Remembering Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland

Laura K. Davis and Linda Morra’s Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland, Letters has obvious connections to the several volumes of Laurence’s letters already available (for instance, A Friendship in Letters and A Very Large Soul) and to Sam Solecki’s delightful, but extremely brief, selected letters of Jack McClelland (Imagining Canadian Literature). The book is also a complement to biographies of Laurence and McClelland, as well as to the available histories of McClelland & Stewart. But Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland is not just an extension of these earlier publications nor is it merely a collection of letters; it is a spiritual map of its central figures (especially Laurence) and a guide to Canada’s cultural landscape since 1960.

Arguably, Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland feels a bit more like Laurence’s book than McClelland’s. From scholarly studies and word-of-mouth anecdotes, McClelland will doubtlessly be remembered as one of the architects of Canadian culture; his ceaseless fight to promote and sell Canadian writers earned the admiration of the writers whom he represented. The letters in this book mostly reinforce that image, though they deepen readers’ knowledge of his character by offering examples of his misogyny and occasional insensitivity (issues that Davis and Morra also address at length in their introduction). Generally speaking (and this isn’t a criticism of the book), the letters do not house too many surprises about McClelland’s character. Of Laurence, they reveal more. The letters bolster her stellar reputation just as well as they do for McClelland, but there is also a fuller view of Laurence’s life in the publishing industry than most readers have seen before. The letters depict her reluctance and shyness, her wit and brilliance, and her generosity toward many of the biggest (and smallest) names in Canadian literature during the 1960s and after. Indeed, a major achievement of this book is its insight into Laurence as a major cog in the wheels of Canada’s publishing and arts scenes.

This oft-overlooked aspect of Laurence’s career—her role as a cultural worker—is something to which the editors of Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland are very attentive. And, rightfully so: it is important to understand, as Davis and Morra say,
that Laurence “opened opportunities . . . for a younger generation of writers” not just as a literary model, but also as a pillar of personal support to those around her and as an outspoken feminist who advocated for female writers and editors. These letters offer abundant evidence of Laurence’s tireless efforts to support aspiring and strong women in literary circles (Adele Wiseman and Alice Munro, for example) and the publishing industry (Alice Frick, Leslie Cole, and others).

Equally striking in the letters is Laurence’s unbreakable backbone. She clearly did not tolerate fools—or foolishness (from the critics, colleagues and peers, and even McClelland himself). As a case in point, Laurence slams McClelland after he lectures her about the marketing and production risks involved in releasing three books too closely together: “I resented your [remarks] so much that it was very fortunate for the both of us that you were not present at the time, otherwise I would have clobbered you with the nearest solid object available.” And even though Laurence sounds tough as nails in many of these letters, she also reads as exceptionally modest; discussing her early draft of A Jest of God, she tells McClelland, “It is not a fashionable subject; it is not filmable.” An amusing statement, given that less than two years later, A Jest of God would be adapted into the Academy Award-nominated film, Rachel, Rachel.

Few epistolary volumes have as strong a claim to true importance as Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland, which captures the life and character of both an essential Canadian writer and one of the most industrious publishers in Canadian history. More than that, though, the book captures several generations, offering a broad look at copyright, the changing technology of publishers, political discontent in Canada, the burgeoning national literary scene, general readers’ and reviewers’ conservatism (Laurence thus hilariously exclaims in one letter, “SCREW ALL REVIEWERS”), and writers’ creative process. (Particularly noteworthy is the editors’ facsimile of Laurence’s annotations on a letter McClelland sent containing his first impressions and criticisms of The Diviners; Laurence spiritedly rejected many of his suggestions). Davis and Morra say much about these unique angles in their introduction to the volume, which thoroughly situates Laurence and McClelland in, and pits them against, their era. Some readers may take issue with the size of this book—admittedly, there are some “routine” letters that feel dispensable—but the volume, overall, is a vital contribution to Canadian letters and a touching tribute to two titans who guided the development of Canadian literature after 1960.

This review “Remembering Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 148-150.

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