Scholar/poet Panofsky delves into print culture

Ruth Panofsky

For Canadian academic Ruth Panofsky, who has published widely in the field of print culture and book history, the Macmillan Company of Canada seemed like an irresistible topic.

“Along with Ryerson Press and McClelland and Stewart, Macmillan was instrumental in shaping Canada’s literary culture of the last century,” said Panofsky, a professor in the department of English and the joint graduate program in communication and culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. “But Macmillan also encouraged countless Canadian authors and helped establish a publishing industry for Canada.”

Thanks to her previous research on Canadian novelists Mazo de la Roche and Adele Wiseman, both of whom were Macmillan authors, she came to realize that the men and women who managed the company through its history were as interesting and dynamic as the authors themselves.

And so Panofsky, an expert on Wiseman, decided to write The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture, which was published recently.

Panofsky’s interest in print culture and book history developed in graduate school at York University, where she specialized in Canadian literature and wrote her doctoral dissertation on Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865), Canada’s first internationally recognized author.

Panofsky’s thesis was on Haliburton’s The Clockmaker, a series of sketches that established him as an international celebrity. “Remarkably, in its day, The Clockmaker was as popular as the work of Charles Dickens. But today its overt racism and misogynism makes it difficult to read,” she said.

Nonetheless, Panofsky was intrigued by its historical success, and her work on Haliburton drew her to archival research and publishing history, which, she noted, “invariably uncovers the fascinating, behind-the-scenes details of author-publisher relations.”

Born and raised in Montreal, she has been drawn to books since childhood.

“I was an avid reader as a child. My interest in books was encouraged by an uncle who was himself a voracious reader. He brought me all kinds of books. As a pre-teen, I devoured the Nancy Drew series, the All-of-a-Kind Family series, the biographies of Helen Keller and Vincent Van Gogh and so on.”

She added, “High school introduced me to Canadian writers. I discovered the poetry of A.M. Klein and the novels of Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood. I remember spending hours in my high school library immersed in a good book.”

Canadian literature helped her understand her place in the world.

As she put it, “I am drawn to writing that probes the nuances of Canadian experience and sensibility in a diverse, complex, ever-changing universe. My taste for Canadian writing has only deepened and expanded over the years and includes all genres from short fiction and essays to poetry, which I did not read as a young person.”

Panofsky, a member of the editorial board of Canadian Jewish Studies and the editor of Parchment: Contemporary Canadian-Jewish Writing, is particularly intrigued by Wiseman (1928-1992), the author of the novels The Sacrifice and Crackpot, a winner of the Governor General’s Award and a woman of her mother’s generation.

Panofsky has charted Wiseman’s contribution to Canadian literature in scholarly books ranging from Adele Wiseman: An Annotated Bibliography to The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman.

She believes that Wiseman’s creative probing of profound moral issues, plus her devotion to the literary life, are her most significant achievements. In her view, Wiseman’s works warrant “closer critical scrutiny.”

By no coincidence, one of Panofsky’s areas of interest turns on Canadian Jewish female authors, which she covers in At Odds in the World: Essays on Jewish Canadian Women Writers.

“Jewish Canadian male writers like Richler, Leonard Cohen, Norman Levine, Irving Layton and Matt Cohen have long received critical attention, but their female counterparts have never had the same public profile,” she observed.

Panofsky has a high regard for Helen Weinzweig, who produced avant-garde prose that was both challenging and disturbing, and Miriam Waddington, who used lyric verse to probe the female experience.

Among contemporary Jewish Canadian women writers, Panofsky admires the novelists Anne Michaels, Lilian Nattel and Nancy Richler and the poets Ronna Bloom, Susan Glickman, Isa Millman, Merle Nudelman, Karen Shenfeld and Rhea Tregebov.

A poet herself, Panofsky has published two books of poetry, one of which, Laike and Nahum: A Poem in Two Voices, won the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2008.

Published in 2007, Laike and Nahum was inspired by her Russian grandparents of the same names.

“Laike settled in Montreal as a young child with her parents. Nahum was brought to Montreal by one of his brothers. He was a presser and she was a homemaker. I knew them very well and lived with them for one summer as an undergraduate student. I was deeply attached to my loving grandmother and still miss her.”

Panofsky’s father, Marvin, was a clothing importer, and her mother, Brenda Yampolsky, was a housewife.

“I grew up in Chomedey, a suburb of Montreal,” said Panofsky, 53. “In 1976, I joined the mass exodus of Anglophones from Quebec and left Montreal to attend Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve remained in Ontario ever since, but I miss Montreal, which I visit regularly and regard as my psychological home.”

Panofsky – whose husband Gary Gottlieb is a family lawyer – graduated from Carleton in 1980 and completed a master’s degree at York University two years later. Her research paper was on Miriam Waddington’s early poetry.

The mother of two children, Bram and Liza, she derives enormous satisfaction from being an academic.

“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an English professor,” said Panofsky, whom one of her students described as highly intelligent, warm and creative. “I am one of those lucky people who early in life felt drawn to a profession, and happily, I have realized my ambition.

“I am comfortable surrounded by books and deeply gratified to be able to share my love of literature with my students at Ryerson. I have no plans for retirement, which seems far off, and I’m determined to keep writing and reading for a long time.”