1.11.2006

happy birthday, john a

Did you know today is John A. Macdonald's birthday?

In his column "No history please, we're Canadian", Globe And Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wonders why Canadians don't embrace their history the way Americans (supposedly) do.

I think Simpson gives a little too much weight to sales figures of popular history books. The US is a pretty ahistorical culture, and most Americans are sadly ignorant of the country's history. However, he raises some interesting questions here. The column is available only by subscription, so I'm copying it here.
It is said -- but who has really counted? -- that only Jesus Christ has been the subject of more books than Abraham Lincoln.

But Doris Kearns Goodwin took the plunge, and spent a decade researching and writing yet another tome on the Civil War president. The result -- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln has rocketed to No. 1 on The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.

Ms. Goodwin did find an angle to exploit: Lincoln's ability to work effectively with those whom he had defeated for the Republican nomination in 1860, men whose claims were at least as strong, if not better, than his. Apart from this angle, Ms. Goodwin's book is first-class standard biographical fare of a story told over and over again.

Americans, however, lap up books about the great men and sweeping events of their history, undeterred by hefty size and price. In the U.S., publishers offer, writers research and produce, and readers devour very, very long books of political history -- in contrast to Canada, where political history died long ago in the universities and is almost moribund elsewhere.

The study of political history faded in U.S. universities, too, as historians increasingly debunked it as the recounting of the great or no-so-great deeds of dead white males. Particularistic history based on gender, race, ethnicity, region or sexual orientation drove all before it, consigning political history to the margin of the discipline.

Academic courses on mid-19th-century American history, for example, are likely to skip past Lincoln and the Civil War, concentrating, instead, on slavery and race relations, the economics of the plantation economy, the role of women in the Confederacy, and the backlash against immigrants in northern and midwestern cities.

Literate U.S. readers, however, like political history, especially about great men of their past and what they accomplished. If academic historians won't provide readers with material, too bad for the historians. Readers will reward those who do.

The result continues to be an outpouring of serious, long, well-reviewed books about important men and events in U.S. history, most of them bestsellers written by non-academics such as Ms. Goodwin.

Consider these biographies from the past few years: Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton, H. W. Brands on Andrew Jackson, Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin, David McCullough on John Adams and Harry Truman, Conrad Black on Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Ellis on George Washington.

Mr. McCullough also wrote a book about the first year of the Revolutionary War. Mr. Ellis penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the key players who created the U.S. republic. Fred Anderson, an academic historian with a deft turn of phrase, wrote two books about the French and Indian War.

Why, one might ask, is the situation so different in Canada? Why do we not manifest the same interest in our history as Americans do for theirs?

Pierre Berton was perhaps the exceptional answer to this rhetorical question. He did find an audience for political history, in a manner of speaking. The pickings get mighty slim after his volumes.

Publishers will rightly insist that the Canadian market is so small that books of 700 to 900 pages just can't be produced at a price the market will bear. They will argue that the market size precludes advances to authors that enable them to spend the years of research and writing necessary to produce serious books (although Richard Gwyn is doing a new study of Sir John A. Macdonald). Those advances are needed because the kind of books Americans are reading, and Canadians might read, aren't being produced by tenured and salaried professors in academia.

Fair points, these. Yet there's something deeper at work. Canadian writers don't have to produce tomes as long as their U.S. counterparts; indeed, reading most of these U.S. books makes one sometimes wish for less.

Could it be that a fundamental difference lies in Americans being fascinated by their history and therefore wanting it to be retold again and again, whereas Canadians don't know much about the grand narratives of their history because they aren't taught much about it and therefore aren't interested in reading about it.

Could it be, too, that revolutions and war of the U.S. kind just lend themselves to more gripping narratives than do the relatively peaceful construction and development of Canada?
Great timing for me, since I'm immersed in Berton and learning about John A. for the first time. Your thoughts?

12 comments:

Granny said...

She's a good writer and did you know she's a huge baseball fan as well?

L-girl said...

Who is...?

Do you mean Doris Kearns Goodwin? If so, yes, of course, since we are all (Redsock, Doris and I) fans of the same team. Plus she grew up in Brooklyn as a Dodgers' fan. As a New Yorker I have ties to that, too.

L-girl said...

She's a good writer and did you know she's a huge baseball fan as well?

For a minute I thought you meant me. Oh well. ;-)

The duck thief said...

I guess part of the problem is that we don't think we have a very interesting history.

I mean, the US has this glorious and sparkly history with a Revolution and a Civil War. Also, we hear more about American history in movies and television than we do about Canadian. It's constantly being pushed in our face.

For example, I knew who the first president of the US was before I know who the first PM of Canada was thanks to Sesame Street.

Canrane said...

Speaking as a (pretty) recent product of the Canadian education system, I wouldn't say we aren't taught history properly. Nor is our history boring. But one thing we often forget when we compare ourselves to America is how young we are as a nation.

Some of the things that everyone associates with America, like "all men are created equal", "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", are almost ancient history in comparison.

Canada didn't get our equivalent until 1982! Heck, there is a considerable portion of our population that predates the flag by *decades*. In my mind, the perceived lack of Canadian identity has more to do with not having enough time to settle on one than something missing in our society/culture itself. Same with our appreciation of history. Because I find nothing boring about the Plains of Abraham or our contributions in WWI or II. Montcalm and Wolfe are as interesting figures to me as any. But some of our most defining moments and the people who were part of them are still too fresh in our memories to become legendary yet...

...Or maybe we just need an assasination under our belt ;)

Wrye said...

The US is also far more fascinatated with the founding fathers and figures of similar stature. Lincoln , Jefferson, et al, are somehow relevant to (or at least invoked in) modern discourse in a way that MacDonald, Cartier, etc aren't. But this is one of those points where it's good to take a deep breath and remember that our English-language market for such books is perhaps 7% of the size of the US.

Besides, we have Will Ferguson for Canadian history and Sarah Vowell for American. I am content.

L-girl said...

remember that our English-language market for such books is perhaps 7% of the size of the US.

Good point.

Sarah Vowell

Oh my goodness.

David Cho said...

You should have immigrated to Korea, Laura, so that I get reminded of Syngman Rhee's birthday.

He is actually looked back upon as a brutal dictator, nobody really wants to remember his birthday. I guess it is really important for the first head of the state to set the tone. Washington probably did not fully appreciate what he was doing for the future of the United States when he decided to call it quits after two terms

James said...

The US is a pretty ahistorical culture, and most Americans are sadly ignorant of the country's history

I've always had the impression that Americans (on average) are more interested in hero-worship than history.

Echo Mouse said...

I listened to Goodwin's interview about this book. Think it was on NPR. Definitely sounds like a must read.

As for Canadian history....you gotta stop this...you're becoming more Canadian than most of us canucks living here!!!! LOL ;)

Seriously, good on ya for reading up on all of it. Your brain must have a mega processor or something. The amount of information you share and the stuff you track is incredible. Very enlightening :)

L-girl said...

Aw come on, Echo Mouse, you're embarrassing me. :)

After all, I just spent the evening watching the Simpsons and Family Guy. Really brainy stuff. In some circles, I'm a low-brow.

L-girl said...

You should have immigrated to Korea, Laura, so that I get reminded of Syngman Rhee's birthday.

This is a very funny thought! :)

I guess it is really important for the first head of the state to set the tone. Washington probably did not fully appreciate what he was doing for the future of the United States when he decided to call it quits after two terms

Those guys were very full of their own importance. But I wonder if anyone could have imagined what was being wrought.

I've always had the impression that Americans (on average) are more interested in hero-worship than history.

That's a safe bet.

The literate, liberal-leaning, book-reading, history-revising sub-culture notwithstanding.

(Listen to me, I should throw in "latte-drinking and sushi-reading" and run for office.)