Monday, December 19, 2016

Historians, do we have a problem?

I've been browsing in a new book of essays: Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America, edited by longtime Montreal journalist André Pratte, recently appointed to the Senate, and Montreal-born Toronto journalist Jonathan Kay, editor of The Walrus.

The idea of the book is to dispel the notion that Quebeckers have always been an insular people by offering a series of short lively essays on French Canadians whose influence has been continent-wide, from Pierre de La Vérendrye to Jack Kerouac. There are some fairly obvious choices --  George-Etienne Cartier, Henri Bourassa -- but others who are relatively little known -- Paul David, Prudent Beaudry -- or surprising (Jeanne Benoit).

What I really note right now are the contributors, and their backgrounds.  Journalist Philip Marchand, novelist Daniel Poliquin, politician Jean Charest, politician Lucien Bouchard, soldier Roméo Dallaire, diplomat Jeremy Kinsman, novelist and physician Vania Jimenez, novelist and foodie Chrystine Brouillet, activist Samantha Nutt, novelist Margaret Atwood, athlete and politician Ken Dryden, novelist Deni Béchard, businessman Gaétan Frigon.

See what I'm seeing?  No historians. Okay, Serge Bernier worked with Roméo Dallaire for this volume -- military historians have long been well integrated with the regular military -- but that's about it.  When a well-connected book packager and two equally well connected newsmen assemble a book of essays about historic Canadians, their first decision for their contributors is: no historians. It was pretty much the same, I might say, with Extraordinary Canadians, another historically-oriented series, assembled by the packager Michael Levine and general editor John Ralston Saul. Lots of interesting writers among the contributors, that is. Pretty thin on historians.

And are they wrong?  If you were putting together a group of essayists aiming for a broad readership of Canadians on some subject of cultural, political and historical interest, how many historians would leap to your mind as plausible contributors?

You would want people with some public standing if possible, but also writers with broad cultural awareness able to write engaging, wide-ranging pieces without expecting specialist knowledge and able to mesh historical information with current interests and concerns. Many historians coming to mind?  Michael Bliss is mostly retired from the field, and the death of Ramsay Cook removes one of the last of the 'sixties generation of historian-commentators.

I know smart, articulate, concerned professors, scholars, writers of history who could qualify.  But few of much prominence.  And fewer, I think, who could overcome the widespread cultural meme that exists in Canada:  not that Canadian history is dull (this book is one of a zillion proving that is not the problem) but that historians aren't the people to write it: dull, insular, narrow and specialized and closed off, too likely to preach, too....

Gee. Canadians think of historians the way the writers here think we used to think of French-Canadians!

Update, December 22:  Molly Ungar comments:
I think we definitely do have a problem, (many may not agree) and it's similar to the long standing problem that artists have, when they encounter the differentiation between "illustration", "commercial art", or "popular art", and "art", "fine art", or "high art".

Canadian historians have arrived at the same crossroads -- the differentiation between "popular history", or "narrative history" and "history" or "academic history".

These differences were not created by the public, but by the people practicing history and art. However, by the time the practitioners of anything "high" realize that they've totally fallen off the public's radar, it's too late.

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