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The Influential Career of William Collins publisher Franklin F. Appleton

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sweeny appleton paull 1940s

From left: Charles Sweeny, editorial and production, Franklin Appleton, publisher, and Margaret V. Paull, staff artist, circa the mid-1940s

Canadian literature was still in its youth during the first half of the 20th century. But even as Susanna Moodie, Stephen Leacock, and Frederick Philip Grove – all foreign born, but all writers of books imbued with what we think of as traditional Canadian themes of the bush, small towns, and the prairies – represented the best of what our country had to offer, a stalwart young nationalist born into books changed the course of Canadian publishing.

Franklin Fletcher Appleton was born in Toronto on March 16, 1893, and lived in his family’s home at 127 Cumberland St. in Yorkville into his 20s. The Appleton name may not resonate with most in publishing today, but the family name of Appleton’s bookselling cousins most certainly does.

The Britnell brothers, John and Albert, first opened second-hand bookshops at various locations in Toronto the same year Appleton was born. Albert would open his famous Albert Britnell Book Shop at 765 Yonge St., on the east side of Yonge just north of Bloor Street, in 1919. (The building, which still bears the Britnell name above the door, now houses a Starbucks, a popular location with HarperCollins editors who meet there with authors.) Appleton – Frank to his friends – delivered packages for his uncle Albert starting in 1905. After training as an architect, Appleton worked full-time for his uncle, where, according to Quill & Quire, “he had been able to build shelves better than a carpenter, dust books, write showcards, proof-read catalogues and sell books.” Roy Britnell, Albert’s son, reflected that his father “originally felt that Frank would have had a brilliant career as an architect and wondered whether he had influenced the boy wrongly when Frank went into the book business.” (After Albert died in 1924 at a prohibition meeting while “fighting for right,” Appleton acted as a flower bearer at the funeral.)

In 1912, Appleton became assistant manager at Musson Book Co., and manager of the firm in 1916. The First World War interrupted his career when he was called up by the 67th Battery, 1st Central Ontario Regiment, on May 23, 1918, and, according to The Globe, he “severed his connection with the book trade.” He would return to Musson, becoming vice-president in 1920 at the age of 27, and he would join George J. McLeod Ltd. for a brief stint as vice-president in 1929. Shortly thereafter, Franklin Appleton would start out on a new venture, and would play a pivotal role in the future of Canadian publishing.

In 1930, at the dawn of the Depression, Appleton assumed responsibility for organizing the Canadian branch of the Scottish firm Collins. For the next 17 years, William Collins & Co. Ltd., under Appleton’s watch, introduced Canadians to numerous homegrown and international authors. His staunch support for the Canadian program proved a near defiant stand against fierce competition from American and British houses, a refrain still achingly familiar to Canadian publishers today. Appleton was a natural, and bookmaking and bookselling ran in his veins. He once said of himself, “If it is true, as I think it is, that boys do the things they like to do, it is equally true that men do best the things they like to do. In no field is this more true than in book publishing.” The Globe and Mail reported that “Mr. Appleton’s importance lies in the fact that he loved publishing more than profits, though Canada has seen no shrewder salesman.”

The Collins offices were located at 70 Bond St., known as St. Martin’s House, a building that Macmillan’s Canadian president, Frank Wise, had convinced Sir Frederick Macmillan and George Brett, the firm’s president in New York, to build and move into in 1910. The Bond Street building became home not only to Macmillan and Collins but to McCall Co. (publisher of clothing patterns), as well as Canadian Electric. For many years, Bantam Books Canada and Doubleday was located at 105 Bond Street. With Collins, Macmillan, McCall, and Bantam/Doubleday all within blocks of each other, the avenue was the publishers row of its day. Many notable authors were published or distributed out of the Collins offices, including Hugh Garner, Roderick Haig-Brown, John D. Robins, Kate Aitken, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Sharp, and Collins released popular editions of works by Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain.

Perhaps the most famous of the authors William Collins represented during Appleton’s tenure as manager (as Canadian agent for the American company Duell, Sloane and Pearce) was Hugh MacLennan, who published the CanLit classics Barometer Rising in 1941 and Two Solitudes, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 1945. MacLennan would win two more Governor General’s Awards for Collins, for the novel The Precipice and the essay collection Cross-Country, after Appleton had retired as managing director but while he was still chairman of the company. MacLennan struggled as a writer initially, failing to find a home for two unpublished novels set abroad, but with Barometer Rising, set during the 1917 Halifax explosion, he became a household name for writing about the country he knew (MacLennan grew up in Nova Scotia and lived in Halifax at the time of the explosion), with a proud Canadian publisher eager to nurture and celebrate the country’s nascent homemade literature.

The first novel to be published under Collins’ Canadian imprint, in 1942, was Grace Campbell’s The Thorn-Apple Tree, set in early 19th-century Ontario. Appleton’s long-time friend William Arthur Deacon, literary editor at The Globe and Mail during Appleton’s reign at Collins, alerted him to the quality of Campbell’s work. Franklin Carmichael of the Group of Seven illustrated the novel with original wood engravings, and had a strong hand in the design and the layout. In marrying the strong new voice on the Canadian scene with the artistry of an icon of the art world, Appleton spared little expense, and his plan worked: The Thorn-Apple Tree sold at least 20,000 copies in Canada and was the bestselling novel of 1942. Quill & Quire heralded it as “a little masterpiece of Canadian bookcraft.”

Appleton was, by all accounts, a most considerate publisher. On the publication of Thorn-Apple Tree, Deacon reported the event in his regular column, The Fly Leaf: “Mrs. Campbell’s speech on the function of Canadian literature was excellent, and will doubtless be repeated [in Toronto] late in November. Prairie admirers are so proud of the local novelist that Regina has ordered 600 copies. Humor crept in when her publisher, Mr. Appleton, confessed, ‘I never sent orchids to a woman before in my life.’ Well, Frank, you picked the right woman and the right time to do it.” Later that fall, at a meeting of the Canadian Authors Association, Campbell, “looking very much the dame of the manor in a black dinner gown with scarlet and gold lame jacket and a corsage as white as any hawthorn bloom,” revealed that the novel came “trippingly off the pen,” and Appleton announced that this “all-Canadian product” would also be printed in the United States and Great Britain. At the end of Campbell’s tour, Appleton and his wife “entertained for her at their Buckingham Avenue home,” with a guest list that featured notable Canadian literati, including E.J. Pratt. Frank Carmichael and his wife, Ada, hosted another evening for Campbell at their home in the north Toronto neighbourhood of Lansing.

Grace Campbell proved every bit the nationalist Frank Appleton was. During her tour for Thorn-Apple Tree, she said, “Let us be aware of ourselves as a young, strong, hard, disciplined, spiritually-solvent people, cherishing our past, moulding our destiny with vigor and wisdom, fearing God and honoring our heroes, and stepping into the future unafraid.” Appleton, for his part, chaired the City of Toronto Board of Trade’s Report on the Canadian Book Trade 1944, which illustrated stark differences in the Canadian, British, and American markets. The design and quality of Collins titles in particular were higher end, and the books were often constructed from materials manufactured in Canada. In 1947, for example, Appleton launched the first Bible “made from Canadian plates and using exclusively Canadian materials.” Seventy-three per cent of the books sold by Collins in Canada by the end of Appleton’s tenure were manufactured in Canada, and the house exported a significant number of Canadian titles.

Campbell’s second effort, The Higher Hill, was mired in delays. The manuscript was late, mainly due to the terrible loss of Campbell’s twin sons in the Royal Canadian Air Force only weeks apart in early 1944. Appleton wrote to Campbell: “My feelings are a combination of sympathy and admiration for the fortitude that is given to mothers and fathers as you.” Appleton also suffered from a recurring heart problem, which would see him miss many months in 1945 and again in 1947. He proved himself a tactful and sympathetic publisher, supporting Campbell through her loss, and despite the immense challenges, The Higher Hill published in time for fall. However, the novel never met sales expectations, despite Appleton’s doggedness and Campbell’s heroic efforts. In the postwar economy, Collins was met by repeated delays at the bindery and printer that sunk the fortunes of Campbell’s much-heralded sophomore effort.

In contrast to the lavish productions on the Collins Canadian publishing list, Appleton’s commercial imprint, White Circle, featured some of the most commercial covers of the era, many of which were illustrated by Carmichael’s acolyte, Margaret Paull, who flourished under the great painter’s watch for three years before Carmichael’s death in 1945 and who worked for Collins into the 1980s. Working closely with Appleton, Paull and the design and production team at Collins would produce hundreds of titles under White Circle. Frank Appleton demonstrated that Collins could publish sophisticated Canadian literature and titles with mass appeal out of the same catalogue.

During the 1940s especially, Frank Appleton proved a popular man of letters. William A. Deacon highlighted Appleton’s personal and publishing exploits regularly in his Globe column, reporting equally on his business successes and his (and his wife’s) ongoing health crises and heralding Collins’ new fall arrivals. The Appletons hosted publishing parties for the who’s who of Canada at their home. News of their daughters’ nuptials, complete with photographs, featured in the Globe’s society pages. Appleton was, among other things, a member of the United Church and a Mason, was a regular speaker at the Toronto Heliconian Club, and gave regular speeches to the Canadian Authors Association and the Pen Guild. He was a member of the National, Optimist, and Arts and Letters Clubs. His great-grandfather, Thomas Appleton, was one of the first teachers at the Jesse Ketchum school in Yorkville in the 1830s, and Appleton himself had attended the school and was for a time president of the Jesse Ketchum Old Boys’ association. He and the other Old Boys sponsored an annual prize for the top essays on the life of Jesse Ketchum.

In October 1947, Appleton abruptly retired at age 54 due to the heart problems that had plagued him for much of his adult life. Quill & Quire reflected that the retirement news “comes as a great shock to the trade which is accustomed to thinking of Franklin F. Appleton and Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. as interchangeable and invincible.” William Arthur Deacon agreed that the news “will be received with shock. … To a natural talent for publishing, Mr. Appleton added friendliness, fairness and integrity. He never misrepresented a book. In a personal association of more than 25 years, I early found in him a staunch friend and learned profound respect for his judgment.”

In November 1947, two hundred of Frank Appleton’s colleagues and friends gathered at the Royal York hotel for a tribute dinner. As he took the podium, he said, “I am overwhelmed … the wing of friendship never moults.” William Arthur Deacon read out, “You have distinguished yourself as a great Canadian bookman. You have given the whole book trade an example of leadership of which we are proud. … Your encouragement and wise counsel have been of inestimable value to Canadian authors.” Doug MacLeod presented him with a Johnson Outboard motor and a portable radio as retirement gifts. And Roy Britnell, whose father had employed Appleton as a delivery boy so many years before, presented him with “a limited edition of one copy containing twenty pages of deckled hand-made paper and was bound in blue pebbled cowskin stamped with 23½ carat gold leaf,” with his name embossed on the cover. A tribute in Quill & Quire concluded, “What else could happen to Frank Appleton than success? He has learned that if you love the book business it will return your affection a thousand fold.”

Appleton’s retirement was short-lived. Franklin Fletcher Appleton passed away at Toronto General Hospital on Sept. 19, 1951, at the age of 58. At his funeral, Lorne Pierce, editor of the Ryerson Press, eulogized, “He belonged to the company of the elect among publishers, for he had a profound respect for his vocation, a respect for the printed word that bordered upon reverence. … Publishing was for him a sacred trust. In his own way he tried to set a lamp in the window of the world.”

Appleton’s son, Franklin F. Appleton, Jr., known widely as Tim, had joined George J. McLeod Ltd. as a rep only a few months before his father’s passing, in so doing becoming one of the very few third-generation men among Canadian publishers. One of his daughters, Jane, actively promoted Canadian artists, started a poetry series, and authored several books, and a poetry prize was awarded in her name. The authors Appleton published at Collins continued to influence Canadian writing for decades.

Today, 66 years after Appleton’s passing, and 75 years after he started the Canadian publishing program for Collins – now HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. – Frank Appleton’s legacy continues in a thriving publishing program that maintains his credo of publishing good books, and publishing them well. Sadly, the Appleton name, at one time mentioned in the same breath as McClelland, Stewart, and Allen, is now largely forgotten, in great part because, unlike the others, his publishing house did not assume his name.

Regardless: the man who boldly championed a Canadian program when the world was in chaos, who trusted in original Canadian voices, and brought them to a national audience, and whose every effort breathed book publishing lives on today in the pages of books found in many homes and libraries. The boy who once dusted shelves at Britnell’s and would later shape the future of Canadian publishing remains, forever, “a great Canadian bookman.”

Jim Gifford is editorial director, non-fiction, at HarperCollins in Toronto. Over his 20-year career in publishing, he has acquired and edited many number-one bestsellers and award-winning titles by Canadian and international authors. The author of Hurricane Hazel: Canada’s Storm of the Century (Dundurn, 2004) and a contributor to 100 Days That Changed Canada (HarperCollins, 2011), Gifford has also written for such publications as Canada’s History, Quill & Quire, and Where Toronto.