Case 2: Imaging a National Literature: Lorne Pierce and Ryerson Press

For all his influence as a man of letters, Cappon’s greatest contribution to Canadian literary studies may have come not through his body of critical work, but through his influence on one student: Lorne Pierce (1890-1961), who would become a leading force at Ryerson Press from 1920-1960. Pierce came to Queen’s as an undergraduate in 1908, and as recent biographer Sandra Campbell writes, “By the time he left Queen’s for the west in 1912, Queen’s had marked him for life” (Both Hands). In the case of his English professor, Campbell implies, those marks might well be scars, though she admits that Pierce “both exalted and deplored” the man known affectionately to his students as “Cappie.”

Pierce’s passion for Canadian literature developed from a nationalist pride that took the Eurocentric preferences of Cappon as a challenge. He dates his obsession to an end of term class in his final year, when he asked his professor whether he thought there was anything of merit in Canadian literature. Cappon’s response—the sardonic quoting of a bit of Robert Service doggerel—stung Pierce, who was unable to counter the criticism because, he remembered, “I knew nothing at all about Canadian writers, Canadian art or what might be called Canadian culture.” That day marked the beginning of what would be an extraordinary career in the collection, promotion, and shaping of literary culture in Canada.