Know It All

Finding the Impossible Country



One spring day in 1979 I was scrummaging around the National Archives in Ottawa, researching a book that I was editing. I loved the atmosphere there—quiet, serious, a sense of importance. At frequent intervals I headed to the sixth-floor coffee shop to meet friends, most of whom were graduate students from Carleton University. On this day, my friend and future co-author, Dan Francis asked me if I had seen an ad in the Globe and Mail for an editor in chief for a new national encyclopedia of Canada, an epic publishing project underway in Edmonton, Alberta. Dan told me that I should apply. I never did see the ad but I found Hurtig Publisher’s address in Edmonton. I wrote them a letter, not knowing that over three hundred other people had seen that ad and had already responded.

I had met Mel Hurtig on a few occasions at book publishing meetings and was always impressed with his energy and fervent advocacy of Canadian publishing. I had never seen anyone so at home on a podium, so perfectly dressed—by the great Edmonton haberdasher Henry Singer as I later found out. His speeches were full of impressive anecdotal evidence of how corporate America was destroying Canadians’ ability to publish their own authors. In response to my application, Mel sent me a note scribbled with a large black Sharpie telling me to write him a letter, no more than a page and a half long, telling him who I was and what I had done to qualify for such a significant job.

What should I say? I really was not at a stage of my life where I was comfortable summing up. I had an eventful editorial career, I thought, with several Canadian publishers. I had written a number of books, including a two-volume Social History of Canada, and I was currently on a joint appointment between Carleton University and publisher McClelland & Stewart, where I had edited almost a hundred scholarly books on Canadian history and social sciences. Several other applicants had, I was sure, as much or more experience. What other qualities might Mel be looking for in a candidate to lead the grandiose project of a new, comprehensive encyclopedia of the entire country?

My family and friends encouraged me, but I had serious doubts about my prospects, particularly about my lack of knowledge of the French language in a national endeavour. I also had reservations about my ability to be “chief” of anything, as I had no managerial experience. I eventually received a note from Mel, telling me that he was headed to Ottawa and that we should meet. This letter to me had been lost in the Carleton University mail system for two weeks and I’d only received it two days before Mel arrived. He was in Ottawa to be interviewed on the radio. After a hasty phone call, we arranged to meet afterward at the restaurant that was in those days located in the basement of the Château Laurier hotel. I listened to the CBC interview on the car radio. Mel was having a terrible time speaking, apologizing for his persistent cough.

At brunch with Mel at the Château Laurier, he recounted anecdotes of customers to his bookstore, of his authors, of his golf game, or of his victories over hapless opponents in debates. Mel’s charm and earnestness always tempered his ample self-importance. After considerable time, he finally asked me about my background in publishing. Almost with a sense of naiveté he asked me if I was a “generalist.” I was prepared for that question and responded that I had a little knowledge about a lot of things: literature, classical music, sports, art, social science, philosophy, biography, and history. Above all, I told him that the driving force, almost the redeeming force, in my mental life from the time I was a boy was my curiosity and my love of books. How much of our lives is determined by these encounters, in which each person tries to evaluate the other, guessing, interpreting, and either trusting or evading our instincts? Mel persuaded me that he was an accomplished, ambitious man, but what did he think of me? As long as I knew him, he never said.

So, who was I? And what had I done to deserve such a significant job?


From Chapter 1, The Door Opens

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
­— Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Number 4 Norfolk was said to be the oldest house on one of the shortest streets in Toronto. Annie and Charlie Radford had raised two daughters and a son in that house, before they adopted me. Across a cinder lane that separated the house from Shirley Street, a house that was torn down years ago, was Mrs. Mitchell’s baby refuge, where my mother Ada had left me while she sorted out her life as a 19-year-old unwed mother, recently arrived in Toronto from domestic service in Bracebridge, Muskoka. In December of 1942 Ada met a young soldier on leave, John Harley Marsh, and I was born nine months later.
Annie Radford was a short, vibrant woman, pretty in her youth. She had a nervous melancholy about her that suggested a sad resolve from some loss. She was on speaking terms with the many Scots and Irish immigrants in the neighbourhood after the war. Annie particularly loved babies. She could not let a baby carriage pass on the street without enquiring about the name, gender, and age of its passenger. She would lift the infant out of its blanket into the air, chirping cheery words in baby talk. She treated small dogs much the same way, patting them firmly on the back, as if she were burping them. Annie volunteered to help daily with the feeding and changing of the half-dozen or so abandoned children consigned by Children’s Aid to Mrs. Mitchell’s care in her house on Shirley Street. When the babies reached 8-months old, Mrs. Mitchell either returned them to mothers who had managed to patch their lives together, or she sent them to foster care. When Ada did not come for me, Annie took me across the lane. What a remarkable idea for her to adopt a baby, with her own children grown and her son Jack flying bomber missions over North Africa in the Royal Air Force. She saw me take my first steps and heard me speak my first words: “ice cream,” as she later told me.

I passed the next two years, to age 3, with Annie. What would my life have been like had I stayed with her? Jack left this modest house to become a decorated flyer in the RAF, an engineer, and a vice-president of one of the largest construction companies in Canada. The younger daughter, Jean, married a TransCanada Airline (Air Canada) mechanic and raised three daughters. The elder, Grace, fared less well, being thwarted by Annie in her ambition to go to nursing school, and in her love life, for she had a son, Donald, fathered by a man of whom Annie did not approve. Was he married? Neither Annie nor Grace would say, but Donald seemed lost without him. Grace raised the boy on her own in a two-room attic apartment on Earnbridge Street, a few blocks south of Norfolk, just north of Queen. She settled for being an assistant to Dr. Robert Braiden, who later navigated me through several childhood illnesses.

Annie said that her husband Charlie adored me when I was a baby, but if that were true, the affection did not survive this awkward adoption. If his sentiments were not quite hatred of me when I grew into a fractious boy, they contained ample resentment, which he expressed in sullen silence. He had a heart attack—“mild” Annie liked to say, dismissively—in the late 1940s and retired early from his job as chief electrician at the Ontario Legislative Building. He grew reclusive as he spent the next thirty retirement years, friendless, profoundly alone in his garden and his workshop in the dirt floor basement, surrounded with rusty garden tools and tulip bulbs amid the dark smell of loam, fertilizer, and seeds. He and Annie barely spoke to one another. Annie was strong-willed and Charlie had little influence on what she did, even bringing a young stranger into their home.
There is a photograph of me about age 9- or 10-months old, sitting on the grass in the backyard at 4 Norfolk Street with wet pants, contemplating my fingers under the scrutiny of a fluffy cat who stands in a pose of detached curiosity, her tail rising above her like a puff of black smoke. Around us in that yard were Charlie’s rose bushes and lilac trees.

“No crying,” were the first words that I remember Annie Radford or anyone saying to me, words that ignited my conscious life. “You must not call me ‘mommy’ anymore. Your real mommy is coming to get you,” she said. I was standing in hard, polished shoes on the red corduroy sofa in the Radford’s living room, overlooking the narrow garden and picket fence on Norfolk Street. Annie fumbled with the buttons on my shirt and roughly brushed my hair. I stomped petulantly on the couch cushions. I hated when she fussed over me.

Whatever did those first words mean, that another “mommy” was coming to take me away? “No crying,” Annie repeated, with an impatient shake of her head. “Jimmy, you must try to show your real mommy that you are a good boy.” She lifted me down from the sofa and I ran across the room to the piano, an old rosewood Heintzman with cracked varnish, which Annie played each day, smiling at her own fumbling, grasping for chords, singing in her gruff alto voice, hymns from a dog-eared music anthology. Light streamed in bands through the fake ivory Venetian blinds into the room in still, dusty shafts. I crossed the floor and banged the chipped keys of the piano, unaware of what it meant that another, “real” mother was coming to take me from a comfort where no memories or fears had impeded the flow of the day.

The doorbell rang and the surrender was swift. “C’mon,” Ada commanded at the front door of 4 Norfolk, as she tugged and pinched my arm. I heard but do not remember further words exchanged between the two mothers. A car waited on the street, motor running. Ada prodded me into the back seat, climbed in next to me and slammed the door. I lost sight of Annie standing forlorn behind the screen door. Ada stopped my flailing with a slap, stinging my face, ringing my ears.


From Chapter 18, A Nation in a Nutshell

“They have shown us how Canadians as a collective mentality think, and how they understand their own being.”
­— Val Clery, Canadian Literature

Making a traditional encyclopedia is a curious enterprise. No one set of books could possibly fulfill the many exalted demands made of these works. Perhaps it was possible in Diderot’s time for an encyclopedia to represent all human knowledge or even to aspire to changing the world, but such claims had already become dubious when the legendary 11th edition of Britannica was published in 1911. Despite the explosion in information, I believed that an encyclopedia could still fulfill a role in attempting to present human knowledge in some semblance of coherence, a close approximation of accuracy, and some guidance of what was considered significant in its time. It could, in the words of H.G. Wells, present “the ruling concepts of our social order.” A national encyclopedia such as ours might also achieve a more specific goal of displaying the rich diversity of its subject—Canada—and even of inspiring pride in its people. Truly, the aggregate of articles on our glorious land and resources and on the many unknown Canadians who contributed to every domain, presented a wonder to anyone who explored it.

This idea of a national encyclopedia seemed parochial to many people, contradicting their notions of an increasingly globalized world. More than one professor at the University of Alberta asked me, derisively, who would possibly be interested in such a narrow-minded work? I agreed that national borders seemed arbitrary in discussions of physics or mathematics, but the whole point of our encyclopedia was to provide information on Canadian contributions to these subjects that never would appear in the general reference works emanating from the United States or Great Britain. Americans would never consider the need for a national encyclopedia, not just on the claim of parochialism, but because works such as Britannica and World Book and Encarta were produced in the US and presented American perspectives as universal. My most vehement hope for Canada was always that it could achieve a different, better North American destiny.

I was able to draw on my own publishing experience and some learning to evaluate what kind of portrait TCE would present of Canada and how that would differ from Canadiana. Some things would have changed very little since the 1950s. For example, there had to be heavy emphasis on articles about places, as Canadians remain very local in their focus. Failing to include separate articles on certain places, such as Waterloo and Burlington (based on the Statistics Canada’s definition of the municipalities Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton-Burlington), from the first edition caused me serious grief.
While biography was of little interest to the academic consultants and a severe strain on the senior editors (until I hired Mary McDougall Maude to work on them exclusively), it is clearly of enormous interest to the public. Over the years, most of the comments or criticisms of the encyclopedia have concerned biography. It is a little dispiriting not to have had a single letter or email, among many thousands, comment on articles that caused the editors a great deal of editorial grief (for example, the 15,000-word article on “Philosophy in Canada” commissioned by James Ogilvy. Yes, Canadians have published books on the metaphysics of R.G. Collingwood, Whitehead’s theory of reality, Paul Tillich’s question of being, and the rational metaphysics of Baruch Spinoza). Yet the shortest biography could inspire pages of corrections or vitriol


Table of contents

1. The Door Opens
2. Shadows on the Sand
3. As Fugitive as the Years
4. The Ruins I Mapped
5. My Father’s War
6. Streets, Laneways, and the Games We Played
7. Life in Toronto’s Junction
8. Huntsville, Muskoka
9. School Days
10. Turning the Pages
11. It’s a Fucking Miracle, James
12. Unity in Diversity: A Centennial History for Canada
13. Becoming Canadian
14. Place Where the Light Enters
15. On to Ottawa
16. A Gift to Canada
17. To Shine a Light on Canada
18. A Nation in a Nutshell
19. Who Is Powlisik?
20. Into the Digital Age
21. Bookends


In Know It All: Finding the Impossible Country James Marsh tells of his evolution from a troubled childhood to a long career in Canadian publishing that culminated in the creation of The Canadian Encyclopedia — what one reviewer called “the intellectual equivalent of the building of the CPR.” Through friendships, curiosity, the insights of a charismatic psychiatrist, his passion for books, and the intimate encounters with the authors he met, he championed a diverse and inclusive view of Canada, which was used to draw the great minds of an impossible nation together in a common national enterprise. While exploring how memory works and how we learn to think of ourselves, Know It All offers insights into the intricacies of Canadian identity, the profession of book editors, and is the most comprehensive first-hand story about the creation of The Canadian Encyclopedia.


Praise for The Canadian Encyclopedia

James Marsh bravely held up a mirror to his culture. The Canadian Encyclopedia is a monument to the integrative power of culture, the myth of a fragile land. — The Canadian Historical Review

In Books in Canada, author and critic George Galt focused on how the encyclopedia reflected the efflorescence in the arts over the past 30 years. “I am left with the sense,” he wrote, “that a vast and variegated land has met its match in print.”

Playwright and poet James Reaney stretched for a metaphor in Saturday Night comparing TCE to Anne of Green Gables and “Alouette,” “in a very exciting way, a new communications satellite.” With special music to my ears after my studies of L’Encyclopédie,

John Hutcheson wrote in The Canadian Forum, “Diderot’s Encyclopédie put the ideas of the Enlightenment on the map. James Marsh’s The Canadian Encyclopedia will do the same for Canadian studies.”