The Robber Baron of Canadian Literature

Any recognition of distinguished disservice to Canadian literature must highlight American publisher Lewis Coues Page (1869–1956). Only a tenured professor or two of my acquaintance has exhibited greater staying power when it comes to punishing Canadian writers, and Page wielded his cudgel while his victims were alive. From the historical novelist William Kirby (The Golden Dog) to Canada’s best-loved juvenile writer Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874–1942), Page tattooed his maledictions upon the lives and careers of “his” authors. His story needs retelling.

Philanderer, gambler, publisher, Page dominated the lucrative “juveniles” corner of the publishing trade around the beginning of the 20th century. Annie Fellows Johnston’s Little Colonel series, Laura E. Richard’s Captain January, Margaret Marshall Saunders’s Beautiful Joe, Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna and, above all, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne series: these cash machines let Page amass enough wealth at one point to own the Boston Braves baseball team. To a keen appreciation of the saleable qualities of a manuscript, he added a Doberman’s sense of a writer’s susceptibility to bullying, soft sawder and sharp practice. These strengths he deployed not only upon his women writers, but upon another group often coterminous with them: Canadians.

The name of Lewis Page appears like a sombre leitmotif in the careers of writers as diverse as Kirby, Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts and Montgomery. Whether as brutal hacker of an author’s text, as miserly limpet jammed atop an author’s rights or as high-handed peddler of outtakes without permission, Page excelled in ruthlessness, boldness and an absolute lack of shame. A contemporary described him as a “gentleman publisher of the old school.” Jesse James must have been the schoolmaster.

Yet Page got away with it, until he began to rob and finagle a P.E.I. schoolteacher-turned-writer. His nine-year legal tussle with Lucy Maud Montgomery saw him finally defeated. As I write, Montgomery’s heirs have almost managed to extract unprecedented concessions from the copyright authorities in Canada; they have also emerged victorious over an entertainment industry magnate in their lawsuit over royalties, although the lower court’s verdict is under appeal. The Page-Montgomery battle of 1920–28 demonstrates that a willingness to litigate in defence of one’s intellectual property might be genetically encoded.

But first, some of Page’s warm-up bouts. William Kirby’s The Golden Dog (1877) was one of Canada’s earliest historical romances, covering the downfall of New France. It conveys a set of Tory social and political ideas as ancient as the period in which the story is set. But Kirby lived long enough to be swept into one of Page’s currents, and the stagnant eddy where he washed up becalmed the remainder of his writing career.

Elizabeth Brady’s account of Kirby’s publishing history (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, 1976) details what scholars have long known, that The Golden Dog never appeared quite as the author wrote it until years after his death. Edition after edition appeared, claiming to carry the author’s approval, when in fact the “authorized” mutilation was even starker than the original deformity. No cure that relied upon the word of Page ever proved gentler than the disease.

Twenty years after its original corrupted appearance (a result of printer’s errors), Kirby’s novel seemed on the verge of appearing before the public in a version bearing some resemblance to what he intended. The technicalities of Canadian copyright during this period whirled the historical romance into the gales of public domain. Lewis Page had completed his apprenticeship at the Joseph Knight Co.; his new firm in Boston offered Kirby the chance for a new edition. It would have to be abridged of course, admitted the tyro publisher. Boiling down his story from 678 to 500 pages would entail considerable excision, but at least the writer could claim that the amputation had been his own work. Kirby naturally blanched at performing the surgery, so Page handsomely agreed to “set the book in its present exact form.”

Trustful Kirby wrote out a testimonial that the customer was acquiring “the only edition offered to my readers with the sanction and approval of its author.” But Kirby had in fact endorsed an edition that he soon disowned and sought to erase his name from. His authorization canonized a text that a Kirby descendant termed “one of the most outrageous literary thefts ever made from an author,” and a “fraudulent misrepresentation” of the work itself.

No matter. Poor, 80 years old, in poor health, his copyrights extinct, Kirby was in no shape to sue. Page’s version of The Golden Dog endured 32 impressions, earning the author less than $100 in royalties. Page had hacked away 14 percent of the original version; the outtakes never made it back until 1922.

Starting out by beating up an old man, Lewis Page now began to sucker-punch some younger writers who had helped him solidify his Canadian connection. His next victims were a trio of Maritimers. His earliest Maritime acquisition had been Margaret Marshall Saunders (1871-1946) and her bestselling Beautiful Joe (1893). While Page was raking in lots of legitimate cash from her work, Saunders told L.M. Montgomery, he paused long enough to cheat her on her royalties. Saunders had no illusions about Page’s character, but she nonetheless stuck with him as a publisher.Why? We can only guess. A biographer of Louis Armstrong has written that Armstrong knew that some white manager was bound to cheat him, but that only a white manager could advance his career; a similar logic may have been driving Saunders. Moreover, lawsuits were long and expensive, and Page was—as Montgomery would find out—a dogged litigator.

Bliss Carman and Charles G.D. Roberts were cousins, also from the Maritimes. Perhaps Saunders had tipped them off about job opportunities at Page and Co. After all, Boston had been the economic capital of the Maritimes since before the Revolutionary War, and a similar colonial hierarchy obtained in cultural matters. That connection would eventually lure Montgomery into Page’s web, to the ultimate discomfort of both parties. In the meantime, Page delivered their own shares of abuse to Carman and Roberts. And yet, like Saunders, they hung in there.

Carman writes his mother in 1903 that he’s toiling “like a patient ass” in his job at Page’s Literary World. Three years later he complains to a friend, Irving Way, that Page has “acted like a silly child” over some matters of copyright. As we know from other writers, Page hung on to the rights he had purchased like a starving terrapin, and was very resistant to any writer’s attempt to buy back those rights. Devious in negotiation, slippery in intent, Page nonetheless hung on to Carman. Wrapped in some Laocoon-like embrace, the two remained contractually coupled. Page even lent Carman office space in order to complete a collection of essays. “Though [he] continued to be exasperated by [Page’s] rigid attitude to copyright and other business matters,” Carman’s editor H.P. Gundy wrote, he did not drop Page as his publisher.

Why? Our necessarily one-sided discussion—Page left no papers—ignores the arguments that Page might have advanced in support of his decisions. We can only speculate. Yet his widespread reputation for sharp practice, as well as the sheer contumacy he displayed during his war with Montgomery, encourages us to award Page’s opponents every benefit of the doubt. The fact that an American authors’ association supported Montgomery during her lawsuit tells us a great deal about how his peers viewed Page. The question posed by Page’s actions (against his Canadian authors) was simple: how much of your life and money do you want to spend in fighting me?

In her edition of Roberts’s letters, Laurel Boone states flatly that “the L.C. Page Co. caused copyright problems for the rest of Roberts’s life.” Biographer John Adams dates the quarrel from 1908, when Roberts riled the American by selling the British rights to his story collection, The House in the Water, to Ward, Lock. Page did not bother with the legal nicety of punishing Roberts for what he viewed as a breach of contract. He simply refused to pay him royalties for any of the works that Roberts had published with L.C. Page. “Since Page held the American rights to most of [Roberts’s] books to that date, the financial loss was substantial,” Adams tells us. “Sue me,” seems to have been the essence of Page’s response to any writer he knew was too poor to do so. Intimidation works when it is accompanied by a fat purse.

Why, then, should Page have hesitated when it came to bilking a schoolmarm from the outback who could churn out bestsellers but was no seasoned courtroom brawler? And why should he scruple to grab whatever he wanted from a woman writer, as he had with Fellows Johnston and Marshall Saunders? His reputation for philandering surely flags a mindset that would be dismissive of a woman’s outrage. Page had taken on Anne of Green Gables when no one else would. He had browbeaten Montgomery into making a fortune for both of them by ragging her into penning sequels to her publishing marvel. As early as 1907, her journals reveal that she had understood just how exploitative the royalty agreement she had signed was. She stuck with Page, however, and a good sum of money stuck to her. The success of Anne in the next year did not lead her to contest the contract. She went on to publish seven more books with him, and, in fact, it was not until 1920 that she began her lawsuit.

Five years before that, swallowing Page’s line that their difficulties lay in communication and that a face-to-face meeting would overcome any tensions, Montgomery had accepted his invitation to a Boston visit. Something akin to seduction and betrayal seems at work here, with Montgomery seemingly powerless to break the embrace that she knew was choking her. Consider: she came to Boston armed with a Canadian book agent’s account of how Page had been cheating her. She understood at the visit’s end that her latest contract contained a clause leaving intact the exploitative royalty structure that Page had specifically promised to delete, but did not. Yet she signed. She realized that his sociability masked a scam, but went along with it anyway. In retrospect, she attempted to probe the mind games Page had played on her, sounding like Trilby under Svengali’s spell:

She has been my guest [writes Montgomery, recreating Page as a narrative persona]; I have been exceedingly good and agreeable to her; in my house and as my guest she won’t want to start a discussion which might end in a wrangle and stiffness; so she will sign it without question.

To which Montgomery adds in her own voice: “If he did [think this] I justified his craft for I decided to sign for just those reasons, though I vowed it would be for the last time.”1 These seem the words of a woman imprisoned by something akin to erotic obsession. Montgomery’s battering over the royalties had all been legal. After shopping Anne to four publishing houses, the first-time writer had been desperate. Page assigned her a brutal contract (10 percent only, and on the wholesale price; a royalty paid in 50¢ dollars). She signed it. This latest contract bound her over to providing new material for Page, without any greater financial inducement. She signed that, too.

As in any souring affair, that initial disillusionment swelled and worsened. By July 26, 1915, Montgomery’s journal prophesied that a fight was brewing. Page gambled away the money her books earned him. Page threatened to stall on promoting her books unless she signed for another five years at his ruinous royalty rates. Page was not honourable. He was “notorious for immorality.” Divorce loomed. Other female juvenile writers, “Saunders and Johnston,” treated her to juicy details about Page’s numerous marriages and liaisons. In addition to sexualizing Page’s failings, Montgomery was also learning how the book trade worked. The payment of royalties on copies moved at wholesale price made it impossible for an author to keep tabs on the accounting process. Retail sales figures were less susceptible to misrepresentation. Personal and professional grounds alike drove her toward a breach. Yet she stayed.

Things worsened. Montgomery started flirting with other publishers. Page’s combination of endearment and threats further ruffled her. Yet—like some jilted Victorian maid unable to face the prospect of testifying in a breach of promise suit—she trembled at the efforts that vengeance entailed. That is, until Page, like a bully flushed with success, faced her with a further indignity. In 1920 he published an unauthorized Further Chronicles of Avonlea, a collection of outtakes and discards that at once embarrassed and infuriated Montgomery. She sued.

Even then (April 9, 1920), she feared that her resourceful and unscrupulous opponent might win the case, which was bound to cost her a lot of money. Why then sue? Self-definition provides Montgomery with her first answer: “There is something in me that will not remain inactive under injustice and trickery.” And from the self-definition, she proceeds to the social one, the highly engendered one: “[Page and Co.] have traded for years on the average woman’s fear of litigation.” And then, in the same sentence, appears the economic/social condition that once shaped her and continues to shape other writers: “very few authors can afford to go to law with them, especially when they can’t expect to get money out of the result. They have done the most outrageous things to poor authors who can’t afford to seek redress.”

There! It is as magnificent a moment in a heroine’s self-realization and nobility of purpose as can be found in the pages of Henry James. With this declaration, Lucy Maud Montgomery comes into her own.

At some cost, of course. Her lawyer tells her, as lawyers will, that the case will not take long, “not more than a day.” For “not more than a day,” read eight years. Page tries out every trick available to a gentleman of the old school, finally trying to bump his flimsy argument all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which will not even look at it. Montgomery at last wins $4,000 beyond her own legal expenses, scarcely enough to cover Aspirin for all the headaches, strain and discouragement that dot the pages of her journals from 1920 to October 22, 1928. But she does defeat Lewis Page. Again, her primary satisfaction stems from the confirmation of her own staunch selfhood: “the satisfaction of thoroughly beating a man who tried to trick me.” Her depressive, self-pitying husband, her unruly elder son, her concern over a troubled world, her relegation to the category of a writer of “juveniles”: these continue to haunt her, and will until she dies. But her victory over Page is solid and gives every woman writer after her a model of resistance and persistence.

Was it poetic justice that slammed Lewis Page into his seat at a ball game with a paralytic stroke a year after the Montgomery judgement on October 13, 1929? We can’t blame it on the Great Crash, which happened two weeks later. Even so, from his sickbed, Page fulminated and threatened the errant golden goose he had driven from his coop, although not before pocketing the entire sum of the film rights that Montgomery had granted him for a pittance years earlier.

Since Page survived until 1956, when Publishers Weekly gave him the sort of respectful attention one accords a big advertiser who has paid his last invoice, justice seems a bit too poetic in this case. The good die young. Still, Lewis Coues Page’s negative contributions to Canadian literature deserve commemoration. Until someone comes up with a suitable anti-monument, this will have to do.


  1. Like anyone writing on Montgomery, I am greatly indebted to Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston’s four-volume edition of Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, 1874–1942 (Oxford University Press, 1985). This passage was written on November 29, 1910.