Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Notes: Pennington on 1891, Leith on writing English Montreal

While this blog been dabbling in election history, someone has been doing the real work.  A recent publication in Penguin's new History of Canada series -- which is now getting up to speed and promising two new books each spring and fall for several years -- is Christopher Pennington's The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891, a booklength study of that one campaign.

Also out in that History of Canada series this spring  is the take of Ron Graham, the veteran political journalist, on that patriation battle:  The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, The Gang of Eight and the Fight for Canada.  More information on the whole Penguin History of Canada series here.    (I have a book in the works for this series too.)

To balance two men on political history, how's about a woman on cultural history:  Linda Leith's Writing in A Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis

I have been at the Blue Met this week, talking about From Then to Now, and I got the chance to hear Leith talk about this book.  She is a central figure in what she calls the Anglo Revival -- of English language writing in Montreal. She has been not only a writer and teacher but a substantial cultural entrepreneur too, involved in most of the organizations and events by which English-language writers in Quebec have forced themselves upon the attention of Quebec, Canada, and the world.  Blue Metropolis is the successful international literary festival in which both the readers and the audiences are as much French-speaking as English-speaking.  Leith was the founder and until recently director of the festival, but the book is more than a record of the festival's creation. 

Her memoir speaks from the embattled heart of Montreal's English-language literary community -- from the 1970s to today.  In Leith's telling, English-language writing in Quebec was threatened not only by Quebec nationalists who resented Anglo attempts at cross-cultural rapprochement and denied there was such a thing as English culture in Quebec, but just as much by English Canadian nationalists who more-or-less agreed.  Her fight, she argues, was as much against Toronto as against those who would exclude English from Quebec.   "If there had not been a Toronto, we would have had to invent Toronto," she writes.

This is a good cultural history, detailed, first person, parti-pris , but also abundantly sourced and referenced.  And as good cultural history should, it's a window onto many wider historical topics too.
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