A Treasure Trove of Canadian Literary History: The Newton MacTavish Collection

November 5, 2019 | Fiona

Comments (14)

Tucked away in the manuscript collections of the Toronto Reference Library Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre is a treasure trove of letters and manuscripts written by Canada's literary "in crowd" of the early 20th century. There are files of hand-written correspondence, poems and short stories by Lucy Maud MontgomeryMazo de la Roche, Marjorie Pickthall, E.J. Pratt, Archibald Lampman, Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, Stephen Leacock and dozens more. 

Letters and manuscripts
Letters and manuscripts from Canadian literary greats.


The collection came from Newton McFaul MacTavish (1875-1941) who was a major supporter of the Canadian art and literature scene. He began his literary life in 1898 as a journalist with the Toronto Globe and then became editor of the Canadian Magazine from 1906-1926. It was the premiere monthly literary journal of Canada for more than three decades. MacTavish was also one of the founders of the Arts and Letters Club, active in the Canadian Authors' Association, Canadian Art Club and a Trustee of the National Gallery of Canada. Needless to say he fostered many careers during this time and had connections with writers and journalists across the country. 

Newton McFaul MacTavish.
Canadian Magazine
Copies of Canadian Magazine.


The collection contains several manuscripts and letters of the Confederation Poets, one of whom was Archibald Lampman. He is regarded as Canada's finest 19th-century English language poet. Born in 1861, he sadly died at the young age of 37. His poem New Year's Eve, pictured below, was written in 1896.

Lampman poem
Letters and poems from Archibald Lampman.


Included in the collection is a photo of two other Confederation Poets, Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. Carman is on the right displaying his very distinctive hair cut. 

Roberts & Carman
Confederation Poets Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carmen. The men were also cousins.


Long before the 1908 publication of her incredibly successful novel Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery was writing short stories and poems. Many were published in the Canadian Magazine. In a January 1899 letter to Newton MacTavish, in which she offers her short story Kismet for publication, she describes herself as a "PEI 'school-marm', and earn, if not my bread at least the butter for that highly necessary article by my knack of scribbling."

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Montgomery's letter
Montgomery's letter to MacTavish.


The humorist and essayist Stephen Leacock is most well known for his classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town in which he introduced an endearing assortment of characters in the fictional small town of Mariposa. Leacock corresponded with MacTavish on several topics and his work appeared regularly in the Canadian Magazine. I love the 1906 postcard simply addressed to "Newton MacTavish Esq. Editor. Canadian Magazine, Toronto". No street or postal code required!

Leacock Letters
Some of Leacock's correspondence with MacTavish.


The collection also contains a file folder of autographs including Mazo de la Roche's, the author of the popular Jalna series, a saga of sixteen novels about the Whiteoak family. 

Mazo's signature
Mazo de la Roche's autograph.

I was excited to find several letters and and the manuscript of a short story by Marjorie Pickthall. She was a much-lauded Toronto poet and librarian and one of the few women of her time to make her living from writing. I have a special fondness for her as I discovered she was a dear friend to one of my relatives. I wrote about her in a blog entitled Poet From My Past.

Pickthall letters
The manuscript of "The Twa Macs" from Marjorie Pickthall.


How wonderful to see her neatly handwritten manuscript of the short story "The Twa Macs", which she submitted to Newton MacTavish. Below is the first page of the story as it appeared in the December 1910 issue of the Canadian Magazine. 

Canadian magazine story
First page of "The Twa Macs" by Pickthall.


In early 1910 Pickthall's beloved mother died and several of the letters in the collection are written on black-edged paper known as mourning stationery.

Pickthall letters
Letters by Pickthall on "mourning stationery".

Pickthall was a smart business woman and understood the value of her own work. In one letter she asks MacTavish to return a poem knowing she can get more money for it in any number of American and Canadian literary magazines. Pickthall wrote, "I acceded to your unusually low terms because I like to see my verse occasionally in a Canadian publication".

Pickthall letter
Letter from Pickthall asking for her work back.


Pickthall was good friends with the poet and novelist Isabel Ecclestone Mackay and the MacTavish collection contains several letters and photos of Mackay. They include a photo of Mackay taken in her office at her home in Woodstock, Ontario and another with two of her daughters in Stanley Park, Vancouver. 

Isabel in her office
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay.
Isabel Mackay
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay with her two daughters in Stanley Park.


Also included in the collection is a beautiful, hand-printed Christmas card sent to the MacTavish family by Mackay.

Christmas card
Christmas card with "Rhyme for Christmas" poem that was sent to the MacTavish family.


Several items from the poet E. J. (Ned) Pratt are included in the collection as well. Pratt first made an impression with his 1923 book Newfoundland Verse and went on to establish himself as the foremost Canadian poet of the first half of the century. He taught English at Victoria College, University of Toronto for more than thirty years and in fact the library is named for him. Below is a menu from a 1930 dinner celebrating the publication of his book The Roosevelt and the Antinoe. It cleverly contains lines of poetry from the book under the menu options. My favourite is the pudding "full of dark conjecture"!

Menu from a dinner celebrating the publication of Roosevelt and Antinoe.


I hope this blog has given you a sampling of the Canadian literary treasures available in the Newton MacTavish collection!  A finding aid for the collection is digitized and you can browse it here

Two letter heads used by author Madge Macbeth.
Ottawa author Madge Macbeth

I'm off to find out more about the talented and prolific writer, novelist and newspaper columnist Madge Macbeth. She starting writing to support her two young sons after being widowed in 1908. She wrote advertisements, brochures for Canadian Pacific Railway, short stories, interviews with Members of Parliament and articles on local history – "everything but hymns," as she once said.