There’s nothing I love more than an academic study that is both a pleasure to read, while also filled with useful charts, graphs and appendices that form a valuable reference work in their own right. Janet Friskney’s New Canadian Library: The Ross McClelland Years 1952-1978 is just such a book, and helps to explain why, in part, so much of Canada’s war literature has slipped into obscurity.
For any non-Canadian literature enthusiasts that wonder what the hell I’m going on about, the Canadian publisher McClelland and Stewart came out with a line in 1958 called the ‘New Canadian Library’ with the intent of establishing and maintaining a canon of Canadian literature. Too often books by Canadians fell out of print, were obscure, or just too expensive for them to gain currency amongst average readers, or to be used as college and university texts; hence the need for something resembling the NCL. NCL books are relatively cheap paperbacks (both in cost & production values) with semi-scholarly introductions or afterwards (usually by other prominent writers), and are frequently used in university Canadian literature courses. NCL books are to Canlit what Penguin paperbacks are to…well, literature period.
In Appendix C of Friskney’s study (pages 205-218), there is a list of book titles that were proposed for inclusion in the New Canadian Library line, but didn’t make the cut, up to the year 1978. Peregrine Acland’s All Else is Folly is sitting there on the S.O.L. list along with Ralph Connor’s The Major, Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed and Colin McDougall’s Execution (though the latter two would be included in the NCL after 1978).
Given some of the absolutely dreary titles in the NCL line, it’s disappointing to discover that George Godwin’s Why Stay We Here?, W. Redvers Dent’s Show Me Death!, Connor’s The Sky Pilot in No-Man’s Land, Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, Will Bird’s The Communication Trench & James Hanley’s The German Prisoner weren’t even considered, but theRoyal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, a report by the Government of Canada, was.
The one Canadian First World War novel that was included in the NCL was Philip Child’s God’s Sparrows in 1978. Jack McClelland clearly wasn’t expecting great sales for the title; Friskney quotes an internal memo were McClelland states, “you and I know that if we come out with [Philip Child’s] God’s Sparrows and [Duncan’s] Cousin Cinderella in our Three is Free paperback offer next spring as new titles, we are absolutely screwed” (Friskney, 84). The publisher’s concerns were well founded. God’s Sparrows was in the bottom 13% in sales of the entire NCL line up to 1979, averaging less than 500 copies sold a year (Friskney, 160, 248 note 28). God’s Sparrows sold 887 copies in 1978, and just 70 in 1979, for a grand total of 957 over two years (Friskney, Appendix B, p. 203). Not altogether promising numbers for those advocating the republishing of Canadian war fiction. If an author that had won the Governor General’s Award for fiction was such a publishing flop (Child won in 1949 for Mr. Ames Against Time), what chance did a relative unknown like Peregrine Acland stand?
I intend to theorize as to why Canada’s war literature has been so neglected at length later, but it would perhaps be better to fill in more of the gaps first. So I’ll get back to posting what I know about Acland.
Friskney’s excellent study is widely available at public and institutional libraries and can be purchased here.