Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Three things about Marcel Trudel (1917-2011)

Andrew Smith draws our attention to the recent death of the great historian of New France, Marcel Trudel, who was 93 and probably only had about three or five more books in development when he died.

I recall Marcel Trudel as the author of a remarkable autobiography Mémoire d'un Autre Siècle  (English translation here) in which he argued that his childhood in rural Quebec was not greatly different from that experienced in New France and described the wrenching transition from that milieu to that of a scholar and an intellectual in the Quebec of the 1940s and 1950s.  He was in the vanguard of Quebec intellectuals who began to shake off the clerical, moralizing, nostalgic history that ruled in his youth.  This was a brave political commitment; Trudel the anti-clerical scholar was a controversial figure in 'fifties Quebec, and his books about Voltaire and the apostate priest Charles Chiniquy were scandalously bold in their time.

I recall Marcel Trudel as "the man who knew everyone who lived in seventeenth century New France -- by their first names."  It was quite probably literally true; dissatisfied with the 1665 census of New France in the archives, Trudel built his own census for 1663 and modestly admitted it was a great deal more accurate than the one made at the time. Trudel responded to hagiographical history with an absolute commitment to data, to evidence-based statements. He had no elaborate theoretical or methodological technique; he just wanted to know every fact and to set them all down in endless encyclopedic detail. That is not the only way to practise history and probably not often the best, but it was almost revolutionary in its day and did lay down an enormous evidentiary foundation for the history of early Canada. There is a historiographical essay that argues that, given how little is known of the personal life of Samuel de Champlain, each Quebec historian has been free to write his own personality into Champlain.  For Trudel  (as here in the DCB biography), Champlain was above all the exploring scientist and documentarian, the seeker after knowledge.

I recall Marcel Trudel as a historian who loved his work. I once heard Trudel and Fernand Ouellet, another historian emerged from le Quebec profonde, describe each other. Il travail comme un boeuf, said one. Il travail comme un cheval, said the other, and they were both right.  But Trudel took a lot of pleasure in what he did, too.  When I was a graduate student in Ottawa, he used to lead student-society historical bus tours to Montreal and elsewhere, strap-hanging at the front of a chartered bus with a megaphone, regaling the group with endless lively stories and ending up leading everyone to some cheap couscous joint downtown for a meal.  
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