Friday, November 29, 2013

William Stevenson 1924-2013 RIP

He would have called himself a journalist, not a historian, and a lot of historians would not call him a historian at all, but William Stevenson, the author of A Man Called Intrepid, has at least two claims to historical attention.

First, there are quite a few people who think the version of World War II that he provided in A Man Called Intrepid is the history of World War II, that is, that it was won not by armoured divisions and mass production and quite staggering quantities of violent death, but mostly by covert operations, and one man's covert operations at that.

Second, he seems to me notable as the author of the most successful historical novel ever written in Canada (and if you go back to Gilbert Parker and Thomas Costain, we have had quite a few, even without the wave of literary historical fiction of recent decades). A Man Called Intrepid really exemplifies the formula of mass-market historical fiction:  it takes a large, complicated, "romantic" historical event, in this case the Second World War, and organizes it as the experience of one compelling protagonist, so that the fate of the protagonist and the fate of the world become the same thing. We ought to be more interested in the fictionalization of memory, and William Stevenson was one writer who was extraordinarily successful at it.

The CBC's obit is cautious, describing "Intrepid" by his actual historical role rather than the one Stevenson assigned to "A Man Called Intrepid":
He met another William Stephenson - no relation. This Stephenson was the head of British intelligence operations in the United States, whose code name was Intrepid. Journalist Stevenson immortalized spymaster Stephenson's story in the 1976 book A Man Called Intrepid. 
The Toronto Star pretty much buys the legend:
Stevenson will likely be best remembered for A Man Called Intrepid, his 1976 biography of Sir William Stephenson — the similarity in names is coincidental — a Canadian businessman who set up and ran Allied espionage efforts during World War II.
I know smart people who knew him, and he seems to have been much liked and admired.  

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