The Fiddlehead

The Fiddlehead, Spring 1975
The Fiddlehead, Spring 1975

The Fiddlehead is the oldest, continuously published literary magazine in Canada. It was first published in 1945 by the Bliss Carman Society of Fredericton, which was founded in 1940 by A.G. Bailey at the University of New Brunswick.

As Bailey explained in the first issue, the magazine takes its name from a “small plant that grows in the Saint John river valley in the spring, and which is said to be symbolic of the sun” (“The Fiddlehead” 1).

Initially, The Fiddlehead was a means of documenting the literary efforts of the Bliss Carman Society, and an attempt to rejuvenate a poetic tradition that Society members traced back to Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Francis Joseph Sherman. The magazine originally served a social rather than a public function, as Bailey articulates in the introductory note written for the first issue: “The poems contained herein are not ‘published’, but are brought together in this form as a record largely for private circulation among members of the Society and their friends” (“The Fiddlehead” 1).

These early “private” issues of The Fiddlehead contained on average 10 poems each, and were printed on large mimeographed pages. Front matter was sparse. It was not until the tenth issue that a table of contents was deemed either necessary or affordable. A painting of a fiddlehead by Lucy Jarvis, one-time Art Director of the University of New Brunswick, adorned the cover of each issue of the magazine from its inception until 1967.

In the beginning, contributions to The Fiddlehead came exclusively from members of the Bliss Carman Society and their associates. The fifteenth issue (Summer 1952) contains a list of regular contributors, including Bailey, Fred Cogswell, Marjorie Evans, Donald Gammon (the journal’s first editor), Frances (Firth) Gammon, George Whalen, Eleanor Belyea, Robert Richards, Robert Gibbs, Margaret Cunningham, Alan Donaldson, and Robert Rogers. Elizabeth Brewster’s absence from the list is noted as an error in issue 16.

The Fiddlehead started, then, as a periodical record of poetry written by a select group of writers in Fredericton. However, in the early 1950s, the magazine began to take on a life of its own. By that time several of the Bliss Carman Society’s founding members had left Fredericton; their labours thus ceased to be the organizing principle of the journal. Soon The Fiddlehead’s contributors decided to begin soliciting material from outside their standard circle. The sixteenth issue included a note explaining that while the magazine’s “primary purpose has been to foster the writing of poetry in this area, we welcome contributions from elsewhere” (Rogers 7). In this way the magazine invited the rest of the country, and indeed the world, to membership in its little society.

Cogswell noted in the magazine’s tenth-anniversary editorial that the demise of Contemporary Verse: A Canadian Quarterly in early 1953 created space for The Fiddlehead to grow into a national literary magazine. Recognizing the opportunity and motivated by a sense of editorial obligation to Canadian writers, The Fiddlehead reinvented itself and a permanent call for submissions was added to each issue, announcing: “Poets from all parts of the English-speaking world are welcomed to The Fiddlehead” (Cogswell, 1955 1).

When Cogswell became editor of The Fiddlehead in 1953, he literally reshaped the magazine, shrinking its pages to a more conventional size, setting aside space for advertising, and adding literary reviews to the content of each issue. In the fall of 1959, he also began including one piece of short fiction per issue.

Only two years after becoming editor, Cogswell increased the magazine’s total subscribers “by 658.064%,” according to his own comically precise calculation, from a mere 31 to over 200 (“Editorial” 1). That Cogswell chose Villiers Press of London in the U.K. to print the reshaped Fiddlehead certainly contributed to the increase in the journal’s subscriptions and the growth of its stature. Cogswell turned to Villiers because printing The Fiddlehead across the Atlantic was, oddly, cheaper than printing it in Fredericton. Going with Villiers also got the New Brunswick publication noticed by the Hollywood-based Trace magazine, which was a periodical directory of literary magazines (and another Villiers publication). After receiving attention from Trace, The Fiddlehead began attracting submissions from across North America.

Cogswell converted The Fiddlehead from a local poetry concern into an international literary magazine. As a testament to how complete and enduring this transformation was, consider Clarissa Hurley’s suggestion that it is incorrect (and perhaps even a bit derogatory) to call The Fiddlehead a “regional” journal; the magazine’s international content and reputation, she argues, defy such a designation. Hurley is partly right. However, it is important to understand the role that The Fiddlehead’s competing communal affiliations have played in the magazine’s development. Over the past sixty-five years The Fiddlehead has variously (and sometimes simultaneously) been considered a Fredericton magazine, an international magazine, and an Atlantic Canadian magazine. Determining its position in relation to these various literary communities has been an editorial negotiation throughout the journal’s history.

Consider, for example, a 1958 issue of the magazine in which Cogswell felt compelled to defend The Fiddlehead’s editorial policies against recent criticisms from two members of the national literati, Earle Birney and Northrop Frye. In response to The Fiddlehead’s increasingly international content, Birney criticized the magazine for giving space to what he considered insignificant American poets. Frye likewise characterized The Fiddlehead as “a dumping ground for otherwise unpublishable American stuff” (447). According to these critics, The Fiddlehead was both un-Canadian and too provincial: its international content called the magazine’s Canadian identity into question, and, as a New Brunswick publication, its capacity for literary discernment could not be trusted by the nation’s more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan centre.

Such a response reveals that to some members of the critical elite, the idea of a national literary magazine based in Fredericton (as opposed to Montreal or Toronto) was a contradiction in terms. These sentiments show us how The Fiddlehead was often under pressure to justify its presumptive position on the Canadian national literary landscape. While outside critics were trying to put the magazine in its place, The Fiddlehead’s editors were simultaneously asserting their right to determine for themselves where their magazine belonged.

When Kent Thompson became editor in 1967, he continued the professionalization project that Cogswell began. He increased the complement of short stories in every issue. By some accounts, Thompson’s editorial standards were more stringent too. Thompson also changed the cover of the magazine for the first time in its history, replacing Lucy Jarvis’ painting with one by Marjory Donaldson.

Thompson was ambitious. To his mind, The Fiddlehead had the potential to be Canada’s pre-eminent literary magazine. In a regular series of editorials, he trumpeted The Fiddlehead’s virtues, and several times challenged Toronto’s status as cultural capital of Canada. Thompson also used his editorials to comment on the state of Canadian literature, to bring attention to young writers, and generally to harangue the literate public. His editorials were brash and energetic, sometimes acerbic and always comical. In those pages he bullishly defended The Fiddlehead against a chorus of imagined opponents, both literary and political.

By the time Robert Gibbs took over as editor in 1971, The Fiddlehead had hit its stride. Gibbs regularized the journal’s length; each issue was now about 120 pages of poetry, short fiction, reviews, and drawings. Gibbs also used his time as editor to reaffirm some of the magazine’s founding ideals. He wanted The Fiddlehead to give space to young writers and to remain open to a broad range of literary modes and forms – not affiliated with any particular school or ideology.

Roger Ploude followed the editorial paradigm established by these early editors. The first editor who was not also a creative writer, Ploude initially agreed to look after the journal in 1975 – for a year or two at most – shortly after accepting a job in the English Department at the University of New Brunswick; he ended up in the job for six years. During Ploude’s stewardship the look of The Fiddlehead was permanently altered when he turned the cover of the magazine into an ever-changing gallery space, which featured a different work of art with every issue.

In the summer of 1981, new editor Peter Thomas reaffirmed the magazine’s regional origins, announcing that publishing writing from Atlantic Canada would now be The Fiddlehead’s primary concern. The editors would not employ quotas, but they would encourage a “distinct flavour of place,” at least limiting the kinds of writing that would be accepted from other parts of the country and the world. Thomas summed up the new editorial direction by stating, “Our doors are still open, though a little less wide” (1981 3). Thus, the magazine’s relation to place was once again reconceived.

Among Thomas’ innovations included the regular appearance of personal essays by Atlantic Canadians organized under the heading “Out of Place.” Thomas also included bulletins of literary happenings (“Atlantic Soundings”) from each of the four Atlantic provinces. Thomas’ time as editor was relatively short. Don Conway assisted and then replaced him in the early 80s and Michael Taylor took over full-time for the last half of the decade. Still, Thomas arguably changed the magazine more drastically than anyone had since Cogswell in 1953.

That Thomas’ vision marked a departure from that shared by Cogswell and Thompson is quickly apparent. In an early editorial, Thomas argued that The Fiddlehead “became a ‘national’ magazine by default” as “other Canadian literary magazines either disappeared or went through ‘latent’ phases,” suggesting that perhaps the fern was never meant to extend itself so far, or simply that it was better suited to the local climate (1982 5).

However, it might be more precise to say that the editorial agenda of the 1980s did not so much constitute a reversal of the course charted by Cogswell, Thompson, and others, but rather a different articulation of the magazine’s original mission. Between 1953 and 1981 editors used The Fiddlehead to promote Fredericton as a literary hub, to position the New Brunswick capital as a Canadian centre for creative arts. Thomas and his immediate successors fostered local literary culture differently, by embracing a position on the margins of the national consciousness, and claiming for themselves a unique perspective from which to comment on Canadian arts and letters.

While the magazine’s sense of place has shifted repeatedly throughout its history, some elements of editorial policy have remained constant. In 1995, as The Fiddlehead turned 50, then editor, Don McKay wrote that the journal has never subscribed to “specific doctrines and programs” and has consistently “placed attention ahead of direction, broad aesthetic range ahead of selective listening” (5). There is an echo here of Bailey’s suggestion in the first issue that the journal’s role was not precisely a public one: that its place was never to advance or popularize a particular paradigm, but rather to function as a kind of printed writer’s circle – albeit one of indeterminate circumference. Over the past two decades The Fiddlehead has remained a venue for writers (especially emerging writers) to share their work with one another in both small and larger orbits.

Sixty-five years old in 2010, the journal has also become less anxious about positioning itself as a national Canadian literary magazine. In his editorials, Ross Leckie, editor from 1997 to the present, has described The Fiddlehead as a record of the work being done in literary circles across the nation: a cultural thermostat that tracks the changing seasons of Canadian literature.

Like virtually all other media in the 21st-century, The Fiddlehead has also embraced the Internet as a new means of engaging its readership. Along with subscription, submission, and contest information, tables of contents for every issue published since 1999 can be found on the magazine’s website. A Fiddlehead blog was also established in 2010 to keep readers apprised of magazine-related news and update them on happenings in Canadian literature.

In a letter written for the sixtieth-anniversary issue of the magazine, Carmine Starnino described the first time his work was accepted for publication in The Fiddlehead, suggesting that “By providing approval and access to a readership, The Fiddlehead took a private writerly experience and turned it outward” (73). In a sense this statement describes the whole enterprise of The Fiddlehead. The magazine’s original function was to provide a space where the work of a small group of Fredericton poets could be printed, admired, and critiqued. Later, it became an instrument through which a much broader public could be introduced to works by many of Canada’s most critically acclaimed writers, including Margaret Atwood, Don McKay, Alistair MacLeod, Alden Nowlan, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, and David Adams Richards.

In 1958 an editorial in The Tamarack Review declared, “There are no literary quarterlies in the English-speaking world that are practicable in the long run” (Dobbs 3). Though the editor’s words were prophetic for the Toronto-based Tamarack, which ceased publication in the 1980s, they have been disproved by The Fiddlehead’s continued perseverance. The magazine’s longevity can be attributed, in part, to its flexibility and its open-mindedness, specifically the emphasis it has placed on uncovering and fostering new talent. One might suggest that the writer’s circle for which the magazine was originally created provided The Fiddlehead with a superb model for its continued success.

Andrew Moore, Summer 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Bailey, Alfred G. “The Fiddlehead.” The Fiddlehead 1 (1945): 1.

Campbell, Sabine, Roger Ploude and Demetres Tryphonopoulos, eds. Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of The Fiddlehead Magazine. Fredericton: The Fiddlehead and Goose Lane, 1995.

Cogswell, Fred. The Fiddlehead 18 (1953): 1.

---. “Editorial.” The Fiddlehead 23/24 (1955): 1.

McKay, Don. “Sporangia Eclectica.” The Fiddlehead 183 (1995): 5.

Rogers, Robert and Fred Cogswell. “Notes.” The Fiddlehead 16 (1952): 7.

Thomas, Peter. “Editorial.” The Fiddlehead 130 (1981): 3.

---. “Editorial.” The Fiddlehead 134 (1982): 5.

Thompson, Kent. “Editorial.” The Fiddlehead 100 (1974): 1-3.

---. “Guest Editorial.” The Fiddlehead 162 (1989): 5.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bailey, Alfred G. “Desmond Pacey, The Bliss Carman Society, and The Fiddlehead.” The Fiddlehead 107 (1975): 3-5.

Bartlett, Brian. “Whittling Away: An Autobiographical Tribute to The Fiddlehead on its Fiftieth Birthday.” The Fiddlehead 183 (1995): 7-14.

Cogswell, Fred, ed. A Canadian Anthology, Poems from The Fiddlehead 1945-59. London: Villiers, 1961.

Dobbs, Kildare, et al. “Editorial.” The Tamarack Review 8 (1958): 3.

Frye, Northrop. “Letters in Canada: 1957, Poetry.” University of Toronto Quarterly 27.4 (1958): 447.

Gibbs, Robert, ed. Reflections On A Hill Behind A Town: The Fiddlehead 35th Anniversary Number. Fredericton: The Fiddlehead, 1980.

Hurley, Clarissa. “Unfurling the Fern.” Books in Canada 27.5 (1998): 5-6.

Lane, M. Travis. “An Interview with Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne (New Brunswick Literature Issue) 11.2 (Fall 1986): 226-45.

Starnino, Carmine. Letter. The Fiddlehead 225 (2005): 73.

Tremblay, Tony. The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2019.

---. Fred Cogswell: The Many-Dimensioned Self. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Studies Centre and the UNB Electronic Text Centre, 2012.

---. “Frederick William Cogswell.” The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Studies Centre. 2011.