Macmillan’s Legacy

Reviewed by Misao Dean

I remember wondering what all the fuss was about when Macmillan Canada was sold to Maclean Hunter in 1973. Wasn’t MacMillan just another foreign publisher? And wasn’t it good that they were being sold to a Canadian company? Ruth Panofsky’s book explains that no, MacMillan wasn’t just another foreign-owned publisher, and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing that they were sold to MacLean Hunter. Macmillan was the company that originally recognized the importance of Adele Wiseman and Ethel Wilson, that published Hugh MacLennan and Grey Owl, and they were presciently and boldly committed to Canadian authors, right from their establishment in 1905.

Macmillan’s parent company, Macmillan UK, prided itself on the seriousness of its literary titles, and described itself as a publisher of high quality, morally conservative, and beautifully produced books. Macmillan Canada, like many “branch plant” publishers in the early and mid-twentieth century, was intended by its founders to function primarily as an “agency” publisher to distribute Macmillan’s British and US books, and to exploit the Canadian textbook market. However, the first manager of Macmillan’s Canadian branch, Frank Wise, recognized that Canada had unique qualities as a market, and that a successful Canadian publishing house needed to be wary of treating Canadians merely as consumers of foreign culture. While he remained committed to making money for Macmillan Canada’s owners, and to the parent company’s emphasis on high quality and morally improving fiction, Wise sought out Canadian manuscripts that he thought would appeal to a Canadian public, sometimes at the risk of the wrath of Macmillan’s head office.

Ruth Panofsky focuses her history of Macmillan Canada on its five reigning directors, providing interesting portraits of successful publishers in an era in which the industry was dominated by energetic larger-than-life figures, who drank whiskey and smoked, and who provided authors with the services of a combined bartender, editor, and hand-holder. As Panofsky points out, this atmosphere was unabashedly sexist; the one woman who fought her way to the top, Ellen Elliot, was unceremoniously dumped at the end of the Second World War with no pension. Despite her work as head of the editorial division throughout the war, she was never acknowledged by the British directors of the company as anything more than a glorified secretary.

Macmillan Canada was also home to two legendary editors of modern and contemporary Canadian fiction: John Gray and Douglas Gibson. Gray joined the firm in 1930 as a textbook salesman, quickly rising to head of the educational division. Panofsky documents how his energy and success as a salesman drove his rise to the editorial division. When he returned from the war in 1946 he usurped Ellen Elliot’s place and, with the support and assistance of the British Macmillan, became General Manager and Director of the firm, a position he held until 1969. Scholars of Ethel Wilson, Hugh MacLennan, Robertson Davies, Adele Wiseman and Robert Kroetsch will already know Gray as these authors’ editor, publisher and friend, but Panofsky focuses on aspects of his career that might be less well known, such as his negotiations with the British “head office” representatives Lovat Dickson and Daniel Macmillan, and his presentation on behalf of Macmillan to the Massey Commission in 1949, in which he advocated the restriction of the importation of Book Club titles and the establishment of a national library. He presided over an expansion of Macmillan in the 50s and was inaugural president of the Co-operative Book Centre, a publisher-owned co-operative designed to expedite book sales to Canadian libraries. His successor Douglas Gibson joined Macmillan in 1974 after serving as managing editor at Doubleday Canada. As head of the trade division Gibson valiantly struggled to defend Macmillan’s traditional literary publishing program from the commercial imperatives of Maclean-Hunter, who owned the publisher from 1973-1980. He worked with established Macmillan authors MacLennan, Robertson Davies and W.O. Mitchell, and recruited Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Jack Hodgins to MacMillan’s list before moving to McClelland and Stewart under his own editorial imprint, “Douglas Gibson Books.”

Ruth Panofsky’s history of Macmillan Canada is meticulously documented with extensive reference to Macmillan papers in Canada, the US and the UK, as well as interviews with surviving Macmillan employees. It is pleasantly readable, focussing on creating Macmillan’s leading executives as “characters” by following the trail of correspondence that says so much about each man’s personal style. While the book is perhaps not exactly something you’d read for pleasure, Panofsky has done much to enliven the material and make it accessible; given the central importance of the material to the history of Canadian publishing, and indeed Canadian literature, The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture has held pride of place in my bed-side reading, and is certainly an important addition to the growing literature in the history of Canadian publishing.

This review “Macmillan’s Legacy” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 181-82.

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