History of the Book in Canada:
Volume One, Beginnings to 1840
By Edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan, and Yvan Lamonde
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004
Hard back: ISBN: 0802089437 Price: $75.00
Crossing the border from the United States into Canada, one discovers a multicultural mosaic of literary voices and a vibrant community of authors with international stature, like Margaret Atwood, Austin Clarke, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje. Step back in time one hundred years and the literary landscape in Canada becomes much thinner. During the early twentieth century, Canadian publishers were mainly branch-plant operations, acting on an agency basis for parent companies in Great Britain or America. With the exception of Robert Service’s Songs of a Sourdough and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, published in 1907 and 1908 respectively, there are few Canadian books and even fewer authors who have endured. Writers such as Stephen Leacock and Ralph Connor, who were household names in the United States for most of their careers, are now largely forgotten outside of Canada. If one turns the clock back before Canadian confederation in 1867 or before the movement in British North America towards responsible government in 1840, it would appear that hardly any literature of significance was being produced at all in this northern country. When he sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence on his first voyage five hundred years ago, the explorer Jacques Cartier expressed the bleak opinion: “I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land…God gave to Cain.”
The initial volume of the History of the Book in Canada, Canada’s first survey of print culture and reading in society, amply disproves Cartier’s pessimistic prognosis. The book, part of a planned three-volume series, is a collaborative and interdisciplinary project that employs seven editors at different universities across Canada and a large team of historians, librarians, literary scholars, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students. The period of history for volume one concerns print culture in Canada during its infancy. Before the arrival of European settlers, the aboriginal peoples had an oral culture and a system of inscribed discourse. The first printing press came to Halifax in 1751. The Halifax Gazette, Canada’s first newspaper, began publication on March 23, 1752. Printing soon spread to centers in Upper and Lower Canada and later across isolated parts of Western Canada. It was an era when government publications and religious works dominated. Even after 1800, when journals, handbills, almanacs, and music were printed and came on the market, the colonial government took a dim view of freedom of the press.
Fleury Mesplet, a printer who had worked in London and Philadelphia, journeyed to Montreal in 1776, and although he published 150 titles in addition to newspaper and commercial printing before his death in 1794, his life was plagued by government interference and imprisonment. Several decades later in 1826, the printing office of William Lyon Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate in York (now Toronto) was vandalized by members of the political establishment.
A staunch critic of the upper class clique known as the Family Compact, Mackenzie was elected several times to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada and was even mayor of Toronto. As a result of his political activism, he was forced to flee to the United States in 1837 during the rebellion in Upper Canada.
Volume one of the History of the Book in Canada comprises individual essays and case studies, written by almost sixty contributors, and numerous photographs, charts, maps, and tables. The scholarship in this volume is also enhanced by a useful chronology, an abundance of notes, a checklist of sources cited, a list of contributors and their credentials, and a name-and-subject index. The illustrations depict title pages of books and other documents, bindings, mastheads of newspapers and journals, manuscripts (the wage book of a printer, an account of the sale of Sir Isaac Brock’s books and his other personals effects, etc.), marginalia (General James Wolfe’s copy of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard that he annotated prior to the battle of Quebec), and portraits.
The story of the development of print culture in Canada begins with the native people who were spellbound by French missionaries and the magical power of print. The historian Cornelius J. Jaenen concludes rather blandly, however: “Although the North American Native peoples had neither paper nor print technology, they were able to achieve most of the objectives of writing and printing to the satisfaction of their own cultural imperatives.”
By contrast, François Melançon’s essay on print culture in New France is more incisive in explaining the reasons for the lack of a printing press in the French colony. Patricia Fleming provides excellent profiles of early printers, such as Bartholomew Greene, John Bushell, Thomas Gilmore, John Neilson, and John Howe. We learn not only about the print shops and the physical nature of presses, binding, illustration, and paper, but also about the business of printing and publishing. There are also succinct essays on various types of imprints, including children’s literature, textbooks, religious instruction, music, almanacs, cookbooks, books in German, Gaelic, and translation, and scientific literature. Part six on print and authority has a masterly overview of official government publications and political censorship by Gilles Gallichan. The essay on religious censorship by Pierre Hébert in the same section is also informative about the Catholic clergy’s attempts to dominate and control the uses of print in Quebec, but there is no corresponding article on religious censorship in English Canada. The context for much of this analysis is readership and the establishment of libraries and mechanics’ institutes. Essays by George L. Parker, Gwendolyn Davies, Carole Gerson, Bernard Andrès, and Michael Peterman discuss the rise of authorship and the literary side of publishing. The tone of Andrès’s essay on Quebec literature is perhaps overly strident in its defense of the struggles of French writers against an oppressive English regime.
When compared to other national histories such as The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (volume one of A History of the Book in America) and The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, this composite narrative of print culture in Canada is imaginative, well researched, and scrupulously chronicled. It can be read by both scholars and the educated public alike. The case studies are refreshing counterpoints to the longer essays. This does not mean that this volume is definitive in its scope and coverage or always strikes the right note. For example, John Macleod’s essay on the library of Richard John Uniacke, no matter how illuminating in its presentation, is unnecessarily cluttered with statistical data. Volume one has no references to crime (as distinct from the law and civil unrest) or to sports (an early game of hockey is noted in the Acadian Magazine in January 1827 and immigrant guides often highlighted the pleasures of “field sports” like hunting and fishing). This first volume of History of the Book in Canada admirably sets the stage for the next two volumes of the saga, covering the periods 1840 to 1918 and 1918 to 1980.