
While steeped in the lore of this amazing publishing story and having the real honour of being the current Publisher, I regret to say that I never did meet Dave. But, I did have the opportunity to correspond with him about two months ago when I was thinking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the press in 2017. Hoping to get some input from him, I wrote:
Anansi will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary. Hard to imagine isn’t it? I’m brainstorming some ideas about what we should do to celebrate. I wonder if you’d like to write something about that time, about having the idea for the house — about how there was no CanLit to speak of and how you guys, with $2,500 from the Canada Council, started something very important.
To my surprise he wrote back:
I would love to do all that — and I’m sure there’s a picture or two worth reviving. Ellen and I had our 50th in August 2013, so I guess Anansi is due soon.
This never did come to pass, as his daughter Rebecca was in touch a few weeks later to say that Dave had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was not expected to live much longer.
David Godfrey played a pivotal role in the development of Canadian publishing and literature. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. From all of us at House of Anansi, we send Ellen and the Godfrey family our heartfelt condolences. And we will definitely honour his memory and his contribution to the creation of House of Anansi Press when we celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2017.
Sarah MacLachlan, President and Publisher, House of Anansi