Canada's Voice: The Public Life of John Wendell Holmes

By Mackenzie, Hector | British Journal of Canadian Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Canada's Voice: The Public Life of John Wendell Holmes


Mackenzie, Hector, British Journal of Canadian Studies


Adam Chapnick, Canada's Voice: The Public Life of John Wendell Holmes (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009), 384 pp. Cased. $85. ISBN 978-0-7748-1671-7. Paper. $32.95. ISBN 978-0-7748-1672-4.

It is a formidable challenge for any biographer to write about someone who wrote so well as John Holmes, as quotations from the subject may eclipse the author's prose. Moreover, what endeared Holmes to colleagues, students, friends and strangers, and what served him so well as a diplomat, teacher and commentator, were personal qualities - charm, tact, modesty, genuine interest in others and self-deprecating wit - about which the biographer must rely on the recollections of others, as these traits may not always be conveyed in the writings which must be the principal source for such a study. Public and private analyses by Holmes tended to be characterised by common sense and pragmatism rather than by originality or boldness, so that it is difficult to depict him as innovative.

Confronted by these challenges, Adam Chapnick has done well. He has made excellent use of the correspondence, official and personal writings of Holmes, as well as interviews with associates. There is an understandable tendency to exaggerate the distinction of his subject and to speculate where evidence is lacking. This is also a solemn biography. Holmes certainly never took himself quite so seriously as does Chapnick. Holmes is often described in terms that likely would have made him cringe, from 'an indispensable force within the East Block' (p. 69) to 'one of the most sought-after commentators on foreign policy of his era' (p. 81), 'public representative of all that was Canadian' (p. 130), 'Canadian ambassador to the world' (p. 142), later 'one of Canada's great university teachers' (p. …

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