Character versus Circumstance in Recent Canadian Historical Biography

By Heaman, Elsbeth | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Character versus Circumstance in Recent Canadian Historical Biography


Heaman, Elsbeth, Journal of Canadian Studies


Character versus Circumstance in Recent Canadian Historical Biography Honoré Jaxon: Prairie Visionary. By Donald B. Smith. Regina: Coteau, 2007. 312 pp. $24.95 (paper) ISBN 978-1-55050-367-8.

John A: The Man Who Made Us; The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald. Vol. 1, 1815-1867. By Richard Gwynn. Toronto: Random House, 2007. 560 pp. $23.00 (eBook) ISBN 978-0-307-37135-5. $23.00 (paper) ISBN 978-0-679-31476-9. 528 pp. $37.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-679-31475-2.

Sir William C. Macdonald: A Biography. By William Fong. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007. 336 pp. $34.95 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-77353-304-2.

Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Vol. 1, Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825-1857. By David Wilson. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. 448 pp. $39.95 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-77353-357-8.

The View from Murney Tower: Salem Bland, the Late-Victorian Controversies, and the Search for a New Christianity. Vol. 1. By Richard Allen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 496 pp. $80.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-80209-748-4.

There it is again, the complaint that Canadan academic historians do not write about the kinds of things that the ordinary history-reading people like to read. This time, the charge is levelled by a popular historian, Dan Francis, in an online forum, HistoryWire (Francis 2008). History as an industry is booming these days, and historians everywhere are writing for an enthusiastic public, except, apparently, in Canada, where the academics remain cloistered in their ivory tower.

There may well be some truth to the argument, though when the critics do not actually read books by Canadian academics to make their case (Francis did not), there may also be a dollop of intellectual laziness involved. Still, one might be forgiven for thinking that the structure of Canadian publishing nurtures cloisteredness: because a state subsidy exists only for scholarly books that are not likely to sell in the mass market, publishers hardly dare print large runs or engage in mass-marketing, for fear of losing that crucial bit of subsidy. It is probably easier to get a scholarly book into print in Canada than elsewhere, but possibly harder to reach a general authence. It is also true that academics often use theories and language that non-academics find repellent, but it tends to be truer of books by social scientists than by historians. Perhaps a reasonable comparison could be done by choosing a genre that both academics and professional authors write, such as biography. Most biographers consciously tailor their writing to a nonspecialized authence. Where once biography was in disrepute amongst academics, today historians of all kinds write biographies. A Journal of Historical Biography, published out of the University College of the Fraser Valley with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, draws scholars, editors, and thoughtful reflections on the act of writing biographies from around the world.

Invited by the Journal of Canadian Studies to review five Victorian biographies, I wondered whether this small sample exemplified the kinds of differences to which the pundits object. There are three books by academics and two by professional writers (one of whom has a doctorate). The subjects are a priest, a businessman, and three politicians, stretching that term to include Riel's secretary, Honoré Jaxon, né William Jackson. The book's author describes him as a visionary, and that is a term that could be applied to three of the five subjects, all of whom lived lives on the left, though one of those three migrated to the centre-right. The other two biographees were different: both, named Macdonald, were enormously successful at their chosen field of endeavour (politics and business) and became two of the most powerful men in late- Victorian Canada. Both Macdonalds are portrayed as pragmatists by their authors, who are the two professional writers in the bunch. …

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