Monday, September 15, 2014

Out of the canon

The New Republic wonders why "the American literary canon" has admitted so few historians.

Sunday morning the radio came on early, and the chatty morning host said Margaret Macmillan would be soon be in to talk about some of the books on Canadian history that have impressed her most. Blur of sleep and then there she was, and the interviewer's first question -- you can listen here -- was her views on how little and badly Canadian history was taught in schools. Neither of them being involved with school teaching, they had a fairly unedifying conversation, and then the host asked about the problem of Canadian history being so boring.

Okay, somebody doing the dawn patrol on Sunday morning for local radio ain't entirely the arbiter of the Canadian literary canon. But you can see the problem. Somehow everybody who comments on Canadian life, letters, culture takes it as written first that history is for children and is therefore a problem for the schools, and that it's all pretty boring anyway, isn't it. So, Margaret, you wanted to talk about....?

Funny. Books about history dominate the best seller list every year, and history is what most of our leading novelists write about, and museums and historic sites draw massive attendance, and events like the War of 1812 commemoration and the First World War anniversary pull huge coverage, and we squabble constantly about old treaties and the consequences of residential schools, and all last week the fate of some English guy who got himself stuck in the Arctic in the 1840s dominated the news cycle.  But all our journalists understand nobody is interested in history and it is only something to ram into captive schoolchildren anyway.

In the end, Margaret Macmillan did not say "Why are journalists so boring, that they always ask these same hackneyed cliche questions?" and she did get to talk about those books she liked. Christopher Pennington on the federal election of 1891, David Hackett Fischer on Champlain, and Julie Gilmour on Vancouver's anti-Asian riots of 1907. And indeed she made them all sound like pretty interesting books, without actually shoving it into the face of the interviewer that 1) none of them are kid's books, and 2) not of them have anything to do with school curriculum, and 3) WTF?

But including historians is Canada's literary canon, well, that project has a long way to go.
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