Between the years 1920 and 1960, Lorne Pierce undertook the project of bolstering a unique national literary identity for Canada in his role as editor at Ryerson Press. Pierce’s ambitions resulted in several notable series, including the Makers of Canadian Literature, thirteen volumes bound in either blue cloth or blue leather, each with gold stamping, each focused on an individual Canadian writer. While the Makers of Canadian Literature series was soon abandoned — some texts of projected volumes languish in manuscript in the Lorne and Edith Pierce Collection held in Queen’s University Archives — Pierce’s mission was noble and the books contributed to the formation of Canada’s early literary history.
In 1919, Samuel Fallis joined the Methodist Book and Publishing House as Book Steward1 and the following year hired Lorne Pierce as his advisor.2 At the time, the House’s operations included “commercial printing, periodical publication, retail and wholesale bookselling, and the printing and publishing of books.”3 In the years leading up to Fallis’s arrival, however, the House had seen a “steady decline” due to the cost of “financing a new building, labour shortages during the war, and most importantly, the loss of significant editorial talent [which] had eroded the House’s commitment to producing books by Canadian authors.”4
In 1920, out of a desire to focus on book publishing, Fallis launched a new imprint under the name the Ryerson Press.5 Pierce was recruited to assist with the imprint6 and immediately made it his mission to support and promote the work of Canadian writers. He was aware that Canada’s identity as a nation and its literary scene had emerged in the wake of the First World War7 and sought to “foster native authors because they are the truest interpreters of our people to themselves, as well as the best spokesmen to the other nations of the earth.”8 For Pierce, Canadian writers helped “to articulate and to interpret Canada to Canadians and to the world.”9
Pierce believed that Ryerson Press could become a cultural mecca and it was his job to make it so.10 Thus, he made a conscious effort to become “a publisher of Canadian-authored titles.”11 Although he came to Ryerson Press with minimal knowledge of Canadian literature, over the course of a career that spanned four decades, Pierce went on to become a pivotal figure in Canadian publishing.12
One of Pierce’s largest projects was the Makers of Canadian Literature, which he envisaged as a series of forty volumes, each of which would include a bibliography, a portrait of the featured author, an anthology of selected works, a critical appreciation, a bibliography, and an index.13 The first twelve titles in the series were published in both a Library edition and a Frechette edition. The Library edition was “produced in blue cloth, gold-stamped on the spine and facsimile signature blind-stamped on the front cover,” while the Frechette edition was produced in “1,000 numbered sets, bound in blue leather, gold-stamped on the spine and with facsimile signature gold-stamped on the front cover, top edges gold.”14
Despite Pierce’s grand vision, only thirteen titles were completed and made it to press. The first five titles were published in 1923, beginning with Albert Durrant Watson’s volume on Robert Norwood, William Renwich Riddell’s volumes on William Kirby and John Richardson, followed by Peter McArthur’s volume on Stephen Leacock and William Arthur Deacon’s volume on Peter McArthur.15 Katherine Hale’s Isabella Valency Crawford appeared in 1924, followed by John D. Logan’s Thomas Chandler Haliburton, John Ford MacDonald’s William Henry Drummond, and James Cappon’s Charles G.D. Roberts in 1925.16 Between 1925 and 1926, three volumes on French-Canadian writers were published: Louis Honoré Fréchette by Henri d’Arles, François Xavier Garneau by Gustave Lanctôt, and Antoine Gérin-Lajoie by Louvigny de Montigny.17 Victor Lauriston’s Arthur Stringer, the thirteenth and final volume in the series, was released belatedly in 1941.18
While the majority of the books were well-researched and well-written, Pierce’s lack of experience, coupled with the speedy production of titles and many authors’ lack of knowledge and expertise in Canadian criticism, hindered the quality of the series.19 A further hindrance was the strict format, which worked well for poetry, but less so for prose – the use of narrative excerpts was limiting.20 Undoubtedly, the weakest book in the series was Albert Durant Watson’s Robert Norwood.21 Watson was said to be a supporter of the series, which likely had led to his commission.
The quality of the books may have been inconsistent, but the Makers of Canadian Literature series reflected Pierce’s editorial ambition and his vision of a distinctly Canadian literature. The inclusion of three French-Canadian writers – the volumes on Frechette, Garneau, and Gérin-Lajoie were published in French – was especially important, as this formally recognized and celebrated the “unusual bi-cultural reality” of Canada and brought it into the country’s early literary history.22
The decision in December 1923 to sell the series by subscription, along with the generous compensation provided to authors, revealed Pierce’s assumption of high sales.23 Instead of royalties, Pierce compensated authors with a flat fee of $400 upon completion of the manuscript and $100 upon publication.24 Thus, Ryerson Press would need to sell 733 copies, earning $1.50 per book, before it would begin to earn a profit from subscription sales.25 Given that each volume was quite brief – roughly 150 pages in length – and was comprised largely of anthologized material already written by the featured writer, the payment to authors was unusually high.26
As the series’ financial success was predicated on high subscription sales, it was evident that Ryerson Press was “clearly doomed to lose money on the series from the start, even if it had sold quite well.”27 By March 1925, despite the decision to sell the series on a subscription basis, sales had not improved.28 Disheartened by this reality, Pierce confided in his diary, “I have to file it away as I can see no immediate prospect of any others going to press until the sales start up.”29 In 1926, Samuel Fallis placed the series on hiatus.30
As Margery Free reveals in her comprehensive study of the Makers of Canadian Literature, its reception is complicated: the series “failed financially, and some of its volumes are uncritical and badly written.”31 Overall, however, it offered insight into early Canadian literary history and was especially useful due to the comprehensive bibliography in each book.32
Today, Fee argues, bibliographers, literary historians, and scholars interested in “the economics of literary production, the history of the audience’s ‘reception’ of particular works, the formation of national canons, and the description of the institutions connected with any specialized discourse”33 find the series valuable. Pierce’s intention for the Makers of Canadian Literature, “with its well-known authors and handsome bindings,” was that it would “impress readers into taking Canadian literature more seriously.”34 Though unrealized, Pierce’s grand aspirations resulted in a foundational series, one that highlighted the vision of its originator as much as the Canadian authors it featured.
List of Makers of Canadian Literature Series
Albert Durrant Watson, Robert Norwood
William Renwick Riddell, William Kirby
William Renwick Riddell, John Richardson
Peter McArthurs, Stephen Leacock
William Arthur Deacon, Peter McArthur
Katherine Hale, Isabella Valancy Crawford
John D. Logan, Thomas Chandler Haliburton
John Ford MacDonald, William Henry Drummond
James Cappon, Charles G.D. Roberts
Henri d’Arles (pseud. for Henri Beaudé), Louis Honoré Frechette
late 1925-early 1926
Gustave Lanctôt, François-Xavier Garneau
Louvigny de Montigny, Antoine Gérin-Lajoie
Victor Lauriston, Arthur Stringer
1 Janet B. Friskney, “The Years Before Union: Samuel Fallis, Lorne Pierce, and The Ryerson Press, 1919-1926,” Epilogue 13 (1998): 69.
2 Margery Fee, “Lorne Pierce, Ryerson Press, and The Makers of Canadian Literature Series,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 24.1 (January 1985): 52.
3 Friskney 69.
4 Friskney 69.
5 Friskney 72.
6 Friskney 70.
7 Friskney 75.
8 Friskney 74.
9 Friskney 75.
10 Friskney 74-75.
11 Friskney 77.
12 Fee 52.
13 Fee 53.
14 Fee 65n1.
15 Fee 54.
16 Fee 54.
17 Fee 54.
18 Fee 55.
19 Fee 55.
20 Fee 54.
21 Fee 55.
22 Friskney 87.
23 Fee 57.
24 Fee 57.
25 Fee 57.
26 Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013) 215; Fee 58.
27 Fee 58.
28 Fee 58.
29 Pierce quoted in Fee 58.
30 Friskney 88.
31 Fee 51.
32 Fee 51, 54.
33 Fee 51.
34 Fee 65. See also Karyn Heunemann, The Makers of Canadian Literature Series from Ryerson Press, Canada’s Early Women Writers Blog, 18 January 2018.