Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties


255 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 1-895555-66-3
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is associate editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


As a child growing up in the 1950s, in Bethlehem, a village on the
outskirts of Wheeling, West Virginia, Douglas Fetherling lived the
American Nightmare: a parental union marked by “psychotic conflict”;
a vindictive and brutal mother who, in the 1960s, volunteered
information about her son to the draft authorities; a community of
“oppressive ignorance” (one that predictably embraced McCarthyism)
in which organized crime and institutional corruption flourished. A
school companion of Fetherling’s was destined to become a serial
killer. The “hot walker” at the Wheeling Downs racetrack was Charles

In 1967, fleeing the vacuity and violence of American society,
Fetherling took up permanent residence in Toronto and joined the
recently founded House of Anansi Press. It was through Anansi that he
gained an insider’s view of this astonishingly fertile period in
Canadian culture. Drifting in and out of his lucid, seamless (and,
unfortunately, index-free) narrative are a Who’s Who of the cultural
scene: Dave Godfrey and Dennis Lee (Anansi’s co-founders), Margaret
Atwood, Allen Ginsberg, Howard Engel, Earle Birney, John Glassco, Bob
Weaver, Eli Mandel, Al Purdy, Peter Martin, Jim Christy, Sandy Staff,
Elizabeth Woods, and Bill Kimber. The Bohemian, coffee-house existence
was stimulating, exhausting, and, for all its dizzying interactions,
curiously impersonal. Fetherling observes, “We were a noisy community
of strangers.”

Travels by Night does not spring from the school of confessional
autobiography. Fetherling remains a muted presence throughout (although
behind his cool analysis of the Demon Mother lurks a palpable rage), his
gaze firmly directed outward. He writes with a rare generosity of
spirit, and is only mildly critical of the bellicose Milton Acorn. (The
book’s strongest attacks are reserved for the author’s native
America.) Particularly compelling is his portrait of Acorn’s former
wife, Gwendolyn MacEwen, whose sad decline seemed to symbolize the
collective hangover that was to grip many of Fetherling’s fellow
Bohemians (an alarmingly high number committed suicide). Long before
MacEwan’s death in 1987, there were powerful intimations of the
disillusionment to come: the resounding failure of that controlled
experiment in democracy, Rochdale College; and internecine warfare at
Anansi, from which the author was unceremoniously fired in 1969. These
memoirs conclude with Fetherling’s 21st birthday, on January 1, 1970.
Given his distinguished career as an author and editor, a sequel would
be most


Fetherling, Douglas., “Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024,