Thursday, October 20, 2016

Prize Watch: Berton Award for Merna Forster

Historian Merna Forster, director of the University of Victoria's Great Canadian Mysteries Project, and entrepreneur of  -- but particularly notable recently as the force behind the successful campaign to put some (non-British, uncrowned) women on the Canadian money -- has been named the winner of the 2016 Pierre Berton Award for Popular Canadian History. The Berton doubles as the Governor General's Award in Popular History, and will be presented by David Johnston at Rideau Hall on November 28.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

L'effet Berthiaume at Library and Archives Canada

Quill and Quire reports on the rebirth of LAC as a cultural commons in Ottawa under the leadership of Guy Berthiaume, with the return of events, speakers, seminars and other previous victims of austerity.
In years past, the library was a hub for major literary and cultural events, from book launches to exhibitions and concerts. Its ground floor buzzed with activity. Now, following six years of austerity measures that saw massive budget cuts and a hold on new acquisitions, LAC is once again becoming an animated place and a force in the arts community.
How LAC is doing as an archives also matters, shall we say.  But this is important too.

Hat-tip Fred Stenson's 

Whale history

Historian Daniel Francis reviews Mark Leiren-Young's The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, which explores the unintended consequences of the 1964 accidental live capture of "Moby Doll":
Moby Doll’s time in captivity was brief but it was a transformative event in the history of the BC coast. It marked the beginning of a remarkable change in public perception and scientific understanding. This is the real subject of Leiren-Young’s book and the reason why he argues that Moby Doll “changed the world.” Able to get close to an orca for the first time, people began to recognize that it was a peaceable, intelligent animal, not a fearsome monster.
The review appears in The Ormsby Review, a new initiative in British Columbia historical journalism named in honour of the mother of British Columbia history, the late Margaret Ormsby.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

History of architectural criticism

Speaking of political correctness, can it really be true that the Ottawa Writers Festival made Charlotte Gray disavow her description of the Library and Archives Canada building as "bleak"??

(It still ain't the Taj Mahal of archives, let us say.)

Discover Canada to be corrected, politically?

To be politically corrected?
Peter Van Loan, the unsavory Harperian attack dog, has reinvented himself ... as a historian, or at least a twitterstorian.

Rumours that the Liberal government was planning a rewrite of the citizenship orientation book Discover Canada provoked Van Loan to denounce a "Liberal war on history." To fight it, he launched what has become a daily tweeting of Canadian historical events, Tory-slanted (heavy on John A. and the monarchy) but mostly just random historical moments and anniversaries.  Such as:

Sadly, Van Loan may be sort of right about Liberal history. Sources suggest that politicos in the Immigration Ministry are working on tweaks to the Discover Canada text -- as written some years ago by political types in the previous government's Immigration Ministry.

I'm not against edits and tweaks to the material in the booklet that is intended to orient immigrants preparing to seek Canadian citizenship. But the government has historians and researchers capable of doing this.  Canadian history, particularly official history, ought to be depoliticized as much as possible. Historians being asked for input on the latest rewrite should not cooperate without assurances that professional rather than political standards are being maintained in the process

Monday, October 17, 2016

1066 and all that

The other day they re-enacted the Battle of Hastings for its 950th anniversary. Despite the Brexit vote and all, the invaders still won.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Prize Watch: History of Literature

Gotta say I was pretty chuffed to hear of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sure it is an unconventional choice, but who has contributed more fresh language, more fresh images, more fresh idiom to the culture over the last fifty years?

Here's me rooting for him eighteen months ago.

Besides, we need to get over this idea that real literature only comes in the form of made-up book-length prose narratives.  Strike a blow against fiction bigotry, Nobel people!

One downside: it has sure put a spike in Leonard Cohen's chances.  Here's the New Yorker, in a long Cohen profile just published, getting Dylan and Cohen to ponder on each other.

Meanwhile, here's the New Republic explaining just last week why Bob Dylan will never win a Nobel Prize
Bob Dylan? Despite being beloved by people who don’t know anything about the kinds of writers who actually win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan is not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. If Dylan does win, I will eat my copy of Blood on the Tracks.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Prize Watch: Charles Stacey Prize to Cook and Reid

The 2014-15 Charles P. Stacey Prize for distinguished Canadian contributions on conflict and society, awarded every second year by The Canadian Commission for Military History and the Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, has been awarded:
  • to Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum (his second Stacey Prize) for The Necessary War: Volume One of Canadians Fighting the Second World War
  • and to Richard M. Reid of the University of Guelph for African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Maclean's ranks the prime ministers

Needed a better barber, maybe
Maclean's, or more precisely, historians Norman Hillmer and Stephen Aziz for Maclean's, has organized another of those rank-the-prime-ministers studies.  It appeared in the magazine --print and online -- last week. A hundred and twenty-three responses were tallied from "academics and journalists who are experts in history, politics, international relations and economics."  So you may be among the participants.

(I'm not, actually.  Norman Hillmer kindly invited me to participate when he did one of these ten years ago, but I was busy, a bit dubious about the whole exercise, and frankly not very sure who I'd rank where among a lot of PMs I was neither well informed about or terribly interested in.  So I declined -- and my choice has been respected.  If I did not play, I shouldn't criticize the results, I guess, but what the hell. This time the 123 responses came from 187 invitations, it says.)

This year the poll has separated the long-term PMs from the short-termers.  Among long-term leaders, it's Mackenzie King, Laurier, Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, and Pearson filling the top five - so mid-twentieth century Liberalism is doing pretty well in academic eyes.  Macdonald dropped among young respondents, and Trudeau dropped sharply among Quebec respondents.

Big misjudgments?  Louis St-Laurent right behind the top five, hmmm.  And I'd say Alexander Mackenzie deserves to be higher than second from the bottom among the long-service PMs.  Sure, he only served one term, and he tends to be treated as hopelessly out-maneuvered by John A.  But the first ever Liberal government did important things: the secret ballot and electoral reform, civil service reform, bringing Prince Edward Island into confederation, planning western expansion and land treaties, and standing up to presumptuous governors-general and British officialdom.  Historians who can see the merit in the short serving John Thompson should take another look at Mackenzie.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Capturing Hill 70 and the state of Canadian military history

UBC Press has just released Capturing Hill 70: Canada's Forgotten Battle of the First World War, edited by Douglas Delaney and Serge Durflinger, and with contributions by seven other Canadian military historians.

I know because I just received a copy, and I received a copy because I read it in page proof and supplied a backcover comment. I called it "a meticulous work of battle history" and said it "showcases all the strengths of Canadian military history today."

Still sounds about right to me.  By August 1917, a competently led battle on the Western Front was a weird mix of complicated, mathematical engineering and insensate horror.  Capturing Hill 70 does not neglect the latter, but the 'meticulous' part is how its authors analyse the former: how staffs organized "battle procedure," the slide-rule calculation of artillery fire plans, the logistics of ammunition supply, even the application of railroad and tramway technology to casualty evacuation.  It ain't trumpets-and-drum history, but it casts a powerful spotlight on modern warfare a century ago, and it is well done.

The only part of Capturing Hill 70 I didn't much admire was the "Forgotten" in the subtitle, and the undertone grumbling here and there that suggests that military history in Canada 1) is neglected, 2) has not had enough written about it, 3) is insufficiently memorialized, and generally 4) doesn't get the respect it deserves.

This has been a theme of military historians at least since Jack Granatstein wrote Who Killed Canadian History? And maybe they need to get over themselves.  (By the way, Granatstein contributes a superb article here on manpower issues and the conscription crisis behind Hill 70, with the vital data powerfully deployed in a short space.).

Let's be clear.  There is a substantial corps of good, well-trained, well-organized and productive military historians in Canada. They have lots of access to publication, and they are prolific. They have access to notable centres of military history, not only in universities but at the War Museum, the forces' Directorate of History, the military colleges, and various private foundations. The bookshelves are full of military history, and the documentary films pour forth unceasingly.  These complaints of neglected and forgotten military history have a poor little rich kid sound.

I'm talking here about military history, but the same applies to a lot of Canadian history fields and subfields.  Any historian can make a case that his or her particular specialty deserves more respect and attention and should have had more published about it.  Frankly, it's pretty much always a waste of time. If you think your subject is understudied, then do your work. And stop bitching.  You probably have it pretty good.      

Friday, October 07, 2016

Who will play you in your biopic?

Actor left, historian right
In the newly released movie Denial, American historian Deborah Lipstadt gets Rachel Weisz playing her.

Denial dramatises the 2000 libel trial in London, England, in which Holocaust denier David Irving sued Lipstadt for libel over statements about him in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. David Irving lost, and Lipstadt, vindicated, wrote a second book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. This second book is the source material for the courtroom drama now in wide release.

In a Washington Post interview, Lipstadt acknowledges that one theme of the film is the frustration of a historian having to work with lawyers. (She does not say filmmakers):
I’m an academic. I decide what I want to teach. I decide what I’m going to write about. I work by myself in my study. The movie is very accurate in its depiction of my frustration.
Reviews of Denial seem to be kinda ho-hum.  Historians, right? Or maybe the book was better.

Isn't there enough credit to go around in the Franklin searches?

The Arctic Research Foundation is lawyering up and going negative to defend its actions in growing dispute over the Franklin search.

As reporters uncover fresh evidence that the ARF violated its explorations permits and agreements with Parks Canada, and then concealed its Terror discovery from Parks Canada  until it could amass favourable PR, the Foundation unleased lawyer Will MacDowell, a well-known civil litigator in Toronto, who transferred the blame elsewhere and declared that "there may be an agenda in play focused on discrediting ARF, its people and its work."

Last year it was John Geiger and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society that were being accused of trying to steal the limelight  -- and the ARF led the grousing. The year before it was Prime Minister Harper. This year it is the ARF. Isn't Arctic exploration worth doing right and doing respectfully?

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Prize Watch: the GG nonfiction shortlist

Governor General's Award shortlists, out today, is givin' some love to historians and lots to small presses.  Bill Waiser, prolific prairie historian from the University of Saskatchewan, will be the well known among the historians, but the biography of Marconi is by a McGill communications prof, Marc Raboy.

Cree lawyer and writer Harold Johnson's book on alcohol and indigenous people is another triumph for University of Regina Press, and Waiser's looks good on another small publisher Fifth House. Teva Harrison's graphic-memoir of cancer got lots of praise for both artwork and attitude, and she's published by Anansi, so only Al-Solaylee's Brown comes from one of the big multinat publishers.  (Raboy of Montreal is published by Oxford Press, an academic multinat.)

Altogether an interesting and provocative list.  Complete list in all genres here.  The nonfiction list:
    Bill Waiser,  A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905  (And who reads or remembers this anymore?)
    Kamal Al-Solaylee,  Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone)
    Harold R. Johnson, Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours)
    Teva Harrison, In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer
    Marc Raboy,  Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World 

Book Notes: Little on Wheelwright

Ann Little's The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, her Yale University Press biography of the New England girl, born 1696, who lived nine years with her family in Maine, then five years among the Wabanaki, then eighty-four seventy-two years in Quebec City, mostlyas a cloistered Ursuline nun and mother superior, is getting some very appreciative reviews:
What was it like for Esther to experience so much upheaval? We can conjecture, but we don’t really know; she didn’t write a captivity narrative or other autobiography, and fragments of her story are scattered among the many different archives that Little consulted. She often doesn’t write about Esther directly, but instead discusses events in other people’s lives that might have been similar to those experienced by Esther.
Esther Wheelwright is reasonably well established in Canadian historiography, I think. She's in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. There was a well-received Canadian biography Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright, by Julie Wheelwright (actually a descendant) in 2011. So Ann Little's book seems to be more of a revelation in the United States. But that does not have to take away from its achievement.

And... nice to see confirmed that a prolific history blogger is also a prolific history scholar. (Not that anyone would ever doubt it was possible.)
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