Monday, March 25, 2019

Poor neglected prime ministers?

I have occasionally mused that it would be impossible to find a subject in Canadian history about which the phrase "Too little is known about X" would be a risky or controversial claim. But if I were making a priority list, I don't think "X = lives of the prime ministers" would ever have come anywhere near the top.

So I was bemused by J.D.M. Stewart's long argument in the Globe and Mail this weekend that the dearth of prime ministerial biographies is a historical crisis of national proportions. The field, after all, is rich enough that Stewart himself was recently able to make a neat little contribution in the form of explorations of prime ministerial pets, sports, and avocations. Even while reading the piece, I was able to make a pretty long list of all the biographies Stewart fails to mention, from Allan Levine's recent Mackenzie King biography to pretty much every Laurier biography by a francophone author (Réal Belanger, André Pratte, Laurier LaPierre....), even when widely available in English.

And if we are going to have more in the political history field, surely there is much to be written on non-prime ministerial figures. David Wilson's two volumes on D'Arcy McGee is the most acclaimed Canadian political biography in decades, and surely there are figures like him at least in need of attention as the guys at the top.  Right now, a study of Gerald Butts might be more revealing than one of Justin Trudeau, and surely that could be projected into the past as well.

Update, 27 March: Allan Levine comments on the categorizations in Stewart's essay:
His decision to focus on the artificial division between historians who teach at universities—who he classified as academics—and everyone else makes little sense to me.  [,,,,] Leaving out Richard Gwyn’s award winning two volumes on Macdonald was also absurd. The old academic-popular conflict—that was the subject of the first article I ever published in the Globe back in 1987—perhaps had some validity when it was only Pierre Berton and Peter Newman writing the popular books and every one else was employed at a university but not anymore.
Update, 1 April: At Patrice Dutil's well=attended John A Macdonald talk in Toronto the other night, I met Gary Schlee, who mentioned to me his new book about Canadian prime ministers, Unknown and Unforgettable, and his website full of prime ministerial info.  Good, but how many books do we need before this "neglected" claim needs some re-examination?

Update, 10 April:  Allan Greer responds to Stewart's article at Active History, and other historians weigh in in the comments to his piece

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