In our most recent post, we provided a gossipy account of a dinner party attended by the authors Julian Barnes and John Fraser at the home of a third author, James Bacque. We mentioned that Bacque had written a book called Other Losses(1989) about American prisoner-of-war camps during and after the Second World War. Bacque blamed Eisenhower’s policies as Allied Supreme Commander for the unnecessary deaths of 790,000 German captives in internment camps between 1944 and 1949. Although his research was quickly discredited, the book sold well. We also mentioned, as an aside, that Bacque had died several weeks ago at age 90, and that there had been no obituary of him. We considered this a slight. We now consider it more so.
We ran across Bacque over the weekend in Roy MacSkimming’s excellent The Perilous Trade, a history of book publishing in Canada. We learned that in the 1960s Bacque had been in line for the headship of MacMillan of Canada. At the time, MacMillan was the great Canadian publishing house, home to Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Douglas Creighton, and Hugh MacLennan.
Bacque left MacMillan in the late sixties and along with MacSkimming and Dave Godfrey tried to take over the fashionable literary upstart, House of Anansi. Failing, they founded the more radical New Press and shared premises with Anansi. Bacque commissioned some of Canada’s earliest work on Indigenous and environmental issues and somehow arranged to sell an interest in the New Press to Maclean Hunter, the magazine publisher. With their coffers brimming, Bacque and partners churned out timely displays of a left-wing political commitment by Mel Watkins, Jim Laxer, David Lewis Stein, and others.
The New Press did some great work before spending its way into oblivion and closing its doors amid much personal acrimony in the mid-seventies. Among its bestsellers was Walter Stewart’s Shrug: Trudeau in Power. Godrey’s novel The New Ancestors won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction in 1970.
After the New Press adventure, Bacque concentrated on writing. He published a collection of short stories, The Queen Comes to Minnicog, and a novel of Quebec separatism called The Lonely Ones (“meditative but muscular prose,” said the Times Literary Supplement). His piece of comedy theatre, Conrad, satirizing one “Lord Bilk of Cross-Purposes” was performed at the George Ignatieff Theatre in 2009. Three years before he died, he released Spirit Builders: Charles Catto, Frontiers Foundation, and the Struggle to End Indigenous Poverty.” He was blogging about the horrors of Donald Trump as recently as September 2018.
As mentioned in our last post, Bacque was a founding member of the Writer’s Union of Canada. He was also instrumental in a successful campaign for enhanced federal support of Canadian publishers in 1970. Quite a career. May he rest in peace.