Books

CanLit's gutsy godfather

A biographer pays tribute to Jack McClelland’s bold support of Canuck writers

John Bemrose November 1 1999
Books

CanLit's gutsy godfather

A biographer pays tribute to Jack McClelland’s bold support of Canuck writers

John Bemrose November 1 1999

CanLit's gutsy godfather

A biographer pays tribute to Jack McClelland’s bold support of Canuck writers

Books

Jack: A Life with Writers

By James King

Knopf Canada, 435pages, $34.95

One miserable, sleeting March day in 1980, publisher Jack McClelland put on a toga, crowned his silvery hair with laurel leaves, and went for a stroll with author Sylvia Fraser—herself dressed as a Roman empress—to several Toronto bookstores. They were publicizing Fraser’s new novel, The Emperor’s Virgin, and by the photographic evidence offered in James King’s fascinating and welcome biography, Jack, McClelland was having a whale of a time masquerading as a Roman emperor. There was (and perhaps still is) a theatrical streak in Canada’s most famous and influential publisher—who retired a dozen years ago and now, at 77, divides his time between homes in Ontario and Florida. But King, the Dundas, Ont.based academic and author of biographies of Margaret Laurence and Virginia

Woolf, also shows that there is a great deal more than flamboyant salesmanship to the man whom Leonard Cohen once hailed as “the real prime minister of Canada.” During his 40-year career, McClelland was a raffish manabout-town, a devoted husband and father— and a workaholic perpetually torn between his need to be a financial success and his consuming ambition to publish Canadian

mer and succeeded so well at the latter that King concludes McClelland has done more than anyone else to nurture that elusive but necessary beast called Canadian culture.

In fact, McClelland embodies the national dilemma: his career turned on the question of how to make Canadian culture grow in the face of hostile economic and geographical realities. Canadian publishing—like the country itself—is not really a rational proposition. After the war, when the 24-year-old former torpedo-boat officer joined his father’s publishing company, McClelland & Stewart, it made most of its money by distributing British and American books. As Jack gradually took over M&S, his plan to publish mainly Canadian authors seemed quixotic at best. The population of the country was simply too small to support profitable print runs. Bankers were conservative and unsupportive. Canadian authors were few. Had McClelland been sensible, he would have heeded the conventional wisdom of his upper-middle-class background and become a stockbroker instead.

But the chain-smoking, hard-drinking

McClelland was a visionary. This is the constant subtext of Jack. Almost from the beginning, McClelland glimpsed something that most others did not— something to do with the hope that Canadians would jettison their colonial attitudes and generate their own confident sense of themselves. He nudged his writers in the same direction. It was McClelland who took a chance on Margaret Laurence’s promising first novel, This Side Jordan, which was set in Africa. Later, he encouraged her to write about her Canadian roots, which until then she had turned her back on: the result was her masterpiece, The Stone Angel.

Of course, McClelland cannot be given credit for what his authors created in pain and solitude. But often it was his encouragement—and the sense of possibility created by his energetic, high-profile publishing house—that drew fine work from the likes of Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat and Peter C. Newman, as well as from more literary figures including Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Mordecai Richler and Gabrielle Roy. Much of Jack concerns McClelland’s complex friendships with these people as he smoothed their egos or drank all night with them at his Muskoka cottage, or wrote perceptive—and sometimes playfully foul-mouthed—responses to their manuscripts.

Despite some profitable years and many government loans and grants, by the mid-’80s M&S was carrying a crippling debt-load. Some commentators blamed McClelland’s too-rapid expansions, or his lack of interest in the details of budgeting and management. Others held that, given the difficulties of Canadian publishing, he had done pretty well. When in 1985 McClelland sold his beloved, beleaguered company to Toronto real-estate mogul Avie Bennett for $2.1 million, he was exhausted by his four-decade struggle and regretful he had not made more money. Yet his central achievement remains unassailable: the books are out there.

John Bemrose