Chapter 2: Case Study

Nellie L. McClung, Sowing Seeds in Danny

Nellie McClung, circa 1914

Nellie Letitia McClung (1873-1951) is remembered as a first-wave Canadian feminist activist and social reformer.1 She advocated for prohibition, safe working conditions, political equality for women, and was one of the five women2 who fought for and achieved the legal recognition of women as persons who are eligible to sit in Canada’s Senate. McClung’s rise to fame was due in no small part to her success as a writer. Between 1908 and 1945, she published sixteen major works, including the novels, Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908) and The Second Chance (1910), and a short story collection, The Black Creek Stopping-House and Other Stories (1912), each published initially under the William Briggs imprint of the Methodist Book and Publishing House (MBPH). At the time of McClung’s death, Sowing Seeds in Danny was one of her few works still in print.

Pearl Watson was the young heroine of Sowing Seeds in Danny. The daughter of a hardworking washerwoman and older sister to Danny, the industrious Pearl captured readers’ imaginations as she lives her life of Christian faith and helps her family escape the stain of debt through a stint as domestic servant to her family’s creditors. Set in small-town Manitoba around the start of the twentieth century, the novel appealed to rural and urban readers alike. Pearl and the Watson family also featured in The Second Chance (1910) and a mature Pearl is central to Purple Springs (1921), in which some of her exploits become thinly veiled versions of McClung’s own experiences.

Sowing Seeds in Danny (first edition, 1908), front cover

In The Stream Runs Fast (1945), her second volume of autobiography, McClung claims that her serious writing began when she entered a short story contest sponsored by Collier’s magazine. McClung is tentative about the date being 1902.3 In fact, the $5,000 contest was announced in the 20 February 1904 issue of the magazine, with a submission deadline of 1 June 1904. McClung claimed to have submitted the story “Sowing Seeds in Danny,” written in ink on foolscap, even though the announcement had called for typescript submissions and had specified that the contest was only open to writers who were American by nationality or residence. McClung wrote that she received a rejection letter from Collier’s dated March 1905, which praised the humour and originality of the story but claimed that it was too juvenile for the magazine.4 The actual letter was more succinct. It apologized for the delay in returning the story and explained that the large number of submissions had had to be read and re-read with care. It went on to say that McClung’s story had been “selected as worthy of special attention” and was not returned to her until the judges had reached their final decision.5 The first, second, and third prizewinners of the contest – all three were residents of the continental United States – were identified in the 11 February 1905 issue of Collier’s. Although ineligible from the start, McClung’s submission proved auspicious, for it went on to form the first chapter of her novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny.

McClung had already established a professional relationship with MBPH’s William H. Withrow, who had published some of her short pieces in the Sunday School papers that he edited. Apparently, she had submitted the short story “Sowing Seeds in Danny” to Withrow, inquiring as to the possibility of issuing the story as a small book. The response that she received dated 13 July 1905 was signed by Book Steward William Briggs, but was likely penned by Edward S. Caswell, the manager of the book publishing department.6 The letter, which praised McClung’s “handling of child characters, and [the story’s] Irish humour and clever use of the dialect,” encouraged her to expand the story into a longer work. The letter also advised McClung to submit similar stories to American and Canadian magazines or large weeklies “in order to get your name favourably known to the public. You then would have a prepared constituency of readers.”7 Subsequent correspondence laid out in considerable detail the cautious business considerations of the Canadian book publishing industry of the time.

McClung heeded the advice she was given. She sold the short story “Sowing Seeds in Danny” to the Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature for about $10 and made a commitment to submit additional stories.8 The December 1905 issue of Canadian Magazine marked the first print appearance of “Sowing Seeds in Danny.” “The Live Wire,” another Pearl Watson story, followed in June 1906.

Sowing Seeds in Danny (first edition, 1908), frontispiece

Caswell coached McClung as she wrote her novel and, in effect, became her Canadian literary agent.9 He read chapters as she sent them to him and suggested revisions that she sometimes accepted. He found typists to prepare the typescript and eventually found an American firm interested in the work: Doubleday, Page and Company of New York. Caswell emphasized the importance of acquiring an international publishing deal. Often, the MBPH imported plates and/or finished books from American and British firms, which would allow them to either set type or issue books more cheaply. Caswell advised McClung, however, to retain Canadian rights to the novel. He also enthusiastically promoted the work within his own firm. Publication, though delayed, was eventually scheduled for spring 1908.

Echoing Caswell’s stated wisdom about the importance of securing an advance readership through publication in magazines, Secretary Henry W. Lanier of Doubleday, Page placed both “Sowing Seeds in Danny” and “The Live Wire” with the Woman’s Home Companion.10 “Sowing Seeds in Danny” appeared in the July 1908 issue of the magazine, the same month the novel was released in the United States and Canada. Lanier requested photographs of a youngster who might stand in for “Danny” for use on the cover. McClung’s nephew Harper Anderson of Winnipeg fit the description and the professionally shot images were used on the cover of Woman’s Home Companion and as frontispiece for the novel.11 A heavily edited version of “The Live Wire” appeared in the October 1908 issue of the magazine.

Sowing Seeds in Danny (1926), dust jacket

Initially, McClung’s novel was produced entirely in New York State and the Canadian edition was sent to Toronto, complete with the William Briggs imprint on both the title page and spine. In 1908 and 1909, MBPH imported 250 sheets of the novel from New York and bound them in limp leather for the Christmas market. From 1911 onward, however, Sowing Seeds in Danny was produced entirely in Canada. The copy in the McGraw-Hill Ryerson Collection is the stated fifteenth impression, dated 1926, copyright 1911, issued under the Ryerson Press imprint. Its dust jacket is remarkably plain, with text only on the spine and front cover, which also features a photographic portrait of eponymous Danny that had been die cut and pasted to the covers of the first impression.

In extant letters to McClung, Caswell proclaimed that Danny would be a great hit and, as orders rushed in, he was soon predicting ten thousand sales. In its first two years, Sowing Seeds in Danny outsold L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, another novel that appeared in 1908. As reported in Bookseller and Stationer, McClung’s novel placed fourth on the Canadian Best Sellers list for 1909, ahead of Anne of Green Gables but behind Ralph Connor’s The Foreigner.12

Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908 or 1909), limp leather variant binding

Between September 1908 and 2 May 1911, McClung received royalty payments from MBPH for a total of 13,625 copies sold of Sowing Seeds in Danny.13 By February 1937, Canadian sales had reached 58,277 copies. In the United States, Doubleday, Page sold an unknown number of copies prior to selling reprint rights to Grosset and Dunlap, which brought out a beautiful boxed edition of 10,000 copies for the Christmas 1910 market.14 An article that appeared in Maclean’s two years after McClung’s death claimed that Sowing Seeds in Danny had sold 100,000 copies and had earned its author $25,000.15 The final edition to be issued by Ryerson Press was printed in 1939 as the stated seventeenth impression. Thomas Allen, McClung’s other Canadian publisher, however, issued its own stated seventeenth impression in 1947, followed by a paperback edition in 1965. This was the final edition published until recent years, when print-on-demand copies became available after the book fell into the public domain in 2001.

Sowing Seeds in Danny was widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines in the United States, Canada, and in other parts of the British Empire. While its reception was mixed, in general it was well received. Reviewers commented on its similarity to Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, the best-selling novel by American writer Alice Caldwell Hegan (later Alice Hegan Rice) that was published in 1901 by the Century Company and released in Canada in 1902 by William Briggs. The humour of McClung’s novel was often noted. Most contemporary reviewers forgave the novel’s didactic nature, focusing more on its faithful representation of everyday life in a small Manitoba town in the first decade of the twentieth century. Some characters and situations will still resonate with modern readers, such as the country doctor who has a drinking problem and the domestic servant who is poorly treated by her selfish employers.

Scholars such as Mary Vipond, Clarence Karr, and Kathleen Margaret Patchell have traced the changing tastes of readers that helped relegate Sowing Seeds in Danny to relative obscurity by the end of the twentieth century.16 At different times, the novel’s religiosity, sentimentality, didacticism, and perceived mediocrity were all held against it. Indeed, Sowing Seeds in Danny is a multi-generic work that “incorporates the rhetorical strategies of Sunday-School fiction, temperance tracts, melodrama, romances, sentimental novels, women’s reform literature, adventure novels, and local-colour fiction.”17 It is, at the same time, a Canadian classic worthy of rediscovery today.

1 Marilyn I. Davis, Introduction, in Stories Subversive. Through the Fields with Gloves Off: Short Fiction, by Nellie L. McClung (Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1996) 12.

2 Nancy Millar, The Famous Five: A Pivotal Moment in Canadian Women’s History (Calgary: Deadwood Publishing, 2003) 6. The other members of the “Famous Five” were Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, and Irene Parlby.

3 Nellie L. McClung, The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1945) 75-76.

4 McClung 76.

5 The Editors, Collier’s Weekly to Nellie McClung, 28 February 1905, MS-0010, box 10, file 1, Nellie McClung Papers, British Columbia Archives.

6 Michael A. Peterman and Janet B. Friskney, “‘Booming’ the Canuck Book: Edward Caswell and the Promotion of Canadian Writing,” Journal of Canadian Studies 30.3 (Fall 1995): 77; Janet B. Friskney, “Beyond the Shadow of William Briggs, Part I: Setting the Stage and Introducing the Players,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 33.2 (Fall 1995): 135, 144; and Janet B. Friskney, “Beyond the Shadow of William Briggs, Part II: Canadian-authored Titles and the Commitment to Canadian Writing,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 35.2 (Fall 1997): 188.

7 W[illia]m. Briggs [i.e. E.S. Caswell?] to Nellie McClung 13 July 1905, MS-0010, box 10, file 1, Nellie McClung Papers, British Columbia Archives.

8 John A. Cooper to Nellie McClung, 6 October 1905; 18 November 1905, MS-0010, box 10, file 1, Nellie McClung Papers, British Columbia Archives.

9 Peterman and Friskney 76, 82.

10 Henry W. Lanier to Nellie McClung, 6 September 1907; 11 October 1907, MS-0010, box 10, file 3, Nellie McClung Papers, British Columbia Archives.

11 Henry W. Lanier to Nellie McClung, 27 December 1907, MS-0010, box 10, file 3, Nellie McClung Papers, British Columbia Archives.

12 Mary Vipond, “Best Sellers in English Canada, 1899-1918: An Overview,” Journal of Canadian Fiction 24 (1979): 115.

13 “Books for Sale, 1904-1934,” box 45-1os, United Church of Canada Board of Publication fonds, United Church of Canada Archives.

14 Doubleday Page & Co. to Nellie McClung, 26 May 1910, MS-00-10, box 10, file 7, Nellie McClung Papers, British Columbia Archives.

15 Margaret K. Zieman, “Nellie Was a Lady Terror,” Maclean’s 1 October 1953: 21.

16 See Vipond 102-04; Clarence Karr, Authors and Audiences: Popular Canadian Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000), 191-92; and Kathleen Margaret Patchell, “Faith, Fiction, and Fame: Sowing Seeds in Danny and Anne of Green Gables,” PhD Dissertation, U of Ottawa, 2011, pp. 172-207.

17 Patchell 118.