History of the Book in Canada, Volume Two: 1840-1918

by Yvan Lamonde, Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Fiona A. Black, editors
659 pages,
ISBN: 080208012X

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At the Sign of the Book
by Cynthia Sugars

On July 8th, 1892, the Newfoundland publishing enterprise of Dicks and Company was forced to relocate its shop after its premises were destroyed by the great fire that ravaged most of the buildings along Water Street in downtown St. John's. The company, which had begun as an unlikely merger between a local sailmaker and bookbinder in the 1830s, was one of the city's first businesses dedicated to the selling of books. Within a few weeks, the company was in business once more. Suspended above the entrance of the new shop was what became their trademark, an immense book accompanied by the words "Sign of the Book"; this soon became a company slogan and popular local phrase, "At the Sign of the Book." The episode exemplifies the tenacity of print culture in early Canada, as well as the ways print infiltrates all aspects of culture and society. These two elements are central to the immense undertaking of the proposed three-volume History of the Book in Canada. I reviewed Volume One in the March 2005 issue of Books in Canada. Volume Two continues the project established by the first: to illuminate the reciprocal development in Canada of "print" and "culture"๙and, by extension, "nation".
Each volume, the editors state, will redefine the meaning of the "book" in Canada. This volume covers the period when "Canadian literature" as a conceptual category (albeit a fraught one) began to emerge. It takes as its starting point the installation of the first printing press west of Ontario, an appropriate beginning since it marks the spread of print and publishing across the soon-to-be-formed nation. Print, during this period, played an integral role in consolidating the image of the new nation, from the Eaton's catalogue which proclaimed itself "destined to go wherever the maple leaf grows, throughout the vast Dominion" to the establishment of the Mounted Police as a symbol of Canada. Central to the spread of print in Canada was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885, which enabled the transportation of printed materials across the country year round and at a faster rate than had previously been possible. Prior to the railway, the editors state, "Canadians perceived commerce, if not politics, as regional rather than national." The railway, in essence, could serve as a national propaganda machine, disseminating the "sign of the book" (and the sign of the nation) transnationally. As the editors eloquently put it, "In Canada the trajectory of the 'Gutenberg galaxy' followed the tracks of the railway."
The editorial introduction to the volume is exemplary for its detailed outline of the multifarious roles print culture played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as is George Parker's essay, "The Evolution of Publishing in Canada." As overviews, these are superb. Both stress that a "publisher" at this time meant a number of things, combining the role of printer, binder, publisher, and bookseller. Parker describes the changes that occurred to publishing in Canada between 1840 and 1918. Foremost is the sheer quantity of books issued by Canadian presses by the end of this time period, the increased use of photographs and other elaborate illustrations, the rising rate of literacy, which meant a larger readership, and the "cultural capital" that came to be associated with the writing profession.
One of the most significant issues is the changing role of authorship during this period, as Micheline Cambron and Carole Gerson relate in their informative essay in the collection. In the first place, "Canadian" authors were an "emerging species", since prior to this period many authors who lived in what we now call Canada were born elsewhere. In the 1880s and 1890s, in particular, a group of writers born and raised in Canada actively sought to contribute to a national and international literary field, and engaged in vociferous public debates about the definition of "Canadian literature". Nevertheless, it was still difficult for writers to earn a living from writing, which forced many to accept government appointments, teaching positions, or other means of support. Secondly, many of these aspiring new authors were in search of places to publish their works. This was the heyday of the periodical press in Canada, which "provided the first national medium of mass communication," and thereby played a significant role in the consolidation of a shared sense of a national community. Canadian magazines appearing during this period included such well-known and influential titles as The Literary Garland, The Dominion Illustrated, and Canadian Illustrated News (all published out of Montreal), as well as a number of Toronto publications, including the infamous Grip, which reproduced the satirical political cartoons of John Bengough, Saturday Night, and The Week. Nevertheless, authors interested in publishing book-length works were forced to seek publishers in the cosmopolitan centres abroad, namely London, Paris, New York, and Boston. Even though the 1880s and 90s is a period often celebrated as a "golden age" of Canadian writing, particularly with the group of writers that came into their own in the decades following Confederation (which included such important figures as Charles G.D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Ernest Thompson Seton, Sara Jeannette Duncan, and Pauline Johnson), many chose to live abroad. As Cambron and Gerson put it, "the price of success was often expatriation." This became less of a necessity by the end of the First World War.
One of the tortuous issues related to these factors is the issue of copyright, which has echoes today in the CanCopy regulations and questions concerning Internet copyright, not to mention the subsidisation of the arts in Canada. George Parker's essay on the "Struggle for Copyright" is a handy survey of these debates. In 1842, the Literary Copyright Act was passed in Britain, which subjected Canadian materials to imperial copyright law until 1923. This meant that copyright laws focused on the rights of British authors. In any case, Canadian editions of British or American books were few; since "Britain and the United States competed as the main source of supply for the colonial market, neither country would permit the importation of Canadian reprints." With the Foreign Reprints Act of 1847, American reprints of British books were legalised on the payment of a percentage to the British copyright holders. As a result, the Canadian market was flooded with cheap American reprints which made it difficult for Canadian publishers (and authors) to compete. In some instances, British publishers would produce "colonial editions" of their work for sale in Canada, but the central problem for Canadians remained: "Although Canadians owned works of local authorship, no author or business could survive on the sales of Canadian books alone."
Merrill Distad's contribution, "Print and the Settlement of the West", is alone worth the price of this book. The history of the Canadian northwest during this time is a "saga of gold and silver rushes, diplomacy, politics, railway building, dislocation of and resistance by Natives and MTtis, mass immigration, and economic boom and bust." Distad provides an outstanding account of the ways print functioned as a "propaganda tool" and "played a defining role in the spread of Canada westward." In particular, print was used to bombard British and European markets with propaganda (posters and pamphlets) singing the praises of western settlement and the railway, which exaggerated the ease of settlement ("carefully eschewing words such as 'snow' and 'cold'") and included testimonies of Canada as the land of promise.
Like Volume One, this volume is divided into sections devoted to particular topics. Among these are some of the key concerns for publishers and writers of the period: copyright legislation; the formation of public lending libraries; the rise of book collectors (particularly those interested in Canadiana); the changes to publishing brought about as a result of the transcontinental railway; the introduction of steam-powered cylinder presses and other technological advances; the increasing rate of literacy amongst the general population; the role of print in various ethnic communities; book cover design; book catalogues (including a book section in the early Eaton's catalogue); cookbooks; posters; newspapers and magazines; school books; literary societies (comparable to today's "reading groups"); and the role of print in sport (for example, in establishing the formal rules for ice hockey). Also included are chapters devoted to the role print played in some of the seminal events of the period: from the Confederation debates, to the promotion of women's suffrage, to the Northwest Rebellion and trial of Louis Riel, to the extended search for the Franklin expedition.
Eli Maclaren's account of Louis Riel's "capture" of the Nor-Wester in Fort Garry (Winnipeg) is one of the most fascinating episodes in the book, though there are a myriad of similarly fascinating cases. Four days after the MTtis captured Fort Garry in November, 1869, the paper was taken over and used as a mouthpiece for communicating grievances to the federal government. Riel used the press to print laws and declarations which legitimated his government and enabled him to negotiate with the Dominion. According to Maclaren, it was the lack of a printing press during the later uprising in 1885 that contributed to the rebellion's failure. "Without a press, Riel simply could not supply what the MTtis needed to maximize their intervention in public discourse at the territorial or the federal level." Control of the press, on both sides, meant that one could "manage the political meaning of [one's] actions."
Like its predecessor, this volume of the History of the Book in Canada undertakes an immense task in integrating the multifaceted aspects of the astounding story of print in Canada. It is an ambitious work: entertaining, informative, scrupulously researched, encompassing, and highly readable. Ian Wilson's essay on the 1913-14 Canada and Its Provinces series cites a reviewer's description of the collection as "'one of those important works which are not likely to be models for the future but which really create much of the future.'" These words are easily applicable to the History of the Book in Canada project as well. ๒

Cynthia Sugars teaches Canadian Literature at the University of Ottawa.

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