Monday, September 21, 2020

Peter Waite, historian, 1922-2020 RIP

The Globe and Mail has an elegant obituary by Alison Lawlor of Peter Waite, historian, professor, war veteran, and bon vivant, who died recently at the great age of 98.

He was a lovely man. I did not know him well, but we were co-authors of the Illustrated History of Canada and he was always a pleasure to meet. I interviewed him by telephone in 2012 for a Canada's History profile. He was ninety, and already living in long term care, but the last thing he said in that conversation was that I should drop in next time I was in Halifax. I know he would have offered a drink, more lively conversation, and who knows, maybe a walk around town. 

Click to continue reading: it's the profile I wrote then. 

(first published in Canada's History 2013)

When I was a new historian, people told me, "You are not old enough to be a historian."  Funny, I don’t get that anymore. But there is that notion of an age requirement. A little gray at the temples does seem to provide credentials.

Still, a historian who publishes a big new history fifty years after the publication of his first big history – which is still in print – is setting a benchmark few others will match.

Peter Waite didn’t exactly rush that first book into print, either. He was already forty back in 1962 when The Life and Times of Confederation appeared. In 2012, as In Search of R.B. Bennett is attracting the kind of reviews Waite’s books have often garnered – “elegant style,” “light touch,” "lovely," "sensitive," "superbly written and a pleasure to read," the author is marking his ninetieth birthday.

I talked recently with Peter Waite about that landmark, and about his own history. Waite wrote and taught steadily as a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, but he may not be a household name. Even among scholars, he has been a historian of Canadian politics during an era when political history has been rather out of fashion. Nevertheless, connoisseurs know Waite as a master historian, steadily productive, scrupulous in his research, and putting his urbane and stylish voice into everything he writes. Peter Waite is due for a tribute. 

Why turn now from the days of John A. Macdonald to the depression-era prime minister R. B. Bennett, I wondered? 

"For balance," he said at once. "I felt he was underestimated. I’m not for him completely, but I did want to redress the balance." Prime Minister Bennett was often his own worst enemy. But, Waite notes, he came to power just as the depression struck. Even his ambitious rival Mackenzie King felt lucky to be out of power in those years. Harold Innis the economic historian thought no prime minister could have handled the crisis better. "

After his defeat, Bennett retreated to Britain, and Canada dismissed him. Waite recalls hearing of his death in 1947. "I was doing a summer job on Lake of Bays in Ontario, and I thought, 'I don’t know about him and I don’t care.’ I just was not aware of him." But R.B. Bennett may be making a comeback in today’s tough times. Waite’s biography is one of a flurry of sympathetic studies that have appeared in recent years.

By 1947, when Bennett died, Lieutenant Waite was 25, done with a youthful stint as a bank clerk in Saint John, N.B. and with wartime service in the Canadian navy. He turned to university. Dissatisfied at the University of Toronto, he switched to UBC ("Well, I knew a girl out west") and in time he began to focus on Canadian history.

In 1951 he was back at Toronto, working on a doctorate with Donald Creighton, when Dalhousie came calling. "A friend recommended me for the job. I liked the city, and people there seemed to enjoy themselves," he says. Halifax has been home ever since.

In the 1950s Professor Waite felt less pressure to publish a book based on his doctoral thesis than today’s aspiring professors do. "George Wilson [his department head] said to me, ‘I don’t want you rushing to write that thesis of yours into a book. I want you to travel in Europe.’  I was teaching ‘Plato to NATO,’ of course. So I spent my summers walking in Europe."

But gradually the thesis – it was a study of confederation built from newspaper reports -- began to demand his attention. In 1962, it became The Life and Times of Confederation, the first big book about confederation in forty years, and the first of a flurry of pre-Centennial histories of confederation. Waite has been publishing ever since. 

In a brief memoir of that project, Waite vividly evoked what keeps a historian with a big topic going. "What was overwhelming was the exhilaration of it. One was driven to the newspapers, to the Parliamentary Library, to the St John’s library, to the hot little sheds on Pinnacle Street, Belleville, Ontario, not by the exigencies of a Ph.D., but by adrenalin."

"That was great fun, chasing the newspapers around," he told me recently. But he appreciates that new forms of historical research can be equally satisfying, and his newest book salutes online archives: "To be able to read King’s diary from my study in Halifax has been a tremendous advantage," says his preface to Bennett.

Waite has written many histories and biographies, even the story of Dalhousie University.  But for dedicated readers of history, a Waite favourite may be The Man From Halifax, his biography of another ill-fated prime minister, John Thompson, one of John A. Macdonald’s successors. Thompson died suddenly in 1894, age forty-nine, after barely two years in office.

The Man From Halifax is a long book for a brief career, but it has the Waite style that suffuses all his works – well-informed, casual, intimate, full of glimpses of human beings and detail of how their lives were lived. For many readers, the book is admired as much for the historian’s craft it displays as for the history in it.

Happily, the same craft is also evident in Peter Waite’s newest book.


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