Biblia Abiblia

Bruce Whiteman, Charlotte Stewart and Catherine Funnell, A Bibliography of Macmillan of Canada Imprints 1906-1980. Toronto and London: Dundurn Press, 1985.  xvi + 474 pp.

All bibliographies, however learned and complete they might be, end up in Charles Lamb's category of biblia abiblia, books that are not books, in which the material that has to be recorded resists the imposition of theme or meaning.  A Bibliography of Macmillan of Canada Imprints 1906-1980, compiled by Bruce Whiteman, Charlotte Stewart, and Catherine Funnell (Toronto and London:  Dundurn Press, 1985) is both learned and complete, but is still biblion abiblion, for the editors are bound to an annual listing of titles, alphabetical within years, published by Macmillan in Toronto over its 74 years as a more or less independent publisher, and were left little room for drawing conclusions, explaining matters, or answering questions readers might have.  Hard as the three editors try, the five pages of Introduction can scarcely be adequate to examine the rise and fall of this important Canadian publishing house, to show what it did, when and why, and why it finally failed. The Introduction, to be sure, is a masterpiece of comprehensive brevity, but so much could have been said if the publishers had allowed sufficient space.

     Nothing, one could sourly observe, could be more Canadian than Macmillan of Canada.  It was founded as a branch plant of the great London firm in 1905 because of changes in copyright laws, and issued its first title in the following year.  Its function was to distribute, sometimes under its own imprint, books from the London and New York Macmillan's that owned and effectively controlled it, and to publish what Canadian books might be sufficiently profitable to satisfy the absentee owners.  It seems almost a paradigm for Canadian enterprise.  Yet up to its end in 1980, despite foreign control and its legendary caution about the potential profitability of books offered to it, Macmillan brought out a great deal of important Canadian literature and history, almost all within the central tradition with precious little that could be called experimental or innovative, and above all a vast number of school texts written or annotated by Canadian teachers.  The house's influence on Canadian thought and reading habits was obviously very considerable.

     To enable students to consider it, McMaster University has now drawn upon the archives of Macmillan of Canada, which it acquired in 1979, to produce this important bibliography.   While the archives should ideally have contained copies of all the books, the inevitable gaps forced the editors to search farther afield to make sure that every book in the whole bibliography had been actually seen and examined.  There are 2691 numbered items, with a fair number of interpolations of books originally missed, beginning with Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill in 1906, and ending in 1980 with Richard Worzel's Making Your Money Grow, a nicely ironic colophon for a publisher that couldn't.  Many of these books merely have the Macmillan of Canada imprint superimposed or added by a cancel.  Such books are included, though those only distributed by the house are not, even when their imprints specify Macmillan as the Canadian distributor.

     From its very first years Macmillan of Canada combined a list of British and American books likely to be appreciated in Canada with a pretty decent showing of domestic work.   Of six titles in 1907, one is a Canadian annual magazine and two are school texts by Canadian professors.  In 1908 only two out of ten books were not actually Canadian, and those were by Winston Churchill and H.G. Wells.  The Kipling offering for the year was about his recent trip to Canada, and Sara Jeanette Duncan made her first appearance with Cousin Cinderella:  A Canadian Girl in London. In 1911 medical texts, unfortunately not domestic, were added, along with a school text of Matthew Arnold with notes by a Canadian teacher, taken from the Morang Educational Company, a firm the fast-growing Macmillan of Canada acquired in June of the following year. That school texts were, as the editors remark, "the financial mainstay of the company's business" became all too true, for it was probably that fatal dependence on what would sell plentifully to schools that gave the house its remarkably unadventurous spirit, and I suspect that the passing away of a uniform provincial syllabus was the final cause of Macmillan's decline.

     Textbooks were by no means the whole story, of course.  While Canadian books were published right from the beginning, the period between 1921 and 1940, when the house was controlled by Hugh Sterling Eayrs, was the first of two great periods of national — one could even say nationalist — publication.  The first important title was Louis Hémon's Marie Chapdelaine in 1921, translated by W.H. Blake and published by Eayrs, both men who had published with Macmillan before and presumably intended making the house significantly Canadian.  One of Eayrs's last writings was a Preface to this much-reprinted book in 1938.  From 1921 on Eayrs attracted and published Canada's most important writers — Pratt, Grove, Leacock, Callaghan, and others — while continuing to expand the school text list that, as the editors note, enabled Macmillan to weather the depression.  But Eayrs's premature death did what the financial slump could not do, and the war years were marked by an obviously weak financial position and the publication of an amazingly dull list of books, each presumably a desperate effort to satisfy a readership perceived as being without imagination.  The list from the last year of the war was dominated by the Craftsmen's Library series and by the normal war memoirs and history that follow cataclysms.  A second great period began in 1946, when John Gray became General Manager, and the Macmillan of Canada imprint, fated to be dependent on one outstanding leader, revived itself.  The next year saw the publication of W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, and within a few years Macmillan was once again publishing the reprints and new work of Eayrs's authors and more work by younger writers like Mitchell, Donald Creighton, Robertson Davies, and James Reaney.  The firm deservedly profited from the growth of Canadian consciousness to which it had contributed, despite its owners, and, as the editors point out, reached its apex at the centennial in 1967, when no fewer than 78 books appeared.  Much of this prosperity came from the revived Canadian nationalism that followed the war and was so effectively supported from the late 'fifties by the Canada Council, so presumably Macmillan's rapid decline was parallel to the Expo '67 hangover.  By 1973 the English directors found Macmillan of Canada unprofitable and sold it; in 1980 the buyer sold again, and the imprint in effect disappeared into history. We have cause to be grateful that it lasted so long and did so much.

     One feels ashamed to ask for more from editors who have done so well in listing and verifying the titles, and to carp seems ungenerous.  But I feel that this bibliography is the work of people trained in library bibliographical control, and matters that an academic bibliographer would like to know about are ignored.  In the first place, if the firm was set up from London because of "changes in copyright legislation," the book should tell what they were, what the legislation was before, or at least whether it is British or Canadian copyright legislation they are referring to; we should also learn something about the deliberations of the Macmillan directors in London who decided to set up the branch plant and what instructions were given to the first employees.  Since they were working with a presumably complete archive, the editors could well have given the actual sequence of publication of titles in each year, rather than an alphabetical list, and given such details as published price, reference to reviews, and possibly even sales figures:   bibliographers have discovered such information before without access to a publisher's files, and it answers important questions about the success or failure of an author, reputation, and the like.  Reference should have been made to descriptive and analytical bibliog raphies that include works listed in this book — Kipling and Yeats, for example.  Finally, it should not have been impossible to distinguish books actually manufactured in Canada from books published from English or American sheets overprinted with the Toronto imprint, not to mention what printers they used in Canada, at what cost, and how large press runs were, and whether the imported books came as sheets or as bound volumes or as stereotype matrixes.

     Answering all that would have made the book more troublesome to write, but I think only slightly larger in size and in price, and, with a larger and fuller Introduction, would have made it immeasurably more valuable to its readers.

E.J. Devereux