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Reviewed by:
  • Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland Letters ed. by Laura K. Davis and Linda M. Morra
  • Frances W. Kaye, emerita
Laura K. Davis and Linda M. Morra, eds., Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland Letters. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2018. 696 pp. Paper, $39.95.

Margaret Laurence (1926–87) was arguably the best and most successful of all Canadian prairie novelists, known especially for her five-volume Manawaka series, bookended by The Stone Angel (1964) and The Diviners (1974). Jack McClelland (1922–2004) was her publisher and also the driving force behind the New Canadian Library (NCL), which made available, in addition to Laurence's own work, the writings of Sinclair Ross, Frederick Philip Grove, Gabrielle Roy, Rudy Wiebe, Adele Wiseman, Ethel Wilson, and other leading western authors as well as writers from the rest of Canada. Even today, after the demise of the McClelland and Stewart publishing firm, it is impossible to imagine teaching a western Canadian literature class without NCL texts. The correspondence between these two inveterate letter writers produces some insights on Laurence's writing and the development of the NCL, but it is most useful in documenting the extraordinarily warm friendship between Margaret and Jack and the idealism in their belief in the cause of Canadian literature and even, particularly for Laurence, the role of literature in making the world a better place to live in.

Davis and Morra have done a thorough job of tracking down [End Page 450] and compiling the letters, explaining gaps, and giving context. Though they thoughtfully introduce the people and events of the Canadian (and to some extent British and US) publishing industry, one might wish their historical context had been more precise. For instance, The Diviners does not address "Métis history in the Red River area" (xxvii) but rather the Northwest Resistance of 1885: Laurence's "Ballad of Jules Tonnerre" begins "It was at Batoche in Saskatchewan. …"

The letters themselves are superb, as they are in previous editions of Laurence's letters with Al Purdy, Adele Wiseman, and other Canadian writers. Having been one of the young academics Margaret Laurence encouraged by correspondence in the 1980s, I am deeply moved all over again by her letters' generosity. We see her as "a very large soul," the title of J. A. Wainwright's 1995 compilation of Laurence's letters to Canadian writers. What is perhaps most compelling in the Laurence–McClelland correspondence is their ability to get furiously angry at each other—and then use that anger to affirm their loyalty and appreciation of each other's passionate commitment to Canadian literature.

Their two main friction points were The Writers' Union of Canada and its sample contract for writers and publishers, which Laurence mostly supported and which McClelland thought would destroy Canadian publishing; and McClelland's proposed list of the one hundred best Canadian works of fiction, intended to replace Margaret Atwood's Survival as a guide for teachers of Canadian literature. Laurence saw the list as too slanted toward NCL titles, too hard to change as new books appeared, and too likely to miss titles it ought to include. A small glitch was a 1982 benefit dinner McClelland had arranged to focus on the hundred authors. The planning went awry, leaving the authors waiting in limbo. Laurence was particularly uncomfortable, and when one of the students working the event offered to take her in early, she responded hilariously in her characteristic mode: "'Are you out of your head?' I yelled at him with, as I now see, almost perfect absurdity, 'I'm a socialist!'" (541).

So much has now been written on both Margaret Laurence and Jack McClelland that these letters do not shed much new light [End Page 451] on Laurence's books or on the concept and execution of the New Canadian Library, but they all illustrate the genuine and idealistic passion both Laurence and McClelland had for Canada, Canadian letters and authors, and the world of social justice both craved. In one of his last letters to Laurence (September 1985), trying to talk her into writing another children's book, he avows, "God, Margaret—I don't know why I keep inserting that comma...


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