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Jack: The Story of Jack McClelland, the Canadian Publisher

by James King

We’re not much for statuary in this country. Oh, we’ve raised prime ministers to plinths and the odd soldier, we’ve bronzed some explorers and even Gretzky. Maybe if there were a lady called Liberty in Halifax Harbour we could compete in the statue big leagues, or if we made like the Russians and kept Sir John A. on ice on Parliament Hill. Maybe it’s just a cultural gene we didn’t inherit from our colonial past masters, the one for public commemorations of exemplars and heroes. Maybe it’s a sly hedge against rebellion – can you, in fact, have a revolution without a mob hauling down the statue of some long-hated oppressor?

In the big leagues, for example, they’d have long ago erected a statue to do honour to the life, the work, and the personality of Jack McClelland. He’s 77 now. (What’s Gretzky, 38?) More than 10 years have passed since he left McClelland & Stewart to Avie Bennett. And yet he still bestrides Canadian publishing, casting his shade in every direction.

For a fair representation, you’d have to order the McClelland statue outsized, larger-than-life. You couldn’t do it in marble (too clean), and limestone wouldn’t do either (too soft), no, you’d want something striated, hard in places, pliable in others. By all accounts, some absorbent material would be in order, too, and it would have to be hued ruddy, to reflect McClelland’s hangovers as well as his passion.

Then again, maybe the best kind of monument, the most appropriate, the most roundly revealing, would be made of good, solid biography. With Jack: The Story of Jack McClelland, the Canadian Publisher, James King has crafted just such an article. King, of course, has a practiced hand: on the evidence of his lives of Herbert Read, William Blake, Virginia Woolf, and, more recently, Margaret Laurence, I’d even venture to say he’s now the best of our literary biographers.

Jack is many things. It’s a fascinating dissection of an industry, and a lucid window on Canadian culture and its politics. It’s a portrait of McClelland’s fierce friendships with Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton. It is, what’s more, a refreshingly good story, funny and telling and full of surprises.

One thing Jack’s not – as King makes clear from the start – is a close study of McClelland’s personal life. That’s not to say that it’s office-bound or all business. There’s a deft, vivid account of McClelland’s early days as number one son in a well-to-do Toronto publishing family. At the age of eight he decided Jane Austen was his favourite writer. After high school, he sat down to see whether he was a writer. He decided not: though he started five or six novels, he abandoned them all. “It was bullshit,” he later noted.

War suited his adventurous spirit better. In 1941, aged 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy, and before long he was in action against the enemy in British coastal waters, helming his own motor torpedo boat. He served with distinction; he also, King observes, developed the deep patriotic sentiments that would later define him as a publisher.

When McClelland joined the family firm in 1946, it was known as “The Home of Good Books.” The fact that many of those books happened to be foreign? The American publisher Alfred A. Knopf thought it was because Canada was “peopled with involuted and convoluted Englishmen who don’t have much to say.” There may have been some of those; as McClelland soon discovered, the problem also had to do with a small population, a scarcity of bookstores, and high overhead costs.

None of them would stop him in his career-long devotion to publishing Canadian writers on Canadian subjects. He swore, he got depressed, he raged against what he saw as “soul-destroying” public complacency. Through it all, even as he toed the brink of insolvency (an annual event, regular as solstice), he never wavered in his ardour.

King’s McClelland is a Canadian hero, but Jack is no hagiography. Drawing on interviews with the man himself as well as most of the key publishing players, and making judicious use of McClelland’s papers, King gives us the man in full. He could be hasty and he could be hard (telling Austin Clarke he needed “a good swift kick in the ass”); there were bad publishing decisions as well as good.

And yet the evidence of his heroism is undeniable. Roy, Laurence, Berton, Atwood, Cohen, Mowat, Birney – any conversation about contemporary Canadian literature has to begin with the writers he published, befriended, argued with, championed. Nor is there any getting away from his influence on the oft-beleaguered business of publishing books in Canada. The élan he brought to marketing; the fights he fought with rivals, governments, and his own staff; the loyalty he showed (most of) his authors; and, yes, even the money he lost along the way – with all that he shaped the way books continue to be published here.