Reviewed by Colin Hill
Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013.
In this ambitious and sometimes surprising biography, Sandra Campbell explores the astoundingly prolific career of one of the most significant figures in Canadian literature of the early twentieth century. Although “few Canadians remember Lorne Pierce” (4), there was scarcely a facet of Canadian writing of his time that did not bear his imprint, and one reads this book in awe of the ambition and accomplishments of a man who, “driven by the demons of his Methodist boyhood . . . wanted in all sincerity to function as both editor and writer, both publisher and author, both general editor and copy editor – and to excel at all these roles” (4, 145). If Pierce’s conservatism and nationalism have led most literary historians to dismiss him as “a hyperactive and uncritically patriotic church publisher,” Campbell is right to insist that we reconsider the accuracy of such portraits and acknowledge the formative role he played in the development of a national literature in Canada (5). Campbell’s narrative begins with Pierce’s “staunchly Methodist upbringing” and explores how he channeled his conservative, evangelical, missionary zeal into an indefatigable pursuit of a Canadian cultural nationalism (145). An ordained minister, he was also the author of several monographs and biographies as well as numerous editions, reviews, articles, and columns. He edited a landmark anthology, Our Canadian Literature, with Albert Durrant Watson, and several foundational series, including, most importantly, Makers of Canadian Literature and the Ryerson Chapbook Series. In his role as general editor of Ryerson Press, he personally edited and marketed series of textbooks that were used in classrooms across the country and imparted his brand of cultural nationalism to a generation of young Canadians. Campbell notes that his most significant accomplishment was the role he played in publishing countless books by Canadian authors: “[a]bove all, for forty years, Lorne Pierce shaped the book lists of Ryerson Press,” then Canada’s largest publisher, “according to his vision of Canadian literature and culture” (7).
Both Hands is attentive to both the professional and personal lives of its subject and reveals Pierce’s achievements to be especially remarkable given that he was severely hindered, from the start of his literary career, by “[t]wo grave – and little-known” medical conditions: “First, by his early years at Ryerson, Pierce suffered from near-total deafness,” and Campbell reveals how difficult it often was for Pierce, with his disability, to manage a career that demanded public speaking, use of the telephone, business travel, and “schmoozing and networking” (146-47). “Second, his long-time health problems – periodic bouts of bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, fatigue, influenza, and other ailments – were diagnosed at this time as severe systemic lupus” (147). Pierce’s illness, which would eventually kill him, was worsened by chronic overwork and periodically caused him to collapse with physical and psychological exhaustion. If this was not enough, he faced financial hardship almost constantly both at Ryerson Press—where he persisted with money-losing literary projects because of their cultural significance—and at home. The story Campbell tells of Pierce’s loving but sometimes troubled marriage to Edith Chown Pierce—who suffered much as she tirelessly supported her husband’s demanding career—is astute and moving, and offers insight into Pierce’s complex personality.
Campbell’s meticulous research in the voluminous Lorne Pierce Papers at Queen’s University gives the back story to some of his most significant literary endeavors. Sometimes, Pierce’s religious and moral conservatism led him to make questionable decisions as an author and editor. Campbell characterizes his biography of Marjorie Pickthall as “an idealizing and patriarchal narrative which cast Pickthall as an ideal of both traditional femininity and traditional poetic ideals in the face of changing values for women and literature in the 1920s” (236). We learn also that Pierce would not publish E. J. Pratt’s The Witches’ Brew, in part a satire on the temperance movement that Pierce and the Methodist Church supported. His relationship with even as conservative a poet as Charles G. D. Roberts was troubled by his moral disapproval of the Confederation Poet’s “trail of kited checks and fondled women . . . Pierce was appalled when Roberts made ‘risqué’ references about Carman’s love poetry in front of a ‘disgusted’ Edith Pierce at a Royal Society Banquet” (259). These stories are a reminder of the degree to which large segments of the Canadian literary world remained deeply prudish and conservative even as other nations were experiencing their modernist revolutions.
But Campbell also reveals that the traditional characterization of Pierce as a literary figure who sought affirmation of moral, patriotic, and spiritual values and decried the avant-garde, experimental, and sexually-frank is not entirely accurate. One of the most significant arguments forwarded in this book occurs during Campbell’s measured and revisionary discussion of the role Pierce played in publishing and encouraging modernist poetry: “[a] myth has sprung up that Pierce’s series overwhelmingly neglected modernist poets in overwhelming favour of traditional and romantic verse” (263-5). In a challenge to Margery Fee’s assertion that Pierce ignored modernist poets in his Ryerson Chapbook Series, Campbell notes the publication by Pierce of Anne Marriott, Dorothy Livesay, Frank Oliver Call, L. A. Mackay, Norman Levine, Doris Ferne, and W. E. Collin. She also cites Louis Dudek’s praise of Pierce’s work for Canadian poetry in support of her conclusion that “Pierce published a range of verse, modernist and traditional, that reflected the diversity of both geography and poetry in Canada” (264).
Campbell notes early on in Both Hands that “[t]he biography of a pack-rat workaholic publisher with a finger in every Canadian cultural pie of four decades is a challenge to research and write” (11). The substantial size of this book and the wide-ranging notes that conclude it testify to how much material Campbell waded through as she reconstructed Pierce’s life story. After reading this book, one may not be wholly convinced that Pierce was a true advocate for modernist writing, but it will be impossible to deny his formative role in the development of a Canadian cultural nationalism. And Campbell’s book, in restoring her conservative subject to a central place in modern Canadian writing, reminds readers that literary historians have sometimes polarized debates about the literature of Pierce’s time into easy binaries.
At press time: Colin Hill is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto where he teaches Canadian literature. He is the author of Modern Realism in English-Canadian Fiction (UTP 2012) and the editor of a critical edition of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage. He is currently working on critical and editorial projects that engage the early, unpublished works of Raymond Knister and Hugh MacLennan. Professor Hill is co-editor of University of Toronto Quarterly and a member of the EMiC project.
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