Lorne Pierce’s Legacy

Reviewed by Gillian Dunks

Lorne Pierce—editor of the Methodist Book and Publishing House’s Ryerson Press division from 1920-60, author, Methodist minister, and Canadian cultural nationalist—was one of the most influential Canadian publishers in the first half of the twentieth century, yet his contributions to both the publishing industry and the Canadian literary canon have been largely overlooked by academics. Sandra Campbell’s exemplary biography of Pierce, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press, provides a definitive account of her subject. In doing so, Campbell also responds to Brian Trehearne’s call in Aestheticism and the Canadian Modernists for more Canadian literary histories, providing insight into numerous aspects of Canadian cultural life, including the Canadian publishing industry in the first half of the twentieth century, noteworthy Confederation-era and modernist authors, and intellectual movements such as theosophy. Undoubtedly Pierce had an enormous impact on the Canadian literary canon, but Campbell’s account provides more than a record of Pierce’s accomplishments. Campbell parses Pierce’s voluminous archival records to uncover the motivation behind Pierce’s fierce dedication to Canadian literature, positing several major factors: his moralism (specifically, the Methodist religious values inculcated by his parents,) his freemasonry, and his nationalism and romantic idealism, both of which were rooted in a “protestant male construct of nation which valorized French-English entente and immigrant assimilation.” Campbell’s biography—weighing in at 500 pages, plus 120 pages of notes—covers much important historical and biographical ground. The fact that the work still leaves room for further literary historical explorations of Pierce’s contributions to Canadian cultural life—particularly to Canadian poetry—is testament to his importance.

Although Pierce’s labour had a significant impact on the Canadian literary canon of his own era, he has not been the subject of extensive academic scrutiny. Prior to the release of Both Hands, his work was discussed mainly in Campbell’s academic articles, Janet Friskney’s MA thesis, and a slim tome published soon after his death by his colleague C. H. Dickinson. Nonetheless, the Lorne Pierce Papers held at Queen’s University are a veritable treasure trove for Canadian scholars, preserving large amounts of correspondence from established and emerging Canadian authors and intellectuals. It is from this extensive collection, as well as Lorne Pierce’s own detailed diaries and numerous interviews, that Campbell informs her account of Pierce’s life.

Campbell’s biography, divided into twenty-one chapters which address particular phases of Pierce’s life and editorial career, is noteworthy for the insight it provides into the formation of the Canadian literary canon. Pierce, Ryerson’s book editor and literary advisor for most of his career, provided a venue for the publication and Canadian distribution of works by Confederation-era poets such as Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman, as well as poetry and fiction from first and second wave modernists including A. J. M. Smith, F. R. Scott, P. K. Page, Anne Marriott, Louis Dudek, and Al Purdy. Other writers Pierce championed include Marjorie Pickthall, Frederick Philip Grove, and Laura Goodman Salverson. Although Pierce personally favoured the romantic traditionalism of writers like Roberts and Pickthall, Ryerson’s lists during his tenure boasted a diversity of writers. Campbell presents Pierce, sometimes lambasted as a narrow-minded traditionalist by the modernists of his era, as supportive of a range of Canadian literary trends. In fact, many Canadian modernists published their first works with Ryerson. By analyzing Pierce’s professional correspondence and initiatives such as the Ryerson Chapbook series, Campbell revives Pierce’s reputation as a multifaceted publisher.

Pierce, famously ambitious and prodigious, not only published diverse writers throughout his career, but also a range of literary, textbook, and art series. Assessing the production and significance of each series is a large task that Campbell rises to admirably; her account details, among others, the Makers of the Canadian Literature Anthology series, Ryerson Canadian History Readers series, Canadian Books of Prose and Verse, Ryerson Poetry Chapbooks series, and Canadian Art series. Campbell’s discussion of these series not only significantly enhances print cultural perspectives of the era, but also reveals hitherto unexamined correspondence and collaborations between Pierce and other publishers of the day, such as Hugh Eayrs of Macmillan of Canada.

Campbell’s account of Pierce’s life does not stop short at his editorial career; rather, Campbell establishes the personal context in which this career took place. Pierce was plagued with deafness and lupus for most of his adult life, severe handicaps for an editor whose success depended on socialization with other industry professionals and authors. Most important, though, in Campbell’s account of Pierce’s private life is the attention she pays to Pierce’s family, especially his wife, Edith Pierce, his mother, Harriet Singleton Pierce, and his aunt, Alice Chown, a well-known feminist and pacifist. Through an examination of Pierce’s private correspondence with his wife, Campbell reveals the extent to which the success of Pierce—and no doubt other noteworthy men of his generation—was contingent upon the domestic labour and emotional support of women. Campbell’s reconstruction of Pierce’s marriage is one of the most insightful aspects of the biography.

Any limitations in Both Hands are surely the result of an overabundance of archival materials. It would be impossible for a single book to address all aspects of Pierce’s activities at the press in equal measure. One area that merits further scholarly exploration is Pierce’s publication of original Canadian poetry. For many decades, Pierce’s Ryerson Poetry Chapbook series was one of the main venues for emerging and established poets seeking to publish new work. Assuredly, the series itself and Pierce’s professional correspondence with series poets will prove a fruitful area of research for new Canadian scholars.

As Campbell consistently makes clear, Pierce’s nationalistic cultural contributions laid necessary groundwork for the dynamic Canadian literary developments of the 1960s and 1970s. Pierce, one of the most influential cultural figures of the first half of the twentieth century, will certainly be the subject of further academic research. Similar to Pierce’s own precedent-setting editorial work, Campbell’s exhaustive archival research and exemplary dedication to the task of reviving the legacy of a Canadian publisher has set a high standard for Canadian literary historians.

This review “Lorne Pierce’s Legacy” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 144-46.

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