History of the Book in Canada-Vol. 1

by EFleming/Gallichan/Lamond
ISBN: 0802089437

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A Review of: History of the Book in Canada, Volume One: Beginnings to 1840
by Cynthia Sugars

The advent of Gutenberg's printing press neatly coincided with early explorers' travels to North America in search of new empires. John Cabot's landing at Cape Breton and Newfoundland in the late 1400s, and Jacques Cartier's voyages to the Eastern seaboard of upper North America beginning in 1534, occurred less than a century after Gutenberg's invention of movable type, an invention which was to revolutionize the role of print in human social networks forever after. While the fur trade is considered by many to be the definitive event of Canada's past, what Franois Melanon, in this collection, dubs the search for "brown gold", its popularity as a narrative has early roots, caught up, as it was, in the mania for written accounts describing the exoticism of the New World that accompanied early modern imperialism. Suffice it to say that the history of what we now call Canada was, from its beginnings, tied up with the printed word. Not only did the early explorers write about their "discoveries" of strange and unforeseen peoples and lands as a way of documenting their often unsettling experiences to audiences back home, but printed books became the medium through which early missionaries sought to convert the Natives and, in the process, lay claim to the land in the name of imperial expansion.
Perhaps none of this is surprising. Yet this emphasis on the role of print and story-making lends new meaning to the notion, coined by the famous deconstructive critic Jacques Derrida, of there being "nothing outside the text." Canada, as a cultural-political entity, was made, and the printing press helped make it.
This collection of essays on the role of print in early Canada (more correctly, British North America) discusses these topics and much more. Envisioned as a three-volume collection, The History of the Book in Canada promises to be a definitive sourcebook on the role of print in the political, cultural, and intellectual life of Canada from the 1700s to 1980. I should clarify that "print" does not refer solely to what we would conventionally call a "book". Indeed, this volume encompasses newspapers, magazines, children's books, book illustrations, printed music, political pamphlets, religious texts, published speeches and sermons, library catalogues, reading society lists, and much more. The project is a collaborative enterprise that collects essays from over one hundred scholars, English and French, from across the country. It is an ambitious and unprecedented work, graced with more than 60 illustrations, and has been published simultaneously in French by Les Presses de l'Universit de Montral as Histoire du livre et de l'imprim au Canada.
The collection is comprised of a series of short essays on selected topics, with additional "case studies" that focus in more detail on particular historical figures or cultural phenomena related to the history of print in Canada. It begins with the oral cultures of North American aboriginals and the wampum belts that were widely used to relay the history of Native peoples. From there, it covers such topics as the early explorers' and missionaries' narratives about the New World, the first printers in early Canada, the importation of books to the Canadian colonies, private book collectors, the development of the book trade and the first "bookstores", the beginnings of libraries, the printing of "scrip" (an early version of paper money), the spread of newspapers and magazines, the popularity of almanacs, the first books printed in Native languages and James Evans's creation of a syllabic Cree alphabet, copyright laws, and political censorship. Throughout, one message is clear: the rise of print culture in British North America played a crucial role in defining a Canadian society and ethos that was distinct from that of the United States, particularly following the American Revolution, and increasingly (though tortuously) distinct from British influences.
Chapters on the rise of newspapers (and attacks on various printing houses) and political censorship do an excellent job of charting the increasing anxiety that attended the rise of print in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Governments had controlled most printing activity in the early 18th century, but were increasingly losing control as authors became less dependent on patron subsidies and middle-class reading audiences expanded. The suspicion and hysteria surrounding the rising spread of print culture-the concern was that people could be easily corrupted by a too liberal access to printed materials-is comparable to the concerns about the rapid growth of the internet today. Gilles Gallichan's chapter on political censorship does an excellent job of surveying these issues in response to the American and French revolutions. The struggle for freedom of the press in Canada, including such notable figures as William Lyon Mackenzie in Ontario, Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, and Ludger Duvernay in Quebec, is given superb treatment, and highlights not only the radical nature of much early printing activity in Canada (a large proportion of the Quebec patriotes were workers in the book and printing trade), but the profound courage on the part of these practitioners, who opposed state censorship and endured prison sentences and assaults as a result. Howe, who was forced to represent himself in a court of law since no lawyer would risk defending him, launched a brilliant and eloquent defence in the name of freedom of expression (it lasted over six hours!) which is regarded as a founding moment in the fight for freedom of the press. Indeed, the famous attack on Mackenzie's newspaper, The Colonial Advocate, in Upper Canada in 1826, in which the printing press itself was vandalized and the press and type scattered into Lake Ontario, has been identified by historians as a key step in the gradual changes to the way print was "policed" in the early colonies.
The volume also does a good job of treading the fine line between the indebtedness to British tradition and the desire for innovative, local expression in the early instances of magazine publication and literary composition in Canada. To be sure, from early on, print was being used to help articulate the collective, albeit regional, character of the new societies that had arisen in the British North American colonies (the volume ends before Confederation and, alas, before the heyday of Canada's first major literary magazine, Montreal's Literary Garland-readers will have to wait for Volume Two for the 1840-1918 period). For many early writers, seeing themselves as part of a wider British literary tradition was important, especially in the wake of the American revolutionary war. However, it is also true that many of these writers and printers recognized the need to adapt their work to local circumstances, particularly given the relatively small audience they could expect to reach. The humorous though topical essays by John Young, who wrote under the pseudonym "Agricola", and Thomas McCulloch's satirical Mephibosheth Stepsure Letters, both published serially in the Acadian Recorder in the early 1800s, attest to the popularity of local subjects to early Canadian readers. The attendant problem, of course, was the reverse: the difficulty of having one's work recognized beyond the colonies. When McCulloch tried to interest British publishers in his Stepsure Letters, he was told that while his pieces had "all the pungency & originality of Swift," he would nevertheless do better to rewrite the letters and address them "to someone in [England] . . . so that they could be serialized in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine." McCulloch was furious, and refused to alter his work. This and other cases reveal that what is often regarded as a twentieth-century phenomenon, the difficulty of interesting international publishers in Canadian subjects, is not so modern after all. Notwithstanding the well known cases of such literary figures as Charles G.D. Roberts, who turned to US markets to publish his works, or Hugh MacLennan, who was told by an American publisher that Canadian people and places were of no literary interest (not to mention Mordecai Richler's or Margaret Atwood's numerous statements on this subject), similar dilemmas were faced by many early Canadian printers and writers.
The story of Thomas Chandler Haliburton receives particular attention in Ruth Panofsky's account of the ways unequal copyright laws in Britain and the colonies disenfranchised colonial authors and their publishers. Famous for his best-selling work The Clockmaker, a humourous series that featured the memorable character of the Yankee clock pedlar Sam Slick of Slickville, Haliburton's work was first published in Joseph Howe's The Novascotian in 1835. Because of the popularity of this and subsequent Sam Slick adventures, Howe decided to publish the collection in book form a few years later. However, since the Halifax edition was not protected under British copyright, a London publisher was able to reprint the collection with no repercussions. Even though Howe sought compensation for this piracy, his case was futile, a situation that was further exacerbated by Haliburton's subsequent abandonment of Howe in his desire to court British and American publishers.
On a very different topic is I.S. MacLaren's compelling argument concerning early writings about the New World. His account of the numerous exploration compilations that were so popular in the Elizabethan period, such as Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625), which contains an account of Henry Hudson's presumed demise in the icy waters of what is now Hudson Bay (his crew mutinied and set Hudson and his son adrift in a lifeboat in 1611), is fascinating reading. More striking, however, is MacLaren's suggestion that the body of North American exploration writing is "over-represented by books of exploration and travel in the Arctic," particularly the quest for the Northwest Passage. In his view, many other worthy narratives from this period, such as accounts by Loyalist settlers, have been overlooked. Given the long-standing vogue for tales and histories of the North in Canadian culture, not to mention the exuberant celebration of the Franklin tragedy as a seminal Canadian myth, this statement is noteworthy. The chimera of the Northwest Passage itself becomes emblematic of a mythologized Canada that was constructed for a British, and subsequently North American, palate.
The promotional material accompanying my review copy of the book includes a quiz bearing the heading "Test your knowledge on Canadian Book History." A number of these concern a series of Canadian "firsts." Here are a few with which to arm yourself for the next Globe and Mail literary challenge. It was in 1752 that printing first began in what is now Canada-the first newspaper, The Halifax Gazette, was issued in March of that year. Many people identify the first English-language novel set in Canada as Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague (1769), or the first French-Canadian novel as Philippe Aubert de Gasp Jr's L'influence d'un livre (1837). Less well known is the first English-language novel written by a native-born Canadian, Julia Beckwith Hart's St Ursula's Convent (1824), or the work of Marie Morin, the first writer born in New France, or the fact that Canada has an official typeface (used, incidentally, in this book) known as Cartier.
In recent decades, the study of English literature has undergone substantial shifts. Contemporary critics are as likely to explore the social, cultural, and political aspects of literary history as they are to engage in a close analysis of individual literary texts. This turn (or return) to history focuses our attention on questions about authorship, reading habits, and different modes of production and circulation of printed works. The History of the Book is a timely study that emerges as part of this disciplinary context. It is likely to be a foundational text in Canadian literary study, comparable to the role Carl F. Klinck's Literary History of Canada (1965/1976) has played in the field. It is an essential text for any Canadian college or university library, and for anyone interested in how Canadians and Canada came to be narrated and documented into being.

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