This week, Canadian history buffs across the nation celebrated Sir John A. Macdonald‘s 197th birthday, remembering the contributions of our country’s first prime minister and great uniter. We celebrated our early history even as one of our most storied publishing houses, McClelland and Stewart, was taken over by the German-owned Random House, leaving a big question mark as to the future of Canadian publishing and, in many ways, the question of Canadian identity.
A: Apparently to Germany. Today it was announced that the German-based publishing conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, which owns Random House, took full control of McClelland and Stewart, venerable independent Canadian publishing house and champion of Canadian literature through its flowering in the 20th century under the leadership of Jack McClelland, when it published such stars in our firmament as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Farley Mowat (the triumvirate one can generally rely upon new CanLit students to name). Douglas Gibson, longtime Editor at McClelland and Stewart, became a household name himself as he steered the work of writers and the reading tastes of Canadians. The New Canadian Library, brainchild of Sinclair Ross and Jack McClelland and published by M&S starting in 1958, introduced countless Canadians to their literary history.
[Editor’s note: This is the fourth excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. They will run every Friday. The following is taken from the chapter on Prime Minister, author, and haunting icon, Pierre Trudeau.]
Shortly after the news of Pierre Trudeau’s death was broadcast, I was sitting in the back of a cab in downtown Toronto. The cab driver and I shared our regrets about the news. The driver was a Greek who came to Canada as an adult in 1967, yet his heavily accented English allowed him to summarize elegantly how he felt: “I grew with him.”
Late in his life, I was fortunate enough to get to know Pierre Trudeau, the author. At McClelland & Stewart we paid a great deal of money to publish his Memoirs, based on the 1993 cbc tv series that began each episode with him, clad in an elegant buckskin jacket, paddling a canoe on a misty lake. It was a brilliant image, and the series drew millions of viewers. When the manuscript came in, however, bearing the company’s hopes for a successful year, there were obvious problems with it. Such major problems, in fact, that after I had spent a sleepless night our chairman, Avie Bennett, and I decided that it had to be reworked: in rough terms, made chronological rather than thematic. We flew to Montreal, and Avie, who knew Trudeau, introduced me to him for the first time. Given a choice, I would have made our first meeting an easy, congratulatory one, but c’est la vie.