Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ronald Rudin on Champlain's Dream

The April 2009 issue of the Literary Review of Canada has a first-rate review of David Hackett Fischer’s big biography from last fall, Champlain’s Dream. Actually, it's so good they are not giving it away online. I’ve just gotten around to reading the book, as it happens.

The editor of the LRC and I have a sort of deal: she doesn't pay for reviews and I don't write them for her. But if I were reviewing Champlain's Dream, I’d be full of admiration for David Hackett Fischer. I’ve admired his work for decades, ever since I read Historians’ Fallacies, the funniest book ever written about historical methods. The Great Wave is economic history that is wise and readable and useful. More recently he’s won substantial sales and acclaim for books on Paul Revere and George Washington and for Albion’s Seed, about the populations that colonized the future United States, no less.

The strengths of a very skilled and very successful historian are on display in Champlain’s Dream. One shouldn’t start reading a book by flipping to the back, but the historiographical essays in his appendices display wonderfully the breadth of Fischer's knowledge of Champlain’s time, the care and insight with which he digests and considers evidence, and the enthusiasm with which he launches into every historical complication.

Case in point: Champlain’s birthdate. The “traditional” date, 1567, has been repeated in book after book. A couple of decades ago, a reassessment of the evidence suggested 1580 was a more likely date, making Champlain perhaps 28, not 41, when he came ashore at Quebec in 1608: a vigorous youth, not a man deep in middle age. The argument worked for me, but it's complicated, and obviously Fischer had to work out a judgment on this question

His marshalling of the evidence is the best I’ve seen. In the end, I’m still rather resistant to his conclusion that 1570 is the most likely estimate (I might go to 1575), but it’s an elegant piece of historical exposition whatever you conclude.

Many more parts of the book show Fischer working like that. He need to know a bit about southwestern France in the late 1500s, about the Protestant-Catholic wars, about Henri IV’s court, about Atlantic navigation and the Spanish Caribbean, about the economics of the early fishery and fur trade, about Iroquoian prehistory, about Jesuit-Recollet denominational rivalries, about…. Well, you get the picture. Time and again, on all these vexed late-medieval complexities, where evidence is thin and theories proliferate, he really seems in command of the sources and all the historians’ theories and explanations. When he has to carry his Champlain story through all these pools of historical uncertainty, he plunges in like history’s Michael Phelps. So far so good.

Yet at the end I put down Champlain’s Dream with a big resistance and a kind of suspicion growing.

A biography needs a character. A biographer needs to decide who is his character is and to evoke that person on every page. Fischer meets this test. He has decided Champlain was a great soul, a humanist, a lover of science and adventure and humanity. He argues that Champlain’s vision for New France was “harmony and peace.” His colonization policy, writes Fischer, was “Indian and European leaders who met in peace and shared their dreams and lived together.”

It’s a beautiful story, and Fischer tells it well. But I don’t believe it.

Champlain’s New France was a place of violence and risk and brutal competition. Champlain was tough enough to survive in it for three decades. His policy was to bring into being a permanent colony despite all the forces, European and North American, that were uninterested when they were not actively trying to prevent it. He didn’t do that by being nice or even dreaming of nice. He was not particularly concerned about the peace and harmony of the peoples with whom he had to deal. Life had turned him into a pragmatist, not an idealist.

It’s a lovely vision Fischer has of Champlain. But I fear it’s one that he has imposed on the evidence.

Here’s a tiny example, far from Fischer’s central arguments. It’s about Champlain’s marriage. It was a rocky marriage, an arranged marriage, a marriage of alliance. He was maybe forty on Fischer's count, she was twelve. She ran away, her family punished her, sent her back. Once she was a widow with some freedom of action, she became a nun. Fischer knows all this, but it irritates his story of Champlain the great humanist to have this nasty bit of pre-modern grimness so near the heart of Champlain's life. So he seizes on a lonely document from 1617, when Champlain and wife both sign a contract hiring a lady’s maid for her.

What does it mean? It provides a servant for her, but it’s his household, his money. Little wonder they both sign while he’s briefly back in France about his colony-building errands.

Fischer argues the plain notarial document shows the man and his wife “working together at the business of life.” Is this really the evidence of the document or a reasonable construction of it? Or is it more Fischer's need to find the decent, humane Champlain even in the most arid soil?

So I’m left skeptical about Champlain's Dream. I’m not an expert on the man or his period, but I once wrote in print about “the grim single-mindedness of a man who assessed things by their utility to his own projects.” Fischer argues Champlain’s dream was of French-Native harmony; I concluded “Champlain’s determination to claim, settle, and evangelize Canada ran directly counter to the interests of his Native allies.” Fischer’s case for a totally different Champlain impresses me greatly, but convinces me less. (But then I think Bruce Trigger, who really set out the lines I'm following, was a great historian. Fischer, displaying a rare historiographical blind spot, dismisses him.)

Now I’m happy to find someone else who thinks along these lines. The Literary Review found Ronald Rudin, the Quebec historian and historian of Quebec historians, to review Champlain’s Dream, and he offers a first-rate piece of work. (Okay, he agrees with me.) Rudin doesn't buy the dream in Champlain's Dream either. Indeed he has the wit -- it had not occurred to me -- to suggest Fischer has written an American’s biography, creating the great American hero the American reading audience requires.
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