“I’ll kill him!” said Mavis Gallant. Pierre Trudeau almost did, leading him (“Run!”) into a whizzing stream of traffic that almost crushed both of them. Alistair MacLeod accused him of a “home invasion” to grab the manuscript of No Great Mischief. And Paul Martin denounced him to a laughing Ottawa crowd, saying, “If Shakespeare had had Doug Gibson as an editor, there would be no Shakespeare!” On the other hand, Alice Munro credits him with keeping her writing short stories when the world demanded novels. Robertson Davies, with a nod to Dickens, gratefully called him “My Partner Frequent.” W.O. Mitchell summoned up a loving joke about him, on his deathbed. Stories About Storytellers shares these tales and many more, as readers follow Doug Gibson through 40 years of editing and publishing some of Canada’s sharpest minds and greatest storytellers. Gibson is a terrific storyteller himself, and through his recollections we get an inside view of Canadian politics and publishing that rarely gets told. From Jack Hodgins’ Vancouver Island to Harold Horwood’s Labrador, from Alice Munro’s Ontario to James Houston’s Arctic, Doug Gibson takes us on an unforgettable literary tour of Canada, going behind the scenes and between the covers, and opening up his own story vault for all to read and enjoy.
About the Author
Douglas Gibson worked as an editor and publisher from 1968 until he retired from McClelland & Stewart in 2009. His Douglas Gibson Books was Canada’s first editorial imprint and lives on. He travels widely from his Toronto, ON, base. With 30 illustrations by Anthony Jenkins.
Read an Excerpt
From STEPHEN LEACOCK 1869–1944
Professor, Humourist, and Immigration Agent
In my experience, every humorous writer finds that his or her public confidently expects them to be a happy person, facing life with a wry chuckle, and perhaps a slow, smiling shake of the head. To his great credit, Leacock tried to shoot down this view. He wrote: “If a man has a genuine sense of humour he is apt to take a somewhat melancholy, or at least a disillusioned view of life. Humour and disillusionment are twin sisters.”
Robertson Davies (who knew more than most people about the expectations placed on successful authors in their private lives) wrote in his 1981 introduction to The Penguin Stephen Leacock, “I have written a good deal about Leacock, and I believe that I was the first to press the point that he was not necessarily a man of continuously sunny, carefree temperament…. He had, in fact, the temperament of a humorist, and they are by no means unfailingly sunny people.”
Leacock’s life was not short of events that would have disillusioned anyone. His family (of, eventually, eleven children) came from England to rural Ontario and a life of genteel poverty (the boys were not allowed to go barefoot in the summer, like the other local kids; a matter, Leacock later said, “of caste and thistles”). The father, Peter, was a Catholic whose runaway marriage was never accepted by his wife’s Anglican family (and to make matters worse the bride was older, and may have been pregnant). Peter was excellent at provoking pregnancies, but less productive with his work on the farm near Sutton, just south of Lake Simcoe. He is politely described by the notable Leacock scholar David Staines as “a man of sluggish character.” In fact, he was so bad that Stephen and his brothers threw him out of the house (one version involves that Victorian staple, a horsewhip, and there were rumours of drunken violence in the marriage), telling him to stay away, which he did. Lack of money forced young Stephen to drop out of university for a year. For ten years he laboured as a schoolmaster, and, in the words of Robertson Davies “disliked the work heartily.”
Although he went on to enjoy great professional success and prosperity, in his marriage he lost his wife to cancer when she was forty–five, and never remarried. His beloved only son, “Little Stevie,” remained miniature, so tiny that he barely attained a height of five feet, and became an embittered drunk, his escapades hushed up by the local community. Even the teaching life Leacock loved, where in his tattered gown he could put on an Eccentric Old Professor show for his students, was taken from him when McGill briskly removed him from the faculty when he reached sixty–five — a crushing blow: “I was then retired, much against my will, on grounds of senility, having passed the age of sixty–five.” It should not have been a surprise, of course, since he had voted, many years earlier, for precisely that retirement provision.
And what a perfect Leacock funny story that would be: a middleaged professor, certain that old age will never come to him, votes for compulsory retirement at sixty–five, then reacts with outrage when it is applied to him. Leacock’s coolly classical view of human nature, in which people routinely fall prey to false hopes and small hypocrisies, believing that they are exceptions to the follies of human nature, provided him with his profitable living as a humorist. But it did not protect him here, in his own life. He did not die a happy man.
So what remains? In Montreal there is, of course, the Leacock Building at McGill, and the portrait in the University Club. Margaret MacMillan’s excellent 2009 short biography (Stephen Leacock, in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series) notes that in Toronto there is a Scarborough high school named after him, which was attended by young people arrested as accused Islamic terrorists in 2006: a stranger–than–fiction example of how the old Victorian imperialist’s conservative Canada has changed.
By way of contrast, there is the Stephen Leacock Museum at Old Brewery Bay in Orillia. Built in 1927 from his book royalties as the world’s most popular humorist, it is a fine example of a rich Canadian’s lakeside cottage. It was Leacock’s base for fishing and sailing and other summer pursuits, which included paying proper respect to the site’s convivial name. But it was also a research base, though his excursions into Orillia as a famous but unaffected local writer did not have the desired effect. The town barber once complained about the summer visitor’s shameless use of hot local gossip as material for his writing. The complaint predictably ran along the lines of “How the hell was I to know that he was going to take that stuff and …”
Time has healed these wounds, and the Leacock Museum has become a tourist asset. Despite the spread of nearby houses (a scandal worth a Leacock story), the house itself is protected by its site on a point on Lake Couchiching, in tree–shaded grounds. The building is preserved as an old–fashioned cottage, with dark wood panelling throughout its interior, and comes complete with a library, straw hats on pegs, and ancient tennis racquets apparently ready for service. As you tiptoe through the two–storey house, upstairs and downstairs, peering at book titles, or at the papers on the desk in the study, or at the dishes in the kitchen, it’s hard to avoid the Goldilocks sense that the owners will return at any moment.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Anyone who thinks Canadians are all dull, lackluster and very, very polite, needs to read this book. In fact, if you're the slightest bit interested in Canadian literature, the publishing business or even just bizarre stories (such as publisher Douglas Gibson's deadpan description of witnessing Farley Mowat, on his hands and knees, in a kilt, crawling along a table top at a dinner; or hearing Roddy Doyle, at a conference at the Banff Centre, spotting seasonal warnings about not getting in the way of elks rutting, that the dangers facing a touring writer had never before included "being f**** by an elk", with the relevant Irish accent to the asterisked word...) you'll want to insist your library buys a copy or beg, borrow or steal one for your own personal collection.At its core, this gem of a book is a literary memoir by one of the deans of Canadian publishing, shaped around chapters devoted to some of the notable authors Gibson has worked with over many decades. You won't find Margaret Atwood here, but you will learn more about Robertson Davies, Alic Munro and Mavis Gallant. Gibson also writes about his relationship with authors who have fallen from the public eye, including Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan (a friend of Hemingway's from their days in Toronto and Paris) and Barry Broadfoot. (The latter, Gibson writes, typed a history of Canada's Depression years on paper Gibson hypothesizes could have come from a Russian tractor factory, making the manuscript "arguably the ugliest ever submitted in the history of Canadian publishing", although it smelled good as it was shipped in apple carton boxes!) Some authors, like Peter Newman or Peter Gzowski, are likely to be unfamiliar to non-Canadians, but that doesn't make the glimpses of the editing process any less intriguing. Gibson's digressions -- into hockey and politics, for instance -- are just as interesting as his recollections of the authors with whom he has worked.Above all, you may end up with a better understanding of what makes Canada tick than you would by reading a book ostensibly about Canada. Mavis Gallant, for instance, discovered that when she moved to Paris, she had found a place where she could describe herself as a writer and not be asked for three months' rent in advance, Gibson writes; he also pokes fund at the Canadian propensity for refusing to be impressed by accomplishment. It also shows just how small Canada really is: Charles Ritchie, diplomat, diarist and sometime lover of Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, was the godfather of both Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, sometime rivals for the leadership of Canada's Liberal Party. This is a great book for bibliomaniacs to pick up and read, perhaps one section at a time. I'd be very surprised if anyone finished the whole opus without discovering at least seven books that they felt the urge to read Right Now. (For me, some of those are by Hugh McLennan; I remember reading one of his some 30 plus years ago, then never picking up another one.)Full disclosure: I obtained a review copy of the book from NetGalleys; I'm planning to pick up a copy for my library, however; in this case, the price is worth it to me.
Gibson unfolds a beautiful expression of Canada's literary heritage in a heartwarming, perspicacious, witty, and inspiring adventure about the fascinating lives of Canadian authors and their work. This masterpiece will open your eyes to the wonders and magnitude of Canadian literature. If ever a book should be placed on the curriculum of our schools right across the country, this is it. It is a beautiful expression of Canada's literary beauty and Mr. Gibson's love of Canada. I have never wanted a book not to end so badly.