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Douglas Fetherling - Madcap Era
by Douglas Fetherling

Sam Solecki's engaging book Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters of Jack McClelland (Key Porter, $26.95 paper) is the kind of work that McClelland himself would have relished in his heyday at McClelland & Stewart in the 1960s and 1970s, when, in Solecki's words, the company brought out "nearly a hundred books a year as McClelland practised his version of chaos theory." Imagining is so Canadian that it would be virtually incomprehensible beyond these borders, not least because it treats Canadian authors as important figures without violating cultural taboo by taking them seriously. In tone, it's more than just gossipy but less than actually scandalous. Therefore it is highly promotable. Indeed, excerpts from these letters to and from McClelland, the former bad boy of the Canadian book industry and now its retired elder statesman, seem to have been turning up everywhere. The timing of this book has been a triumph of the publicist's craft and has probably either whetted or undermined the market for the full biography of McClelland that James King is undertaking for another firm.

For me, Imagining is also a journey back in time, to lingering adolescence, when it seemed that everyone who ever wrote Canadian books was still gloriously alive and the first wide generation of modernists-ranging in age from Earle Birney to Irving Layton and Al Purdy, through Brian Moore and Margaret Laurence, down to Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, and Margaret Atwood-were all busily at work simultaneously. I had heard some of the stories that are documented by Solecki, who has long been a critic of contemporary Canadian writing, but more recently has become one of its historians as well. I had even heard passages from some of the more outrageous of these letters. But until now I had read very few, even though Canada is still a rather epistolary country, e-mail notwithstanding. Even though the tendency is for Canadian writers to publish their correspondence in piecemeal fashion and not in collected editions: for example, the George Woodcock/Al Purdy letters, the Ralph Gustafson/W.W.E. Ross letters, the Marian Engel/Hugh MacLennan letters, and so on.

For people of Solecki's age and mine, then, the period emphasized in this book-a dozen years, more or less, beginning with the Centennial-was made up of the doings of all our elders and betters. The temptation for us to reassess it all in middle age is irresistible. Imagining Canadian Literature includes a couple of letters to Alfred Knopf, the legendary high-end Europhilic humanist of American publishing, and also a statement that McClelland considered Knopf his role model. But surely McClelland was more of a Horace Liveright than he was a Knopf. After all, founding the New Canadian Library, thus canonizing Canadian literature for easy study, is one of McClelland's great achievements, and it echoes Liveright's founding of the Modern Library. In one letter to Atwood, McClelland sums up his professional outlook and temperament: "Ours is an incredibly sloppy, inefficient organization. So is every other publishing house that I have ever had any dealings with. [But] it has always been our active policy that the author is the most important person we deal with, and that the author's interests are more important than ours." Here, too, this might be Liveright speaking. When Hugh Hood reacts to a rejection with blind rage, McClelland replies with remarkable patience. "Our decision was based partly on commercial considerations, partly on considerations of artistic merit," he writes. "As a commercial publishing house, we are seldom able to segregate the two entirely. Commercial risk does not deter us when we find a manuscript that our editors feel must be published. When they feel less strongly than that, we strike some balance between commercial considerations and our own wish to publish."

McClelland was slim and blond, with a Canadian gentleman's education, and was charming most of the time, even elegant when he had to be. He was a non-observant Wasp with a dislike of academic pedants and fuddy-duddies. He was also a small-l liberal. Solecki points out that McClelland published three novels that "extended the boundaries of what the Canadian novel could say": Earle Birney's Turvey (1949), Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966), and Margaret Laurence's The Diviners (1974). In each case, he was repaid with contumely by the press and the public. In 1963, readers find him writing to Douglas LePan: "If there is one thing that we want to do more than anything else at the present time, it is to have an all-out battle with the forces of censorship in this country on a book written by a Canadian, published in Canada and in which we have faith."

His belief in free speech, however, was somehow inseparable from his genius for promotion. In making his first big leap by publishing Turvey, he tells Birney: "As a publisher, we have a duty to think of sales. Pornographic, erotic, and sexy passages increase sales. It is our belief that profanity and vulgarity sometimes have the opposite effect. Turvey could be read and enjoyed in many thousands of homes throughout Canada if some of the potentially objectionable parts were removed. If it is published as it now stands, I am certain that a sizable market would be lost. Forgetting the mercenary angle, I wonder whether it is fair to these readers. I would think of you as one might have thought of Gainsborough had he painted Blue Boy with his fly open." Following this is an unintentionally hilarious exchange in which McClelland and Birney negotiate banned words on an individual basis.

Robert Fulford compared McClelland to a circus ringmaster. I never got close enough to form an opinion, for Jack McClelland always filled me as much with terror as with admiration. Such was the sureness of his outgoing personality. Reading these letters, though, my tendency now is to cast him and his author cronies, such as Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Harold Town, and Al Purdy, in the role of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack of the same period. They were madcaps of the same sort. They had the same loyalties and rivalries, the same stunts and clashes, the same aspirations to everything cool and hip. A sort of rep company Rat Pack, if you will, with various writers at various times standing in for Dino, Sammy, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop (to say nothing of Angie Dickinson). No question, though, who the leader was. Glancing back now at a cultural environment so thoroughly macho, one marvels that anything much was accomplished, much less that so many books of genuine quality appeared amid the inevitable dross.

One is surprised to see how diplomatic McClelland could be in some of his more public letters and, likewise, how impishly indiscreet in some of the others. He frequently puts down his own lesser authors and even himself. Sending one correspondent a new M&S book by Stanley Knowles, he writes, "I am told it's rather uninspired reading. It just goes to show you that we'll do anything to make a buck. Re Berton. I overestimate him. But that's my function in life." At one point, McClelland actually begs Berton to seek high elected office for the good of the country. This letter seems to come at a particular place on the long curve of McClelland's personal politics. In 1970, he tells Walter Gordon that he came to the realization "a few weeks ago [following Kent State and Cambodia] that I am no longer just a mere Canadian nationalist; I am now actively anti-American." But by 1978 he is calling himself "post-nationalist". Perhaps not coincidentally, by that time he had long toyed with the idea of selling the company. Decades of struggle and ballyhoo had worn him down.

The public taste in biography being so thoroughly debased, as McClelland himself knew, Imagining Canadian Literature will likely be gobbled up and remembered less for its important portrait of Jack McClelland as cultural hero than for its grand insults. Irving Layton, of course, was always free with his abuse but was on the receiving end at times, as when McClelland learned that the poet was editing an anthology for the Ryerson Press: "You are a goddam blockhead.. It's like Dylan Thomas writing for the Reader's Digest, only less respectable because it's at least commercial. As I say, you don't need a publisher; you need a wet-nurse." But, as Solecki observes, no-one could provoke McClelland's ire like Birney, who apparently couldn't read royalty statements and so made quick accusations of being cheated and, what's more, proffered such editorial advice as recommending against publication of Sheila Watson's the double hook. Twenty-some years into their relationship, in 1971, McClelland is forced to write to Birney that "although I am fond of you, have great admiration and respect for you, I admit that I still think you are a shit." It was a different era. 


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