If you’ve never heard of Fredericton, New Brunswick, I’ll forgive you. It’s the capital of New Brunswick, but you may not have heard of New Brunswick, either, before you started reading this post — unless you live in over the border in Maine — so I’ll forgive you that, too. Fredericton is a little city, only 56,000 people or so, tucked in the Saint John River valley. Founded in 1785, it has all the charm and gorgeous stone houses of any old Atlantic town, and it punches way above its weight literature-wise. Fredericton was my home for four year as I worked on my PhD in Canadian Literature, and I can’t imagine a better place to be surrounded by books. Literature and storytelling are in Fredericton’s DNA.
Frederiction is traditionally known as Poet’s Corner of Canada because it is the shared birthplace of three of the Confederation Poets, important because they were writing poetry about being a country around the time (1867ish) Canada was thinking about becoming a country. Bliss Carman, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, and Francis Joseph Sherman were all born in or around Fredericton and educated at the city’s major university, the University of New Brunswick (which, being founded in 1785, is the oldest English-language university in Canada). You can visit a plaque to these three poets on the campus, just outside the library, and Bliss Carman’s home is a listed historic site. And at the Forest Hill Cemetery, you can see the graves of these poets, including Carman’s, which has been honoured as he once requested:
Let me have a scarlet maple
For the grave-tree at my head,
With the quiet sun behind it,
In the years when I am dead.
But it’s not just the olde-tyme poets celebrated in Fredericton. Notorious and arguably the best-loved Canadian poet of the twentieth century, Alden Nowlan (1967 Guggenheim Fellow, if you please), caroused his way through Fredericton. As a favourite son, the town’s literary festival is named after him. His home is now the graduate student pub at the University of New Brunswick, and you can get as drunk there as the man who penned these words once (twice? thrice?) surely did:
And me, the one fool,
who must dance
although too heavy
on his feet, sing
although his vocal cords
are out of tune.
But that is the price
I pay for such
I do not get drunk for myself,
I get drunk for you.
The graduate school is part of what sustains Fredericton’s literary awesomeness, with an MA in Creative Writing that has graduated some of the biggest names in Canadian Literature, like IMPAC Dublin Award winner Alistair MacLeod and two of this year’s Giller Prize long-list nominees (Wayne Johnston and Craig Davidson). As a result, there are always readings going on at the university or in the pubs in town, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet (they don’t like that though). The town sustains two (TWO) literary journals, Canada’s esteemed The Fiddlehead and the rough-and-ready graduate publication QWERTY, and a reliably excellent publishing house called Goose Lane.
And if your time at the university does not offer enough literary drinking for you, you can stumble downtown to raise a glass at the James Joyce pub downtown, located just steps from this incredible statue memorializing Robbie Burns (thus honouring the literary heritages of Scotland and Ireland within a single block):
(Incidentally, while you’re in the neighbourhood, pop into the art gallery next to that Robbie Burns statue. This town of 56,000 people happens to have a gallery that houses one of Salvador Dali’s most incredibly works of art, Santiago el Grande, which your friendly blogger was married in front of. Well worth a peek.)
But so much of book loving is in the owning of books, isn’t it? For those travelers who like to hit unique bookshops on their travels, Fredericton has two special mentions to write home about: Westminster Books, a really lovely and carefully thought-out indie bookshop that hosts fabulous events and employs dangerously good hand-sellers; and Owl’s Nest, still the most overwhelmingly fabulous winding Narnia-like adventure of a bookshop I’ve ever set foot in. Between these two shops, I swear you can find most anything you could need, no matter how obscure or bizarre. And for the nerds among us, there’s a fabulous indie comic shop too, Strange Adventures, that carries the kind of locally-produced independent comics that make excellent souvenirs (if your friends are even remotely cool people).
It’s an off-the-beaten-path choice for a literary tourist, but those who love books won’t be able to go too far wrong in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where right about now the leaves have turned just the right colour and the air has turned just crisp enough for wood stoves to awaken. Go to Fredericton, and tell the little literary locale I said hello.
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