Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Maurice Careless 1919-2009

About twenty years ago, when J.M.S. Careless's Brown of the Globe was republished by Dundurn Press, a reviewer (Royce MacGillivray, I think, but I'm working from memory here) praised it for, among other things, its "crunchy sentences."

I've never heard sentences called crunchy anywhere else, but I knew just what the reviewer meant. He was drawing attention to how well written Brown of the Globe is, what an excellent piece of writing it is. That's the right thing to remember and the important thing. Brown of the Globe endures as an extraordinarily good piece of historical writing, one I'd still rank among the very best history books written in Canada.

I saw somewhere an historiographical appreciation of Careless that emphasized his theories of metropolitanism and limited identities, and treated the Brown biography as principally a fleshing-out of the theoretical ideas. This seemed to me to have it precisely wrong. I always found those theories rather thin and contrived, not particularly useful. For me the important work was the biography.

Maurice Careless was overshadowed by the more flamboyant Donald Creighton. His Brown was overshadowed by Creighton's Macdonald. And indeed the historical Brown himself was overshadowed by the historical Macdonald. But if you wanted one book to understand the confederation period, I'd suggest Careless's balanced, precise, penetrating Brown over Creighton's heroic Macdonald. (Well, I'd suggest my own 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, but we're talking the historiographical fathers here, the 'sixties group.)

The biographical sketch of Careless in Old Ontario, a book of essays in his honour, reports that he typically worked all day, came home to have dinner and spend the evening with his family. Then when everyone went to bed, he went to his study and wrote well past midnight. Then he'd relax for an hour or so before bed. And still go to his university office first thing next morning.

Maurice Careless only had one arm, the result of a childhood accident. I've always liked the idea of a historian who would never say, "On the other hand...."

Update (April 14):Sandra Martin's elegant obituary for the Globe & Mail is here. Somewhat to my surprise, several of Careless's near-contemporaries make roughly the same Creighton-Careless comparison I was making.
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