New York to Muddy York

When we imagine those settlers to Upper Canada of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, we might imagine them as Susanna Moodie portrayed them in Roughing It in the Bush—illiterate farming drudges with no time for leisure and certainly none for reading. But perhaps no readers were more voracious than early Canadian Methodists (1790–1850), who bought books at a rate that likely rivals what Canadians spend today.

Scott McLaren’s ability to make sense of this very particular time, place, and ethos—essentially the roots of publishing in English Canada—is impressive. The tangle of commercial, nationalist, and denominational concerns that surrounded Egerton Ryerson, the Christian Guardian (Upper Canada’s leading newspaper), and the book business that emerged forms a plot as full of intrigue, drama, and betrayal as any great Russian novel. The Methodist Book and Publishing House (later Ryerson Press) survived by navigating between powerful American and British influences, developing its own culture in the process.

Its ties to New York made the Canadian house, essentially, the first publishing branch plant in Canada—ironic considering its eventual sale to American branch plant McGraw-Hill in 1970. The struggle at the time over whether the British would control the market in their Canadian colony was lost on the thoroughly practical point that books supplied from London were far costlier than those from New York, and thus unaffordable in Upper Canada.

McLaren’s historical analysis leads to some very interesting comparisons with Canadian book publishing today. Do we read with Canadian sensibilities or are we “an imagined community of transnational readers”? Clearly, “books could be treated as straightforward commercial goods in a public market regardless of their geopolitical origins,” but along the way, Methodist publishers developed a passion for inculcating Canadian nationalism as well.

I wonder, however, if McLaren has not missed an important reason for the closer ties to American Methodists than British ones—a mythological tie, more family than business. North American Methodism was founded in New York in 1766 by a group of Protestant immigrants from Ireland that found itself uprooted once again by the Declaration of Independence and in 1783 were forced northward to British North America.

The strength of this tie is shown by Egerton Ryerson himself, who wrote in the October 30, 1839 edition of the Christian Guardian,

“[t]his afternoon we dined with the only surviving children of the late memorable Mrs. [Barbara] Heck . . . O, my heart burned within me when I heard them converse about their sainted mother, and early Methodism in Canada; I could have sat for days as a child at their feet; I almost envied them the privilege of being thus related to the Founder of American Methodism.”

(For more on the Irish Palatines and their influence on Methodism and Ontario see Carolyn Head’s excellent The Irish Palatines in Ontario: Religion, Ethnicity, and Rural Migration [2nd ed., 2009]. This mythology must surely have played its own part in the strong ties between York (Toronto) and New York.

As well, I wondered why McLaren ventured into the issue of the Department of Education and textbook publishing at the very end of his book—a huge issue and one that merits a book of its own—without mentioning the complications that this involved for Egerton Ryerson, then Chief Superintendent of Education. (On this note, see Linda Wilson Corman’s “James Campbell and the Ontario Education Department, 1858-1884” in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, no. 14, 1975.)

These are minor quibbles, however. The book’s only real flaw is its conclusion, which attempts to sum up in five pages the rest of Methodist publishing history in Canada, a history which includes forty years of William Briggs, another forty years of Lorne Pierce and Ryerson Press, and the industry-shaking sale of the press in 1970. In fact, by my count, the work of five scholars could usefully build toward such a broader history of Methodist/United Church publishing in Canada: McLaren on these early years, Janet Friskney on the Briggs years, Sandra Campbell on the Pierce years, me on the last ten years and the sale of the press, and George Parker for his encyclopedic knowledge. I would happily join such a project. Ultimately, those who study English Canadian publishing must read Pulpit, Press, and Politics in order to understand how it all began.

This review “New York to Muddy York” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 9 Apr. 2021. Web.

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