A Graphic Literary Tourism Experience

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In 2010 Nigel Beale established Literary Tourist with the intention of helping fellow book-lovers who like to travel, to find interesting literary places and events around the world.

The true joy and serendipity of literary tourism can only really be conveyed through illustration. This is the story of how a simple aesthetic appreciation developed into a real-world literary adventure filled with pleasing coincidences.

Ottawa is not a city one usually associates with entrepreneurs or the risky business of book publishing and yet, here, during the 1920s, a printer and monotype operator named Henry C. Miller established a commercial publishing house which, though short-lived, produced a body of work that is both adventurous and significant.

I’d first encountered Graphic Publishers’ books about ten years ago at Richard Fitzpatrick’s used bookstore in the Byward Market. The attraction was immediate, mainly because of the colourful endpapers. The books weren’t cheap, but I couldn’t resist the draw and bought several, including this gripping roman à clef titled The House of Temptation that claims on its back cover to “portray the devious ways of plotting politicians.”

There’s a good deal of the detective in a literary tourist, much of which is explained by the thrill of ferreting out connections that shed light on the life of authors and books and places. Intrigued by this local publishing phenomenon, I wanted to know more. What kind of books did they produce? Who was this ambitious young publisher named Miller? Where did he live and work? What did he look like? I couldn’t find a photograph of him anywhere. Nothing in the city archives. Nothing on the Internet. I had so many questions — almost as many as Andrew Sheer has for Justin Trudeau. The Graphic Publishers mystery, just like a political scandal, demanded solving, so I started to dig and after a good many twists and turns, eventually found much more than I’d originally bargained for.

But before I share the results of my investigation, first the facts:

A year after founding Graphic Publishers in 1925, the thirty-six-year-old Miller wrote:

“We feel that we have a mission to perform here in Canada: we may be idealistic, but we are young and we can work. We are not after any tremendous salaries or sumptuous offices. We believe that all this will come when we have got to the place where we want to be, recognized as THE Canadian publishers and not giving a hoot about our friends to the south of us. We believe that within a year we will have the strongest group of writers in Canada publishing with us, and we believe that we will give them so much satisfaction that no other house can take them away from us.” 1

Graphic’s output, animated by this verve and confidence, included fiction, poetry, plays, essays, history, and criticism. Frederick Philip Grove was one of a number of well-known Canadian authors connected with the press. Others included W.E.E. Ross, Lawrence J.Burpee, William Arthur Deacon, Raymond Knister, and Madge MacBeth, who under the pseudonym Gilbert Knox, authored Graphic’s first book, The Land of Afternoon (1925), a satire on social and political life in Ottawa. An instant best seller, it was followed by Shackles (1926) which also sold well. Another early success was Grove’s A search for America (1927) which went into a second printing. Graphic’s last book came off the press in I932, the year the firm declared bankruptcy.

Despite teetering on the edge of financial disaster throughout much of its short seven-year existence, some 85 titles were published under at least five different company imprints including the Carillon Book Club; Ariston Publishers Limited (under the direction of Grove), and Miller’s vanity imprint, Ru-Mi-Lou Books (named after his two daughters).

Far from a cloudy capital enterprise, Graphic Publishers has, as book scholar Edward St. John once put it, “left an indelible mark upon the publishing scene in Canada. Their significant output will secure their position in the history of Canadian publishing.”

Graphic’s stated mission was to publish books for Canadians, by Canadians, in Canada, using Canadian materials, and to produce “Well-Made Canadian Literature.” The books’ looks, particularly the endpapers and publisher’s device, reflect this tone, most memorably through a striking native Thunderbird illustration connected, as it is, to the land, myth, nature and, it was hoped, “quality.”

This look, created by Ottawa graphic artist Alan B. Beddoe, was designed both to spur nationalistic pride and to encourage the reading public to buy Canadian. It is perhaps the most notable and impressive feature of Graphic’s output. Many of the Ru-Mi-Lou titles also have wild native motifs emblazoning their endpapers. These were designed by Douglas Leechman.

Miller was a printer by trade before embarking on a publishing career. Book scholar David B. Kotin calls his books “distinctive, if not distinguished.” Grove thought them downright ugly.

The truth is, they aspire to aesthetic excellence without quite achieving it. Despite some exceptions (My Garden Dreams, for example), most of the books have a clunky feel to them. The cloth casings are a bit too heavy. The typography a little less than refined. Some title pages have a dignity to them, many are plain and unimaginative. A lot of the dust jackets are “hokey” by today’s standards, though some, it must be said, are pretty eye-catching.

Despite Miller having recruited some of Canada’s best known artists — people such as C.W. Jefferys and Thoreau MacDonald alongside regulars Beddoe, Gordon Fairbairn, and Fred Lewis — the books lack the sophistication you’ll find, for example, in those published early on by Alfred A. Knopf during the same period.

This said, like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, the books aren’t boring, plus they’re sought after by collectors like me — an aspect of Graphic which takes our tale up to the present day, where the story moves from fact-finding to phone calling, and pounding the pavement.

***

To unravel the Graphic mystery, I sought someone who knew the books: a collector. Local bookseller Liam McGahern gave me a name: Peter Greig. I called Greig up and arranged to meet at his place to inspect some of the evidence. Greig’s truly impressive Graphic Publishers collection includes every title, in and out of jacket, many of them signed. Seen together, the books present an impressive range of colours, shapes, sizes and styles.

Not only did Greig have colossal knowledge of the Graphics books, he also knew the whereabouts of the firms’ original premises. So, on the afternoon of Friday, November 1, 2013, we jumped in the car, proceeded toward downtown Ottawa, and parked in front of 171 Nepean Street. Turns out this building is now owned by Al Albania, president of Acart Graphics, someone I’d known during my time with the Board of Trade back in the 1980s. It was nice to ponder the continuity: this building has been the site of graphic design and production for close to a century.

But the investigation doesn’t end here. Far from it, because Greig knew more. In fact, he knew the Ottawa address where Miller and his family lived: 1 Middleton Drive. Off we went, up to the top of Springfield Road, and into the little cul de sac where the house still sits along side five or six others.

Once there, another coincidence: I realize that I know the people who own this place as well.

My eldest daughter had gone to school with the eldest daughter of the homeowners Jane Thompson and Andrew Wisniowski. It so happens that Jane is an architect with an interest in things historical. She’d kept a file on 1 Middleton, complete with some quite lengthy letters pertinent to the construction of the house exchanged between the builder and Henry Miller. These letters reveal not only Miller’s handwriting, but also a sense of how he conducted business.

But wait. There’s more. One of Miller’s grandchildren had recently dropped by to see the place (for the first time ever, it turns out). Desperate for her co-ordinates, I contacted Andrew, who’d met with her. If anyone had a photograph of my man, it was the granddaughter, Joy Brunel. And, as it turns out, my dear Watson, she did.

Brunel e-mailed me several photographs not only of Miller and his wife and daughter, but also of his tombstone in Beechwood Cemetery and of Graphic’s press shop in downtown Ottawa.

With surprisingly little effort (and no small amount of good fortune) I’d answered a lot of questions — won the trifecta, in effect — gotten a great tour of the books, grounded them in place, and put a face to a name. In so doing I connected with some interesting people, slaked a curiosity, and experienced some of the joy and excitement that keeps book lovers loving books.

***

These sort of fortuitous coincidences don’t always occur, but you’d be surprised how often bibliophiles experience them. They kind of prove you’re onto something important. Literary tourism invites coincidence, in fact. It’s part of a conversation, you see, a dialogue with location from which we get a more vivid sense of the history of place; a knowledge that there’s more to the here than just the now.

Literary sleuthing helps put life in perspective uncovering as it does something of the mystery, complexity, and richness that exists in the world. In this case it started in the pages — the end pages — of books, which, like all books, provided tangible connections to a past, and people, worth remembering.

1. This quote and various details on the press were obtained from Graphic Publishers and the Bibliographer: An Introduction and Checklist. David B. Kotin

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