James Reaney

In fall 1958, having completed his doctorate at the University of Toronto in just two years, James Reaney returned to teaching at the University of Manitoba. In Winnipeg he took a typesetting night course, in preparation for buying a press to produce a little magazine. Alphabet: A Semi-annual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination appeared in 1960, after he had moved to London to teach English at the University of Western Ontario. In the spirit of Gutenberg, printing copies of the Bible for lay people to read, and of William Blake, infernally printing his own illustrated poems, Reaney hand-set Alphabet and printed it with a motorized Chandler & Price vertical platen press.

Alphabet generated meaning, Reaney explained in the first number, by placing ‘documentary on one side and myth on the other: Life and Art.’ He compared this form to the force field between magnetic poles. Reaney’s emblems and his linocut Christmas cards, with their dynamically related pictures and words, conspicuously demonstrate elements of his art working magnetically; all of his productions, though, function similarly.

Halfway through Alphabet’s run, in 1965, Reaney published The Boy with an R in His Hand. Set in York/Toronto just prior to the 1837 Rebellion, this children’s novel focuses on a boy, freshly arrived from the Red River Settlement, who is caught between two poles: Alec boards with his uncle, a member of the Family Compact, and is apprenticed to William Lyon Mackenzie. The novel envisions Mackenzie as heroic because of his writing and printing the Colonial Advocate, which strenuously advocated an end to colonial cronyism. Mackenzie realized lead type’s potential to circulate ideas of freedom and liberty among Upper Canadians -- the apprentice’s principal lesson, too.

James Reaney died in 2008 at the age of eighty-one. His life and art are inspiring achievements.

The Fall, 2012 issue of the Devil’s Artisan will focus on Alphabet.

The Devil's Artisan would like to acknowledge the generous financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

James Reaney Magnify

James Reaney

Photo by John Reeves