Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Reimagining the Romance of History in the CHR

Never happened.

Catching up on some reading, I recently opened the June 2016 Canadian Historical Review.  One of its articles is a new take on an old subject:  "Brébeuf was Never Martyred: Reimagining the Life and Death of Canada's First Saint " by James Taylor Carson.  (abstract here)

Carson writes of "the enormous edifice that has been built atop Brébeuf's blessed bones" and condemns historians' uncritical acceptance of hagiography.
Instead of questioning the hagiographic narrative, however, historians have, for the most part, left Ragueneau's first telling, and Brébeuf's consequent legacy, largely untouched for more than three-and-a-half centuries.
For the most part?  This seems an extraordinarily selective reading of the historiography of 17th century Euro-Amerindian relations. A small army of ethnohistorians, anthropologists, and New France specialists has produced a shelf of honoured and influential volumes reassessing the Jesuit-Huron encounter and permanently displacing (for any serious reader) the hagiographical saint-worshipping folktales Carson disparages. Think of the work of Fenton, Trigger, Heidenreich, Jaenen, Dickason, Sioui, to name a few who actually appear in Carson's footnotes. All historians are tempted, of course, to declare their work "revisionist" or "ground-breaking," but surely it is a good deal less than revolutionary to present Brébeuf as something other than simply a holy Catholic martyr .

I think Carson's real innovation -- at least for an article in a scholarly journal -- is the vivid "you are there" reconstruction of the events of 1649 in what is now called Huronia. His title promises a "reimagining," and there is certainly a lot of imagining:
The invaders passed the snowy months hunting and talking, and when the daylight started to stretch they began to ponder their impending assault on Wendake's eastern towns.

Powder pans flashed. Balls whistled through the air. Knives slit throats. Arrows found their marks. Hatchets crunched heads. Blood pooled. The several hundred not killed were captured, doomed to be tortured.
How does a scholar analyze or criticize this evocative language?  I find myself thinking of Bruce Trigger's studied rationalism in addressing the same subject:
In The Children of Aatientsic I privileged a rationalist approach. [...] I therefore sought to explain native behaviour as far as possible in terms of rational calculations of how desired ends might be achieved. In doing this I eschewed the alternative romantic approach.
I certainly should not be discouraging historians from stylistic innovation and experiments in form. But which is more successful as a mode of scholarship?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Best census since 1666"

Statistics Canada is celebrating this year's census as "the best since 1666."  Actually that first-ever Canadian census set a pretty low bar.

The official count of New France was 3215 on the 1666 census ordered by Jean Talon.  But the historian Marcel Trudel was so dubious about the accuracy of the census that he built one of his own from parish records, notaries' files, official correspondence, and whatever else came to hand, and was able to establish the presence of 4219 people in the colony at the time, meaning the official guys only got a 76% response rate. (The 2016 rate: 98.4%)

Statistics Canada is not saying what proportion of 2016 respondents consented to have their data preserved for historical usage a century from now -- following the contemptible and philistine decision to make historical preservation of the census record into a popularity contest. Only three-quarters of the people were counted in 1666, but 350 years later, we can still read about all of them.

Book Notes: Wright on Sick Kids Hospital

When our daughter learned that there was a hospital just for children, she was excited.  Just for kids!  Could she go?

Her mother and I looked at each other, chills going down our spines.  You know, on the whole, we'd rather she would not have to.

One of University of Toronto Press's principal (and few!) histories for this fall is Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital For Sick Children by David Wright, professor of history and scholar of health policy at McGill in Montreal. Pub date December, but in stock October, it says here

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Granatstein: Books and honours

Is it news if Jack Granatstein has a new book out?

The Weight of Command, just out from UBC Press, is a collection of interviews Granatstein conducted over many years with senior Canadian military commanders of the Second World War and/or those who knew them and served with them.

Meanwhile friends of Jack and of the Canadian War Museum will gather there on September 13, when the Museum inaugurates the J.L. Granatstein Reading Room of its library/archives.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Story of Canada: now a fictional character too

In Elizabeth Hay's new novel, His Whole Life, the protagonist, Jim, is a bookish, precocious young lad. Proof? See page 32: 
He read the children’s versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey twice, and The Story of Canada three times.

In her acknowledgments, Hay adds:
The Story of Canada by Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore, read so avidly by Jim, is worthy of repeated reading by anyone.
Which gives me the opportunity to mention that the new edition of The Story of Canada is being republished by Scholastic Books this fall, fully revised and updated to 2016.
In 2013 the Liberal Party found a new leader in Justin Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau showed himself to be a skilled and dynamic campaigner. His inclusive style, his idealism, and his promise of "sunny ways" -- borrowed from former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier -- turned the tide. In October 2015 the Liberals formed a majority government. When he formed his cabinet, several of Trudeau's choices for ministers were recent immigrants or Indigenous Canadians, and half were women. Why? "Because it's 2015," he said.
It will not be in stores until October, but this is art for the new cover by Alan Daniel:

History of Twitter

Tho' actually, Twitter is only part of the problem.  It's those damn podcasts too.  Who has time to listen?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Mark Reynolds on a new study of how Tom Thomson died

Mark Reynolds, a Canadian now living in Chicago who has written for Canada's History and other publications, contributes this original review of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction by Gregory Klages (Dundurn 2016)

The epitaph for Tom Thomson recorded in the Owen Sound parish where he was buried eulogized the painter as: “Talented and with many friends and no enemies, a mystery.”

In the days immediately after Thomson’s body was pulled out of Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake the talent and friends were then not in doubt: his paintings had already begun to inspire the artists of the nascent Group of Seven. Major institutions, discerning collectors and dedicated patrons had already purchased some of his early works, and museums were already looking for more. His death in 1917 cut short a career that most observers agreed had the potential to transform the Canadian art world.

The enemies and mystery alluded to in the parish record is more easily explained by the churchman’s foresight than the facts as they were then understood. The official cause of death was drowning, caused in an accident. Nonetheless, in the decades since 1917, the tales around Thomson’s life and death in Canoe Lake have been transplanted from the historic record into the more fertile soil of Thomson’s legend, and have grown to accommodate and keep pace with the painter’s place in the national mythos. “Mystery” grew alongside it, its weeds generously fertilized by those determined to harvest its bounty.

Thomson’s legend - of the lone outdoorsman, at home in the wilds to which his art tried to honour - did not sit easily with an accidental drowning on a calm summer afternoon less than a kilometre from his bed. Misadventure - an awkward step on a rock, a careless encounter with a submerged log - could not bring down the man who had seen into the soul of the Canadian wild through “The Jack Pine” and captured “The West Wind.”

“The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson” began as “Death on a Painted Lake”, part of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History archival website project. Klages is not pursuing a mystery however, or even really attempting to cast new light on Thomson’s death.

If there is a narrative present in the book, it is less about Tom Thomson and more about the historical record pertaining to Thomson. How his death attracted suspicion, which turned into speculation, which turned into rumour, which eventually turned into memory, which has assumed the stature of fact.

Klages' mission was to rip up this overgrowth of supposition away from the record, and then trace the vines and roots of each to disentangle them from the truth. As such, reading the book is less like reading a conventional history that it is akin to sitting in the jury while a very thorough prosecutor methodically, rigorously and uncompromisingly builds a case. No witness, no piece of evidence is left without having its credibility or provenance examined to the minutest degree.

The approach leads to a lot of repetition. Chapter after chapter the testimony of then-ranger Mark Robinson is called upon: first his journals, then his letters, then his lecture. The details of each are compared and contrasted. Each time any part of them is relied upon by later writers, either on their own or in combination with other witnesses, the process is repeated to a greater or lesser degree.

The repetition initially promised a tedious read. Like a prosecutor, though, Klages was establishing his facts, and making sure they were understood. The goal was not to tell a story, but to make his indictment. The aforementioned Robinson, whose apparent desire to attach himself to an interesting story led him to add flourishes to his tale unsupported by the facts, was an accessory. But the real targets of Klages’ prosecutorial zeal are other authors. Those subjected to Klages’ cross-examination include Blowden Davies, who first proposed Thomson’s murder in the 1930s; and William Little, whose determination to prove that Thomson was murdered led him to desecrate a grave in the 1960s and use that crime to sell a book.

Klages’ evisceration of one prominent Canadian journalist for his irresponsible output on Thomson was almost painful to read: the ruthlessness with which Klages reveals the speculation, sloppy research and unsupported family legend through which the author has polluted the public understanding of Thomson’s story was a tour de force of rigorous history over sensationalizing careerism.

In many ways, the thorough debunking of the peddlers of murder (and suicide) theories was the apex of the book, making the actual chapter on Thomson’s probable death a bit of an afterthought. A reader like me, having no previous investment in Thomson’s story other than the shared experience of having fallen out of a canoe in Algonquin Park, might nonetheless find Klages’ paring Thomson’s story down to its mundane truth intellectually gratifying. Better, the relentlessness with which Klages pursues only verifiable truths turned out to be emotionally compelling, in an unexpected way. The mundane likelihood that Thomson slipped disembarking from his canoe does not provide a dignified death for a man whose fame was tied to his expertise in the wild, but as Klages notes, “(w)hat Thomson is remembered for is the passion that gave his life meaning.” With this book, we should, 100 years later, finally be able to move on from his death.

With the fall book season looming, we hope to notice new and interesting histories in the coming months.  If you would consider reviewing for us, let me know -- and suggest potential titles or topic areas you might take up. We can provide reviewers with a book, this space, and our gratitude, not much more.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dullest American election ever?

Has there ever been an American election with so little to watch?

I know, there is the constant undertone of horror at how a great nation got itself so thoroughly infested with Republicans.  And always there is the grim possibility that somehow there could emerge President Trump.

But beyond that, nothing. There are no policy issues in the air, no programs or promises to analyze. Nothing at all to, you know, think about.  Just endless atrocity stories and endless polling data on how far the insane candidate remains behind the sane candidate. It matters who wins the horserace, sure, but what is everyone supposed to for the next two months and more while these horses stagger down the track?  We don't even have the Olympics anymore.

There is, however, something striking about the political history of inequality in a recent New Yorker profile of Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner. They are the "presentable" side of their families most of the time, Lizzie Widdicombe observes: stylish, well-spoken, oddly liberal and tolerant in their public statements, friendly with gays and supportive of women and so on, frequent donors to the Democratic Party and progressive causes.  Yet they are all in for Trump, and the only people he listens to most of the time.

Just family loyalty? Widdicombe make it more likely that it is really about class and inequality. The Kushers, like the Trumps, made billions in real estate machinations that don't bear much examination, and with a vicious take-no-prisoners to partners as much as to investors and suppliers.
Kushner became furious with his younger sister, Esther Schulder, who he believed was coöperating with Christie, and, in retaliation, he set a trap for her husband, Billy Schulder, a former Kushner Companies employee whom he resented for having had an affair at the office. He hired a prostitute, who, posing as a stranded motorist, approached Schulder at the Time to Eat Diner, in Bridgewater. Schulder then met her at the Red Bull Inn, on Route 22, where a camera installed in an alarm clock captured them in a sex act. Kushner mailed images from the tape to his sister, who promptly shared them with federal authorities.
Nice family, huh?

Having become rich, the next generation of Kushners and Trumps seek to bury the vicious and quasi-criminal rise of their clans beneath that veneer of Manhattan sophistication.  Kushner graduated from all the best schools -- but his family donated vast sums to each of them about the time he was applying.  They have always been able to buy things, and they expect to be able to buy authority. They can act nice, sure, but only if they are left in charge.

And hint at any threat to the hegemony of the One Percent, and they revert to type very fast. That is really the essence of their politics.  They may know Donald Trump is a throwback and an embarrassment to their pretensions.  But he will never threaten the tax privileges of their class, so they know what side they are on. So if they can buy an election for Dad in the Citizens United world in which money is speech... Worth a read

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Return of History

The journalist Jennifer Welsh will present this year's Massey Lectures for the CBC, with the title "The Return of History."

What, like it went away?, you are supposed to say.  But apparently it's a response to Francis Fukayama's 1990's pitch for "The End of History."  So it really is about the end of and return of contemporary politics.

History of MPs as ombudsmen

Apparently there's a little tiff in Ottawa about MPs not getting sufficiently special treatment from government departments when their offices try to sort out constituents' immigration claims.  I was intrigued to see the discussion provoke this post at Routine Proceedings, where several commentators note that the MP was not invented to be a complaint resolution officers. MPs are there to legislate, declares one, and another say, no, they are there to hold governments to account.

I was floating some ideas analogous to these about twenty years ago in 1867: How the Fathers Made A Deal, and it was a pretty lonely project then. (As in "You must be out of your mind.") So it's intriguing to see a groundswell -- still in the minority, but winning the argument most of the time -- for taking Parliament and the role of Parliament seriously.

I think it is having an effect on the electoral reform discussion too.  The serious better-government challenge isn't making the electoral system work better, it's making parliament work better. That is mostly about MPs and what they can and will do. Fiddling with electoral reform, in ways that will mostly make MPs even weaker and less able to hold leaders and government to account, is likely to erode the possibilities of reforming parliament itself.  Good to see there are some commentators who are alive to that.

(I know, MPs want the good will of their constituents, for good reason. If a constituent wants an 80th birthday letter for Grandma, or support over a screwed up EI claim, or assistance getting the relatives their citizenship, obviously the constituency office wants to oblige. It's the idea that that is all, or enough, from MPs, that needs to be confronted.)

Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Unwritten Histories on writing a syllabus

Unwritten Histories, a recently launched CanHist blog posting twice a week since March, now offers guidelines for developing a syllabus for the basic first-year Canadian History course.

Much of the advice concerns the mechanics, the prof-as-traffic-cop requirements. There ain't much on what one actually discusses in CanHist for newbies, except the author is down on the Dead White Guy hegemony in history. The blog in general remains loyal to the academic hegemony, however, generally defining historians as professors and vice versa.

Still, that's perfectly appropriate in a discussion of first year course outlines.  For new sessionals seeing the post-Labour Day apocalypse looming up, the post could be a lifeline.

Atlantic Charter in the news

The Church Lads Brigade band at Ship Harbour, Sunday
The St. John's Telegram notes the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Atlantic Charter in Ship Harbour, Nfld, on the weekend.
On Sunday, a large crowd gathered at the site of the Atlantic Charter Monument, only a short distance from where the world leaders met, to recognize the 75th anniversary of the historic event. Among those on hand was Duncan Sandys, a great.-grandson of Churchill.
CBC Newfoundland has more. And we were on this story in the current issue of Canada's History.

Monday, August 15, 2016

John Lorinc on heritage preservation in the big city and the big bureaucracy

Writer John Lorinc puzzles out why a notable piece of Toronto urban history and archaeology will go unnoted.
There’s an elegant symmetry to the fact that a courthouse will rise on ground once occupied by the BME, an institution whose existence is linked directly to those most human cravings for freedom and justice [...].
Yet provincial officials appear to have ruled out options for either in situ preservation of the BME foundation, or some kind of memorial on the grounds of the courthouse. Why? Because of a long-standing policy that requires such buildings to be studiously neutral in design and free of any kind of political or partisan elements.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Saw the constellation

Well, the meteor really, tho' there were some constellations up there too. The meteor show did not match these above, natch.  I live in a light-polluted city and did not wait up for the moon's going down after midnight. But even in the bright city, before 11 pm, last night's Perseid meteor shower delivered for endlessly-seeking daughter and me, and it felt ... historic.

After twenty minutes or so of being distracted by stars emerging from cloud cover and planes suddenly transiting, there it was, a bright and unmistakeable meteor, covering a distance many times a moon's circumferance.  Twice this long, say:

And a briefer, dimmer one a little later.  And we were done, satisfied and reminded: it's a big universe out there. Try again tonight?.
Follow @CmedMoore