- Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press by Sandra Campbell
After having served the interests of Ryerson Press for approximately four decades, Lorne Pierce became synonymous with the press itself. This equation, however, oversimplifies the nature of his commitment, the extraordinary personal and professional sacrifices he made, and his material investment in the press’s success. Sandra Campbell’s rich, meticulous, and comprehensively researched biography, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press, is a tribute to this exceptional and multi-faceted man, his life, and the press to which he devoted his life; it also showcases how the literary terrain in Canada was directly shaped by this key figure.
Campbell’s study, which is largely chronological, begins with an examination of Pierce’s childhood in a staunchly Methodist home, and his mother’s aspirations for her son to become a minister. Although Pierce entered the bachelor of divinity program at Victoria College in 1914 and then Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1915, his tenure as a pastor and minister was short-lived. By 1920 he was hired as a literary critic and advisor for the Ryerson Press division of the Methodist Book and Publishing House.
Whatever plans the publishing house had for Pierce, it was clear that he approached the post in “loftier terms than advising ministers and ghosting book columns for the book steward.” The sense of spiritual mission and moral vigilance he inherited from his Methodist origins was thus applied to a different cause: the fostering of a national culture, especially a flourishing body of Canadian literature. He launched the Makers of Canadian Literature series, developed the Ryerson Chapbook and Canadian Art series, and negotiated an alliance with Macmillan to become “a leader in original textbook publishing in Canada.” Not having much experience in publishing and lacking the “trade’s ‘street smarts,’” [End Page 424] he sometimes found himself in imbroglios related, for example, to copyright issues or royalties, which tested his resolve. However much his debut in the industry was characterized by a series of blunders and financial exigencies, his university education was, Campbell observes, a comparative advantage that was brought to bear on the shape of the industry. In effect, Pierce was not jumping on the bandwagon of Canadian literary publishing: he was creating it.
The title, a reference to how Pierce often signed his letters, thus also evocatively captures the means by which he approached his life’s labour—with both hands, with an unparalleled work ethic that subsumed all facets of his life. Beset by illness, by the loss of his hearing, by entanglements with authors and employees, and by economic crises, he was not one to be easily defeated: he worked with the most impossible situations. Campbell finely explores these situations, with grace, humour, and dexterity.
Simultaneously conservative and forward-thinking, suspicious of fiction’s morality and yet supportive of many fiction writers, Pierce developed a body of work that sometimes underscored these contradictions. He took the risk, for example, of publishing Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh and its “‘squalid’ subject matter.” If he seemed to reject his mother’s overbearing religious attitudes, he yet often transmuted these in his “cultural crusade” to develop a distinctly Canadian canon. That canon showcases his legacy: he worked with Canadian literary greats such as L.M. Montgomery, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, Marjorie Pickthall, Frederick Philip Grove, Anne Marriott, and Harold Innis and even artists, such as C.W. Jefferys and members of the Group of Seven. One of the latter, J.E.H. MacDonald, was commissioned to design the publishing house logos and emblems, for which the press is still recognized. Campbell opts in some instances to devote entire chapters to some of the negotiations with these individual writers, because of the prominent role these figures have come to play—and because of the sheer wealth of material on the subject.
Campbell does indeed have an extraordinary range of archival materials at her disposal to write this thorough...