Monday, December 14, 2015

Yirush on Wright on Creighton. UPDATE: a note from Ramsay Cook

(Some months ago Craig Yirush, a friend of this blog who teaches history at University of California Los Angeles, offered a review of a book he had been reading, Donald Wright's new biography of Donald Creighton.  There has not had much take-up on my offer to open blog space to readers' reviews of recent and relevant history books, but the offer remains open, and here at least is this one. Thanks, Craig!)

Donald Wright, Donald Creighton: A Life in History (University of Toronto Press, 2015), reviewed by Craig Yirush  

Donald Wright’s new biography of Donald Creighton is a triumph. Elegantly written, as befits its subject, it does justice to the life of a man, now neglected and even maligned, who was arguably the most significant English Canadian historian of the 20th century. Indeed, it says much about the historical amnesia of the present that Creighton needs to be rehabilitated. But such is the power of Canada’s post-1968 makeover that someone who was a towering figure in mid-20th century Canadian life and letters should seem so alien to us in the 21st century.

In Wright’s compelling biography we learn about Creighton’s Methodist ancestors, his upbringing in a house full of books and imperial patriotism, his literary ambitions as a young man, his iconoclastic embrace of modernism at Victoria College, his historical education at Oxford, and his epiphany about the centrality of the Saint Laurence river in Canadian history, which became the subject of his first book, and which made his reputation as the rising star of the Canadian historical profession in the 1930s. In the 1940s, Creighton wrote a history of Canada (Dominion of the North) shaped by his conviction that Canada’s destiny lay with the east-west pull of the river, an imperative that justified Canada’s independent existence in North America.

Searching for his next big subject, Creighton chose to write a biography of John A. Macdonald. Creighton’s two volumes on Macdonald garnered him accolades at home and abroad. Reviewing the first volume in the English magazine The Spectator, Max Beloff praised Creighton as “one of the half-dozen best historians now writing anywhere in the English-speaking world.” In 1959, Creighton’s reputation was such that he was appointed to a Commonwealth commission on the future of the Rhodesian federation, where he argued for a constitutional right of secession, a surprising position for him to take given his later hostility to Quebec’s sovereignty movement. The 1950s were the highpoint of Creighton’s career. While he continued to produce compelling histories, the Canada which he loved, and which he lad lovingly chronicled, fell apart around him in the 1960s and 1970s. The rise of Quebec separatism, the federal government’s embrace of bilingualism and binationalism, and the growing cultural influence of the U.S., left Creighton, who died in 1979, a bitter man.

Wright narrates Creighton’s rise and fall movingly, though never allowing his admiration for the man to temper his criticisms. And he makes a compelling case that without understanding Creighton we can’t understand the fraught history of 20th century Canada. For this alone, the biography is worth reading. Wright also contends that Creighton was not just a great Canadian, but a great historian. Yet he is severely critical of Creighton’s historical scholarship. It is, Wright tells us, full of stereotypes of French Canadians, Metis, and First Nations; excessively romantic and nationalistic; and virulently anti-American, leaving the reader to wonder whether there is anything of value in Creighton’s oeuvre? The answer, I think, lies in Wright’s deft reconstruction of Creighton’s approach to history. As he puts it, “The desire that drove Creighton to write history was the desire to feel the reality of the past . . .” (129). As the biography shows, Creighton had an essentially aesthetic and emotive relationship to the past. He believed deeply that history was a story, which should be told as elegantly and as vividly as possible. So he wrote narrative histories of big subjects, full of novelistic details that made the past live in the present. Creighton also wrote history for a general audience, but without sacrificing argument or analysis. Canadian historians may no longer accept Creighton’s Laurentian thesis, or his heroic account of Macdonald’s nation-building, but perhaps after they put down Wright’s biography they’ll reflect on Creighton’s artistry, and think about ways to emulate it in their own work.

One small quibble. I ordered the hardcover as I wanted the dust jacket with the wonderful photo of Creighton which features prominently on the UT Press website. Alas, when the book arrived, there was no dust jacket, just a plain black binding. My advice - buy the cheaper paperback instead.

Update (same day): a note from Ramsay Cook:
Craig Yurish’s praise for Donald Wright’s biography of Donald Creighton is well deserved. But his understanding of what he calls the post 1968 “makeover” of Canada is seriously deficient. He claims that “bi-nationalism”(whatever that is) was “embraced.” If he means the claim that Canada is composed of “two nations,” the exact opposite was the case as the 1982 constitution makes evident.  

(We can secure review copies for readers ready to review, but Craig Yirush purchased his own copy -- it wasn't us that went off with his dustjacket! Update: Donald Wright confirms UTP has no dustjacket on the hardcover,.)
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