The Confederation Poets and American Publishers

by James Doyle

"The Canadian provinces," wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the New York magazine The Nation in 1897, "after a long period of comparative literary barrenness, are now producing a younger group of poets who are forcing our rhymers in the United States to look to their laurels."1   The main focus of Higginson's article was a new book by Charles G.D. Roberts; but his reference to the "younger group" encompassed the five "Confederation Poets", Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Wilfred Campbell.  Throughout the 1880s and '90s, the work of these five appeared regularly in the major magazines of Boston and New York. Like most writers, however, their ultimate ambition was to see their work collected in book form. Periodical publication of single poems was gratifying, and often quite remunerative in those halcyon days of the mass circulation family magazine in America; but there was a greater sense of permanence and artistic unity, as well as greater hopes of financial success, attached to the idea of book publications.2

     Canadian poets looked to American publishers, as they had looked to American periodicals, partly because of the prestige of American publishing outlets, and partly because of the receptivity of these outlets to new writers.   The literary scene in the United States differed in both these aspects from the situation in England, where periodicals and book publishers were often accessible only to established writers, and where editors could be quite scornful of "colonial" contributors.  The American publishing business was also much better off than its counterpart in Canada, where the production of books, throughout the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, was plagued by a variety of economic, political and cultural problems.  Homegrown book-publishing enterprises of various sizes and various life spans had sprung up in New France and British North America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but by the 1890s, most such enterprises still tended to be small and economically precarious.  The limitations of Canadian publishing might be partly attributed to Canadian cultural attitudes, especially the perverse indifference of Canadian readers toward indigenous culture; but more concrete and measurable factors were aggressive American competition, and the British imperial copyright and tariff laws.   Although the whole copyright and import/export situations affecting Canada in the nineteenth century were tangled mazes of conflicting or misinterpreted regulations, most of the problems in the 1890s can be attributed to the inequities of the principal legislation applying to these areas.  In spite of various Canadian efforts to replace or revise it, the Imperial Copyright Act of 1842 (as amended in 1847) remained in force until the early twentieth century; and this act, designed essentially to promote the interests of booksellers by allowing the easy importation of saleable stock, permitted American publishers to export to Canada not only American books, but American reprints of British books.  This meant that Canadian publishers were virtually excluded from the lucrative reprint business, which was an essential element of publishing profits in both England and America.  To compound matters, American publishers had the advantage of unequal tariff regulations which were the result of complicated attempts of the British and Americans to secure comprehensive economic advantages for themselves.  In the 1880s and '90s, American printed matter entered Canada at the rate of one cent a pound, whereas traffic in the other direction was charged four cents.  Thus Canadian book producers were effectively barred from both the reprint business and the export market, with the result that they had to confine themselves to a restricted line of books for the very small domestic trade.3

     In spite of this situation, Canadian writers did publish in Canada, sometimes by resorting to the nineteenth-century version of the "vanity press" if they could not come to an arrangement with one of the few commercial publishers of Toronto or Montreal.  But publishing a book exclusively in Canada was rarely satisfactory to writers who dreamed of reaching a large international readership, and of seeing their work reviewed in the great metropolitan newspapers and magazines.

     Acceptance by U.S. publishers, even given their receptivity to new talent, was by no means easy to achieve, however.  A few poem in the Atlantic Monthly or The Century did not guarantee ready entry into other regions of the American literary world.  There were too many authors submitting manuscripts to publishers, too many literary works — especially books of poetry — clamouring for the attention of readers and reviewers.  After the Civil War, furthermore, poetry suffered a marked decline in popularity.  With the few exceptions of such local colour or sentimental versifiers as James Whitcomb Riley, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller, the American literary scene was dominated by fiction and other forms of prose writing.

     Yet even in such a depressed cultural situation, there were opportunities for poets.  By the 1890s, there had emerged in the United States a number of small publishing firms specializing in modern literary works, and willing to take chances on young, unproven authors.  These firms were often owned or managed by individuals who were themselves aspiring writers, or simply enthusiastic book lovers who took to publishing out of an interest in promoting good literature.  And even some of the larger, better established firms would occasionally take chances on unknown writers, under certain conditions.4

     The first of the Confederation poets to achieve success with both periodicals and book publishers in the United States was Charles G.D. Roberts.  In 1879, at the precocious age of nineteen, he had a poem accepted by Scribners Monthly of New York; only a year later, his Orion and Other Poems appeared under the imprint of J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia.  Lippincott's was an old and respected firm with a varied list of titles, and Roberts' placing of his manuscript with them appears on the surface to be an impressive achievement.  But the fact that they did not publish any of his subsequent work suggests that they were less than satisfied with the sales of Orion.5   Furthermore, they may have taken the book only with the author's guarantee to underwrite any losses resulting from inadequate sales. There is no evidence of Roberts having made such an arrangement, but this kind of safeguard was often a standard clause in publishers' contracts with unproven authors.6

     Not only did Roberts not continue with Lippincott, he had to have his next two volumes privately printed in Fredericton at his own expense, and did not achieve American commercial publication again until In Divers Tones was issued by D. Lothrop & Co. of Boston, in 1887.  So after this extraordinary initial success, Roberts lapsed back into the struggle for publication and critical acceptance experienced by most young writers.  This struggle was often extremely protracted and frustrating, as it could be before Roberts' time, and as it can be today.

     The experiences of Wilfred Campbell are typical of the problems encountered by Canadian writers in their quest for publication in the United States.  Although his poems had appeared in the Atlantic, the Century, and Harpers, beginning as early as 1885, his first two volumes of poetry had to be privately printed.  His third collection, The Dread Voyage and Other Poems (1893), was commercially issued by William Briggs of Toronto, one of the few Canadian firms congenial to a national literature, but the work could not find an American publisher.   In 1895, Campbell wrote to the American poet Louise Guiney, who was a close friend of Bliss Carman and an enthusiastic promoter of Canadian writing:  "I would like to have got some American publisher to bring out an American edition of my verse, but have now given up all hope of such a thing.  I have no friends at court in Boston where the two or three firms are, which are now doing such things, and this is the day of log-rolling, sad to say."  Guiney recommended Campbell to the firm of Copeland and Day of Boston, but after four or five months his manuscript was returned.   "As to C. & D. and their rejection of my work it did not surprise me," Campbell wrote to Guiney.  "They have already the burden of [four] Canadian writers on their list, . . . and I suppose wisely or luckily refused to saddle themselves with a fifth."  "I certainly am sorry not to be able to get a publisher in the States," he wrote later in 1896, "but have too much work to do to waste my time bemoaning my hard luck in that respect."7

     Three years later, however, partly through the intervention of H.E. Scudder, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Campbell's Beyond the Hills of Dream was accepted by Houghton Mifflin of Boston.  The imprint of Houghton Mifflin, "the most unreachable and exacting publishers in America," should have confirmed Campbell's acceptance into major America literary circles.8  But in 1901, he was complaining to the publisher about their lacklustre sales and promotion efforts:

I am sending you a slip containing opinions favourable to my volume Beyond the Hills of Dream collected from a large number of American periodicals and journals representing a wide section of the American press.  Could not these opinions be made of use in selling the work?

     By the way, I have never seen any reviews of the book from any old country periodicals or journals . . . . Have you received any or have any come under the notice of your readers?

. . . I also have never seen any review of "Beyond the Hills of Dream" in the Atlantic Monthly.  Such a review I would have valued highly, but was not sure as to your custom in this respect so did not mention it before.9

     Houghton Mifflin's evident indifference to an obscure volume by a minor poet resulted in Campbell looking for a new publisher for his next book.  The Poems of Wilfred Campbell was brought out by William Briggs of Toronto in 1905, and by the Fleming H. Revell Company of Chicago and New York in 1906.   Revell specialized mainly in religious books, but their senior editor was Canadian-born George H. Doran, who had started his publishing career in Toronto with the Briggs family, and was eventually to be a partner in one of the U.S. publishing giants, Doubleday Doran.  Doran was seeking to expand Revell's non-religious literary offerings, and it was probobly this intention plus a lingering interest in his native country, as well as an admiration for Campbell's work, that led to the publication of The Poems.10

     Doran was one of several Canadian-born publishers and publishing executives working in the States.  John Lovell of Montreal made a fortune in New York in the 1880s with cheap paper reprints of English and American novels; similar success stories include the Belford brothers, originally of Toronto and subsequently of New York; James Clarke, who eventually joined the Belfords; and Nova Scotia-born George Munro, founder of the profitable "Seaside Library."   With the exception of Doran, however, this Canadian presence in American publishing seems to have provided little advantage to Canadian writers.  Most of these men were not promoters of literature, but merely entrepreneurs, following the example of such southward immigrants as the railway magnate James J. Hill and the shipbuilder Donald McKay, moving from the provinces to the great metropolitan centres of the republic, in pursuit of the American dream.  Canadian writers in search of publishers in the United States were generally better off approaching Americans noted for their literary interests, rather than counting on their expatriate countrymen.

     One of the most congenial American publishers, as far as Canadian writers were concerned, was the firm of Copeland and Day.  As Wilfred Campbell noted to Louise Guiney, by 1896 Copeland and Day had issued books by four Canadians:  Bliss Carman, Duncan Campbell Scott, Archibald Lampman, and Edward William Thomson.  Fred Holland Day, the scion of a wealthy Massachusetts family, was one of many young Americans to be influenced by the "decadent" or "Bohemian" literary and life fashions of the 1890s.  An admirer of Wilde, the pre-Raphaelites, and William Morris, he became interested in the current British revival in the arts of printing and book design, and resolved to create an American publishing house specializing in quality books, on the model of Morris's Kelmscott Press.   His partner, and the literary specialist of the firm, Herbert Copeland, was a graduate of Harvard with experience in magazine publishing.  While on the staff of the Boston magazine The Youth's Companion in the late '80e and early '90s, Copeland met E.W. Thomson, whose long poem, This is of Aucassin and Nicolette, was to be published by Copeland and Day in 1896.  But the firm's first book by a Canadian was Songs from Vagabondia (1894), a collaboration of Bliss Carman and the American poet, Richard Hovey.  Encouraged by the runaway success of this volume — its genteel Bohemianism appealed to over three thousand readers in five printings — Copeland and Day became more receptive than most publishers to books of poetry.  On the lookout for innovative work, they published Stephen Crane's collection of gnomic free verse, The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895), and on the recommendation of Thomson they accepted Archibald Lampman's Lyrics of Earth (1895).11

     Copeland and Day also ventured into fiction, especially "local colour" or "regional realism" of the kind popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  In 1895 they published the first of a series of New England novels by Alice Brown, a friend of Louise Guiney and another contributor to the Youth's Companion. In 1896, they issued Duncan Campbell Scott's In the Village of Viger, his collection of stories of habitant life, and followed two "years" later with a collection of his poems, Labor and the Angel.

     But this summary of Copeland and Day's activities can convey a false impression.  As Wilfred Campbell discovered, even a firm with substantial financial backing and good experiences with volumes of poetry had to proceed cautiously and avoid excessive financial risk.  The publication of a book of poems was often the outcome of prolonged negotiations and repeated frustration, as Archibald Lampman, for instance, discovered.  Like Campbell and most of the other Confederation poets, Lampman had been quite successful with American periodical editors and critics: by the early 1890's had had poems published in the Atlantic, the Century, Harper's, and Scribner's, and had been praised in print by William Dean Howells.  But, also like Campbell and others, he had so far been obliged to underwrite the publication of his only book of poetry himself.  In 1892 he began sending out his Lyrics of Earth manuscript, which was rejected by Houghton Mifflin after they had kept it for four months.  It was subsequently turned down by Scribner's, and by the publishers of the first collection of Emily Dickinson's poems, Roberts Brothers of Boston.  Two more manuscript volumes met with similar rejections over the next few years, until Lampman was reduced to declaring gloomily to his friend E.W. Thomson:  "I am entirely disgusted with the whole business, life, poetry and myself, the latter most of all.  After spending the brightest part of one's life in utter devotion to art, then to find that one cannot do as good work as when one began, is discouraging to the point of annihilation.''12  Finally, Thomson intervened with Copeland and Day, who agreed to bring out Lyrics of Earth, but in a shortened version, which neither pleased the author nor reached a substantial audience.  Even Thomson added to Lampman's dissatisfaction by editing the manuscript and omitting poems that Lampman considered essential.13  "My second book is buried under Copeland & Day's bushel," he lamented to Louise Guiney in 1898, ". . . and is not likely to produce anything in money.''14

     Thomson was to come in for his own share of troubles with Copeland and Day.  He had had two volumes of short stories, Old Man Savarin (1895) and Smoky Days (1896) published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company of New York.  On the strength of the modest success of these local colour tales of French and Scots settlers in Canada, Thomson approached Copeland and Day with a more recondite literary project, a translation into English verse of the thirteenth-century French narrative, Aucassin and Nicolette.  Copeland and Day tool' on the project as suitable for their specialty in finely bound and printed editions of literary classics; but Thomson spent much of 1896 fretting with them about printing details, production schedules, and promotion and sales.  "May I entreat you to push the book along so that it may appear in March?" he wrote early in that month; and on March 20:  The very slow dribbling of Aucassin and Nicolette causes me a great deal of needless trouble.  Can't you push those fellows of the printing office up so as to make them finish proofs in ten or twelve days from now?''15

     Of course, such impatience can be seen as the typical reaction of an anxious author, rather than as an indication of inefficiency on the part of the publishers.  But even if individual publishers turned out to be conscientious and efficient, producing artistically satisfying and aome times even profitable books for their authors, publishing in the United States was still a risky business:  the enthusiastic and ostensibly solvent firm of today could be a bankrupt shambles tomorrow, and even the most popular author could find himself with an unsold backlog of books on his hands, looking for a new publisher.  Bliss Carman, who was the most successful of the Canadian poets who tackled the American market in the 1890s, had to change publishers frequently during his prolific career, usually as a result of the economic vagaries of the industry.  His first collection of poems, Low Tide on Grand Pré, was published by the Charles L. Webster Company of New York, one of the subscription book houses that flourished in the United States after the Civil War.   Using door-to-door canvassers to take orders for books in advance of publication, Webster's had made a fortune on Huckleberry Finn (1884) and one of the greatest best sellers in American publishing history, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885).16  The Webster's editor who accepted Carman's book was Arthur Stedman, son of the critic and anthologist E.C. Stedman, one of the most influential boosters of young writers in the country.  By 1893, however, Webster's was in trouble, over-extended with costly but unprofitable subscription projcts, and badly hit by the financial panic of that year.  Although Low Tide sold well, going through three editions, Carman had to find a new publisher in 1894.

     Carman's collaborations with Richard Hovey, Songs from Vagabondia (1894) and More Songs from Vagabondia (1896), both issued by Copeland and Day, were very successful as books of poetry go, but again circumstances worked against the authors.  Fred Day, who was rather a dilettante, began to lose interest in publishing, in spite of his relative success in the business; by 1898, his company was virtually stagnant, and in 1899 it was dissolved.  Meanwhile, Carman had begun to look into the possibility of getting involved in publishing himself.  He became briefly associated with Stone and Kimball, a company established by two young Harvard men, and edited their literary periodical, The Chap-Book, before the firm moved to Chicago.  Stone and Kimball acquired Low Tide on Grand Pré, and brought out a new, slightly revised edition in 1894, which went into a second printing.   But although the company was modestly successful as a quality publishing house, first as a partnership and subsequently as Herbert S. Stone & Co., Carman soon became dissatisfied with the inconvenience of conducting business over the distance between Chicago and New York.  In 1895, he became a reader and advisor for Lamson, Wolffe and Co. of Boston, who published his Behind the Arras (1895), Ballads of Lost Haven (1897), and By the Aurelian Wall (1898).  But W.B. Wolffe was a young, recent Harvard graduate with little head for business, and in 1899 the firm failed.  Carman subsequently became a director of Small, Maynard & Co., which had taken over Copeland and Day's list.  After 1899, Small:  Maynard and L.C. Page were Carman's most frequent American publishers, although he occasionally placed his work with other organizations.  Largely through Carman's influence, Charles G.D. Roberts also ended up being handled alternately by Small Maynard and Page, after having run through a variety of publishers.

     Thus for many writers, especially poets, finding an American publisher and seeing that their books were efficiently produced and promoted could be a frustrating process.  As Roberts, Campbell and others discovered, the larger firms were either too cautious or too negligent in their attitudes toward work by unestablished authors; if the smaller companies showed more enthusiasm, they often turned out to be economically unstable, or simply incapable of promoting works on a scale likely to satisfy an ambitious author.  Publishers' policies were also influenced by the decline in the popularity of poetry in the United States.  Canadian poets benefited for a time from a mild American curiosity about the northern country, and from the enthusiasm for local colour writing, but in the long run their hard-won successes with American publishers usually led to the same obscurity that engulfed most of the poetry produced in the United States at the time.  Bliss Carman made a modest income from his books, which he always had to supplement by selling poems to magazines and by occasional editorial work.  Charles G.D. Roberts did much better as a freelance writer, especially after he discovered the marketability of wildlife stories and historical romances.  But all the Confederation writers discovered that books of poetry were not effective means to achieving fame and fortune in the United States.

     Their frustrating — and rather predictable — experiences raise the question of why the Canadian poets so persistently sought American book publication.  Of the Confederation group, only the irascible Wilfred Campbell finally turned his back in disgust on American publishers and transferred his hopes, as a newly dedicated imperialist, to England.  A more pressing question, applicable to Campbell as well as to the others, is why these writers did not try to do more towards improving the situation relative to poetry publication in Canada.   If American writers could get together with culturally knowledgeable entrepreneurs to form small publishing companies appropriate to the restricted poetry market, why could Canadian writers not do something similar in their own country?  Why did they always insist on becoming minor satellites of another national culture?  Economic and demographic factors do not provide complete answers to such questions.  The ultimate explanation of this eager pursuit of American fame and fortune may perhaps lie too deep in the Canadian psyche, and involve too many questions of "national character" to be conclusively discovered.  The American vision of success it seems, was irresistible, overriding both experience and common sense, and impelling poets on toward repeated frustration and disappointment.


  1. [T.W. Higginson], "Recent Poetry," The Nation, 18 March 1897:  206-07.

  2. I have discussed the Canadian poetic contribution to American periodicals in "Canadian Poetry and American Magazines, 1885-1905," Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews 5 (1979): 73-82.

  3. For a contemporary discussion of the tariff disadvantages under which Canadian writers laboured, see G. Mercer Adam, "Literature, Nationality, and the Tariff" (1889), reprinted in Carl Ballstadt, ed., The Search for English-Canadian Literature (Toronto:  U of Toronto P, 1975), 24-30.  A good brief discussion of the copyright problem is H. Pearson Gundy, "Literary Publishing," Literary History of Canada, ed. Carl F. Klinck (Toronto:  U of Toronto P, 1965), 174-88.  See also Gundy's Book Publishing and Publishers in Canada before 1900 (Toronto: Bibliographical Society of Canada, 1965), 13-14.  The whole story of nineteenth-century Canadian publishing has now been definitively told by George Parker, in The Beginnings of the Book Trade in Canada (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985).   The reader interested in the mind-boggling complexities of the nineteenth-century copyright situation is referred especially to chapter 5 of Parker's superb study.

  4. For a detailed survey of these and other aspects of the American publishing industry in this period, see John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, Vol. II: The Expansion of an Industry 1865-1919 (New York: Bowker, 1975), especially Part 3, "The New Publishers Arrive."

  5. Roberts' biographer claims that Orion was a success, but this may be only an excess of enthusiasm for her subject; she cites no evidence in the form of either reviews or sales figures.  See E.M. Pomeroy, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: A Biography (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943) 39.

  6. See Tebbel, 15, for some of the cautious arrangements nineteenth-century publishers made with authors.

  7. Wilfred Campbell, letters to Louis Guiney, 21 November 1895, 27 May and 14 July 1896, Guiney Collection, Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass.

  8. The description of Houghton-Mifflin, attributed to Canadian poet Ethelwyn Wetherald, is quoted in Carl Klinck, Wilfred Campbell, A Study in Late Provincial Victorianism (1942 Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1977), 58.
  9. Campbell to Houghton Mifflin Company, 8 April 1901, Houghton Mifflin Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard.
  10. See Tebbel, 331-44, for a history of Doran's publishing career and his connection with Revell.
  11. A summary of Copeland and Day's publishing activities is in Tebbel, 402-07.

  12. Lampman to E.W. Thomson, 30 May 1895, An Annotated Edition of the Correspondence between Archibald Lampman and Edward William Thompson (1890-l898), ed. Helen Lynn (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1980), 143.  See also Lynn's Introduction, lxi-lxii, for summary examples of Lampman's frustrating experiences.

  13. Lampman's correspondence with Copeland and Day about Lyrics of Earth is reprinted in Peter E. Grieg, ed., "A Check List of Lampman's Manuscript Material in the Douglas Library Archives," Douglas Library Notes, 15.3 (1967): 16-18.

  14. Lampman to Guiney, 7 October 1898, Holy Cross College.

  15. E. W. Thomson to F.H. Day, 9 March and 30 March 1896, Copaland and Day Papers, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

  16. The history of the Charles L. Webster Company is in Tebbel, 523 ff.