Friday, September 08, 2023

Obituary: Peter C Newman, connoisseur of power

The cap always looked silly.
The Globe and Mail offers two obituary essays on Peter C. Newman, who died yesterday: one by historian Allan Levine, the other by journalist/publisher Kenneth Whyte.  

It's the historian who defends Newman the historian (gift link) in regard to the Hudson's Bay  Company histories that were Canadian bestsellers in the 1980s. Allan Levine is right, I think, to record the pettiness and insecurity with which the academic community attempted to belittle Newman's historical work. It was not an edifying spectacle. And Levine's account of how he worked successfully with Newman for decades is illuminating. 

But I think Ken Whyte is on the right track to pass over the HBC books with the comment, "The series leaves something to be desired as history" and to focus on Newman's journalism, his real work.

Newman's genius was in interviewing. How he got seasoned businessmen and veteran politicians to imagine that he was on their side and could be trusted with the most damning admissions -- which he always went right ahead and published -- continues to be mysterious and astonishing. Newman/Nixon might have been better than Frost/Nixon.  

His focus was always power (he incorporated himself as "Power, Inc."), and I think that is what sank his histories. The subjects were all dead -- he could not talk to them. And in a way, he could not take them seriously, because being dead, they had lost all power for him.

I only had one extensive interaction with Peter Newman. The year I chaired the Writers' Union of Canada, Newman was invited to give the Hugh MacLennan  (sorry, it's the Margaret Laurence!) Lecture, always on "A Writers' Life," and given at the Union's annual meeting, held that year in Kingston, Ontario. The series, inaugurated by Hugh MacLennan in 1987, comes with a notable fee and has attracted many of Canada's leading writers, most of whom have clearly been honoured to talk about their writing with other writers and the general public.

Before the speech, we took Newman to dinner at Chez Piggy: myself as chair, novelist Audrey Thomas, our ED Penny Dickens, and Pierre Berton. Pierre was his usual genial expansive self, companionable with everyone. Newman clearly wished he was anywhere but there, and spoke to no one but Pierre, leaning over throughout the dinner to whisper to him as if to exclude everyone else.  

The speech he gave later was probably the weakest Laurence Lecture ever. He must have had some assistant cobble together a string of old chestnuts about writers and writing from a dictionary of quotations. But his stature as a writer was respected --he got a substantial ovation. Then he skipped the reception -- he had a car waiting to take him home.  

I concluded Peter Newman was a complete asshole. I have not yet seen the obituary that either refutes that (I have met people who defend his character). Or says it out loud.  

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