Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald

Article excerpt

Patricia Phenix, Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006), xi + 328pp. Cased. $34. ISBN 0-7710-7044-6.

I must declare an interest. Like Patricia Phenix, I am working on the life of John A. Macdonald. Like Phenix, I see a key biographical challenge as relating the problems of his personal life - his drink problem and domestic worries - to the landmarks of his public career. Macdonald's great biographer, Donald Creighton, was an archives person, who set his face against most of the tales and legends of his hero's early life. This was a highminded mistake, since much of the material in sources such as E.G. Biggar's Anecdotal Life of 1891 undoubtedly came from reliable sources. One rare blooper was the reminiscence of an old-timer who thought he remembered the Macdonald family living at the village of Lairg in Sutherland, a pardonable error since the surname was so common. Phenix converts this into the city of Laing near Glasgow, where the family lived in an imaginary rat-infested tenement. Phenix has made lively use of many stories from the early biographies, but they are much mixed with creative reconstruction. 'I had no boyhood,' Sir John A. told his secretary, Joseph Pope. This becomes 'I never had a childhood' (p. 3). A story about the urchin Macdonald stealing a fish from a Bay of Quinte angler is delightfully embroidered and attributed to an election meeting in 1837 (not an election year), but another source places it in 1882. Given the intriguing overall portrait of the man that Phenix creates, it seems churlish to suggest that it was unlikely that Macdonald searched the Philadelphia telephone directory in 1844, thirty years before the telephone was invented. …

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