Thursday, 31 January 2013

Histories we tell

The best historical documentary that I've seen in... well... maybe forever, probably wouldn't even recognize itself as a work of history. Certainly not History. Yet that's exactly what it is. Elegant history.

I'm talking about Sarah Polley's new film Stories We Tell. In the film, Polley sits down with her father, her siblings and a cast of her mother's friends from the past and asks them to tell her 'the story' from beginning to end. The story, as you'll almost certainly know going in, is that her father isn't her biological father. Her mother had an affair in the past, and Polley is a lasting, tangible result of that affair. Polley only learns this later in life, after she's grown up, after her mother is dead.

There had been rumours. Jokes. Family jokes about Polley not really looking like her father. Perhaps, they laughed, her real father was one of those men that her mother acted with in a play back in the 1970s when she'd gone off to Montreal for a few months. Wouldn't that be funny? Wouldn't it?

In the film, Polley pieces together the story of her mother, her parents' relationship and what happened, or didn't happen, on that trip to Montreal. We learn, bit by bit, about the complications of this family - their secrets, the things they know about each other, might know about each other.

It is wonderfully told history - an essay in the historian's craft. There are only a few eye-witnesses. None of them saw everything, knew the whole story. The one woman who could have pieced it all together (if she'd been willing to tell the truth) is no longer here. Who do you believe? What is true?

The story, or really stories, get more complicated as the film goes on. Just when you think you might understand, there's a new twist, an story which is incompatible with something else.

Source: CBC

You might say this is a perfect example of postmodern filmmaking and history. And it is. But in a post-postmodernist way. That is, Polley isn't caught up in her own cleverness about the multiplicity of interpretations. She's not trying to wow you with the wonder of unknowable truth. The unknowable, multiple version of what really happened - its unknowableness for everyone - is just there. It's a fact of life. Now, let's try to actually tell the story, to get to the abiding truths that might come from assembling the different accounts of this relationship/these relationships.

The result is the best film I've seen in a long, long while.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Me, the Dorchester Review and the British Empire

Is anyone out there following the Dorchester Review? This is, according to its website,  a relatively new 'historical and literary review'. That's putting it very generally and, well, mildly.

This is definitely a right of centre periodical - an attempt to introduce into the intellectual discussion in Canada (and not only Canada) a different kind of discussion.

I have more than mixed feelings about much of the content, but I can't help but admire the
'relevance' of much of what it does. It's something other historical periodicals in Canada could learn from.

Recently I responded to an essay on the place of the British Empire in Canadian history, by one of the editors, Chris Champion. You can see the original essay (here) and my response (here).

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Cole Harris on Canadian liberalism

Sometimes teaching a graduate class can be fun. This is especially so in making you (ok, me) reread books from long ago. In the case I'm thinking about here, though, it's about making me read more carefully an article I'd read only a couple of years ago.

If there is an award (posthumous) for the best issue of the Canadian Historical Review, then a good case could be made that it ought to go for the December 2010 issue. It's unlikely that many Canadians will be sitting over the dinner table, years from now and saying things like 'Do you remember that great December 2010 issue of the CHR? What a doozy!' Yes, very unlikely indeed. But they should.

I'm thinking particularly (though not only) of Cole Harris's article 'The Spaces of Early Canada.' What an innocuous, modest title. The article is actually a wildly ambitious attempt to explain how the land base of early Canada has shaped Canadian history, culture and politics, on a wide scale. You should read the article (and the issue).

I'll only say here that the most impressive part of the article is how Harris refigures a key issue of debate in Canadian history circles - how or whether or when Canada became a small 'l' liberal nation in which individualism (in many guises) reigned supreme. Normally folks will talk about Ian McKay's influential work (including his own CHR article back in 2000). But Harris offers a much more compelling explanation and a much more generous appreciation for what this liberalism comprised. He links it to the particular way in which the frontier worked in Canada - this small band of land pushed up against the wilderness, that part of land that couldn't be used for agriculture. Here's Harris:

'While the shift away from tradition and custom and toward individual rights was undoubtedly transformative, MacKay, I think, has misjudged its motor and timing. To the extent that the case can be made for a liberal order in early Canada, the explanation has far less to do with political and intellectual elites than with the circumstances surrounding the colonization and settlement of land. In early Canada, as in other settler colonies, a process of settlement that detached people from former contexts, then sent them (usually as individuals or as members of a family) across an ocean, and eventually deposited them on a farm lot with others of somewhat different backgrounds on similar lots nearby, tended to emphasize the nuclear family and to weaken bonds of custom and community. the relentless work of pioneering and, for those families that survived it, the farm that was its eventual result, tended to reinforce a sense of individual achievement. People had tangibly improved their circumstances by, so it seemed, the sweat of their own brows.'  p746-747

There is more, of course. I've been lecturing about this for a few years now, trying to explain how the temperance movement and other movements of 19th century 'improvement' need to be seen in a wider context - how they can't be understood solely in the language of class (ie as bourgeois impositions or even as extensions of bourgeois culture taken up by others). That is, I've been trying to talk about how this 'liberal' language of improvement was much more widespread, and not connected to industrial capitalism alone. Harris's work, I think we have a much more solid account than I was, reflexively, without enough basis, giving my students.

At any rate, read the great old December 2010 issue. The whole thing is fantastic, with great articles by Helen Dewar, Allen Greer and Mary Corley Dunn.

It makes me wish, yet again, that I was a historian of early Canada....

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Where's the history?

Broken record warning:

I just saw the finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Looks like some interesting books, but I can't help but notice that the list doesn't have any works by historians.

The official details are here, but here is the list:

BarricadesPublished by Goose Lane Editions

GrescoeTaras Grescoe for Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the AutomobilePublished by HarperCollins Publishers

RichlerNoah Richler for What We Talk About When We Talk About WarPublished by Goose Lane Editions

SimpsonJeffrey Simpson for Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health-Care System Needs to be Dragged into the 21st Century Published by Allen Lane Canada

TrentPeter F. Trent for The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of MontrealPublished by McGill-Queen’s University Press

Monday, 14 January 2013

#Ottawapiskat central

For those non twitter folks, do check out the recent spate of tweets under the heading of #Ottawapiskat.

Sometimes humour really is incisive and to the point.

A few of my favourites:

In , vast sums of money are centrally controlled by the chief, who doles them out to his cronies and favoured interests.

 councillor Peter Mackay now goes only by his tribal name, Great Helicopter Fisherman

 debt hovering around $600,000,000,000. Might be time for a third-party manager.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Coming Soon: Adam and Eve and Canadian History, Fundamentalist Style

What do bible thumping religious fundamentalists have in common with some Canadian aboriginal historians? Apparently, a lot.

We all know the stories about American schools being forced to teach creationism alongside evolution. Don't talk about dinosaurs to my kids! Those T-Rex's are less than 5000 years old!

Well, the same kind of thing shows up in Canadian history circles too. In fact, it's in the December issue of the Canadian Historical Review.

In a review of the new edition of Canadian Women: A History, Katrina Srigley from Nipissing University explains how she doesn't assign this text in her own women's history class because, even in this latest edition, it is still just 'one' history of Canadian women. Ok. So far so good. Not sure what text exactly wouldn't suffer from the same criticism, but there you go. However....

She goes on to ask: 'What story does this textbook tell my Anishinaabeg and Cree students, as well as their settler classmates?' True, there are more aboriginal women highlighted in this edition and they do talk about aboriginal origin stories. But, she complains, they 'qualify origin stories as historical sources, describing them as "inspiring but vague."' She goes on to say that 'For Anishinaabekwe there is nothing limited about these stories for understanding their past(s), politics and culture.'

Nothing limited. Hmm.... Makes one think about history in a different way if this is how we are to teach it. I'm assuming Professor Srigley isn't going around teaching the truth and 'unlimited' value of judeo-Christian origin stories. My guess (perhaps wrong) is that she would have some doubts about teaching the truth of these spiritual/religious stories. Adam and Eve, meet the Big Turtle. But as for aboriginal origin stories, apparently anything goes.

Having said that, there are some great articles in the December CHR, including a fascinating one on the origins of Daylight Saving Time in Montreal, and another on the history of human rights activists and the question of sex discrimination, this by Ruth Frager and Carmela Patrias.

So it's not all bad.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

More on the story of history...

I see that the folks at History News Network have put up American Historical Association president Bill Cronon's presidential address. The subject is a good one, simply titled 'storytelling.'

For me he's speaking to the converted, but it's nice to see this being put forward at the centre of the profession - that is, it's nice to hear someone say that speaking to the pubic, making them interested in history, making the public care about history, is the single most important thing that professional historians do.

Yes. Exactly.

There's a story about the AHA and these kinds of issues in the NYT too, called 'Historians look book, and inward, at annual meeting.'

Friday, 4 January 2013

Idle Reading

A very useful post over at Active History suggests some reading people can do if they want to put the Idle No More movement into a historical context.

This is an interesting, and good, idea though I wonder how much time people genuinely have for this kind of thing. That is, I spend a good chunk of my life reading and even I couldn't imagine fitting in some, let alone all, of these books. (Luckily, I've already read some of them)

More importantly, though, the post implies that the real problem is one of ignorance. People just don't know enough history. Far be it from me to suggest that many Canadians are thoroughly immersed in their history, let alone their colonial history, but I do think this isn't quite right. It seems more accurate to say that, even if many non-aboriginal Canadians read all of these books, they still might not go along with much of what lies behind the Idle No More movement. There are fundamental disagreements over what the Canadian nation means, about individual and group rights, about how treaties should be interpreted now, etc.

I'd suggest, instead of the long and good list over at Active History, instead that folks read two (and perhaps three) books:

1) First,  Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009). This is, as the folks at Active History say, probably the best book at linking the present and past together, at truly making the case for why history matters, and why Canadians ought to be aware about the legacy of broken treaty promises amongst other things.

2) But then I'd recommend reading something that doesn't make it onto the other list: Tom Flanagan's First Nations, Second Thoughts (Montreal: McGill-Queen's, 2000). This book runs counter to almost everything on the Active History list, and counter to the Idle No More movement. Flanagan, of course, aside form being a historian and political scientist, is also a Conservative and a former Harper adviser. And for that very reason, you can't understand the current Canadian situation without this book.

3) Finally, it's also worth thinking about how several thoughtful people responded to Flanagan. See Annis May Timpson, First Nations, First Thoughts: the Impact of Indigenous thought in Canada (Vancouver: UBC, 2009)

Alas, more reading. But even just the first two, when read in tandem, are a good start.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?

Apparently, I'm a sucker for punishment. On New Year's Eve I tried to defend the indefensible: that is I tried to make a case for why Stuart Maclean's stories on the Vinyl Cafe - you know, the hokey, feel-good ones about Dave and Morley and the kids - are actually good writing.

I didn't pick the best venue: a room full of readers and, alas, writers. They were having none of it.

So now I'm at it again. My own Christmas reading included a novel by the fantasy and historical fiction writer Guy Gavriel Kay. This one was The Last Light of the Sun, a fictionalized (and fantastical) account of medieval England in the time before the Norman invasion, amidst the battles between Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

It is, for me, wonderful escapist fiction. Except that, it's not. Or not entirely. In fact, I think Kay might actually be, in his own way, a damn fine historian.

The difference between Kay and some other fantasy novels, is two things: his historical sensibility, and his writing style. When I read novels by GGK I am constantly struck by how he is able to make the ideas of academic history come to life in a fictional world. He makes many things up, and has his own fun. But he also makes academic ideas that could otherwise be quite dry or intellectual, seem fresh and real. I noticed this when reading his novels about a fictionalized Byzantine empire after the division between east and west. I had read with others about how one ought not to see the fall of the western empire in Rome as really being the fall of the Roman Empire, but it probably was in the two novels by Kay that I truly got what this really meant. The same can be said for the intermingling of cultures in pre-Norman England in my holiday reading.

It's an impressive ability.

And it works all the more because he so nicely historically contextualizes even the most minor of his characters. It's a common strategy of his to take a side figure who witnesses something important and sets up who this person is. He gives them a life in his fictionalized historical context. And then we witness the  particular series of events through their eyes. Then it's back on to someone else, and the plot moves ahead. I can't help thinking that, stylistically, historians could learn a lot from this. What he's doing, in a fictional way, is dealing with different eye-witness accounts, people with different perspectives based on who they are (their class, race, gender) and enriching the story with all of these different perspectives. But he also doesn't lose sight of the story's momentum. I'm tempted, for historians, to switch the latter, and call it argument or thesis.

Worth a thought, anyway.

Go ahead: tell me I'm a sucker for simplistic cultural forms. In the meantime I'll be reading the other GGK novel I got under the tree, listening to my new box set of Dave and Morley stories, and working out how all of this is going to help me write the book of academic history I'm trying to write.