WRITING THE NATIONAL DREAM
(first published in The Beaver 1993)
Twenty-five years ago Pierre Berton was famous, successful, influential. As a journalist and as a TV personality, he had long since outpaced his few rivals in Canada. But he was not yet the Berton we know. He was not yet Berton the historian.
Then in 1970, he published The National Dream, the first of his two-book narrative on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railway books changed his life -- and ours. He was fifty. His important work had just begun.
The idea that Berton's historical writings are his important ones, outweighing all his previous journalism, is Berton's own. He said so last May in Toronto, when he gave the Margaret Laurence Lecture, an annual event (sponsored by the Writers' Development Trust) in which a senior Canadian writer reflects on "A Writer's Life." That idea started me musing on the significance of those railway books. Then he said something else about them.
When he had his research assembled, Berton said, he retreated home to Kleinburg, Ontario. And there he wrote the first draft of the first volume in three weeks -- typing, barely able to stop, eighteen hours a day, then spending the other six barely able to sleep, so eager was he to get back to his story. I thought I had never heard a more vivid account of a writer's ecstasy, of being so consumed with a subject that writing becomes a pleasure and an obsession.
Recently I went to talk to Pierre Berton about writing the railway books that founded his historical career. "I haven't read them since then," he said. But he has not forgotten them either. Perhaps working on his memoirs (scheduled for publication in 1995) has helped refresh his memory, but no one lets him forget those books. "They are not my favorite books, or my best. I enjoyed Vimy more. And , my longest book, it's a very long book, I think may be my best. But the railway books made my fortune. And they are the ones everyone still remembers."
Looking back, Berton sees the inspiration for his plunge into historical writing in Klondike, published in 1958. That book, about the beginnings of the community he grew up in, might easily have been a one-time venture into history, for a daily column for the Toronto Star preoccupied him in the years that followed. Most of a decade passed before he considered another history. "I had enjoyed Klondike. I can see now that it was about the big subject I like to write about: large groups of people moving through time and space. And I came across the idea of the railway."
Klondike had been built largely from interviews, but the railway led into the archives. "Michael Bliss [who read and commented on the railway manuscript] told me later I would have done better to have started with more of the secondary material, but I went to the archives very early on." Berton discovered the same things most archives users do. There was the shock of being handed boxes filled with precious, irreplaceable documents: in this case, John A. Macdonald's own letters. There was the struggle to master the handwriting (Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, he discovered, wrote left to right across the page in the normal fashion, then parsimoniously turned the page around and wrote more lines at right angles across the first ones). And there was the freedom of research ("In the public archives in Ottawa, you could read all night, literally, if you borrowed the materials during their working hours.")
He may have been a neophyte in the archives, but already Berton was finding his reporter's skills useful. He instinctively read the papers on the Pacific Scandal the way only an investigative journalist could, interrogating the sources as he might a politician in a scrum.
He also applied the organizational skills of a writer raised on deadlines. All his notes (and those of his researcher Norman Kelly) went into looseleaf sheets that accumulated in thick binders, numbered paragraph by paragraph. When a binder was full Berton assembled a card index to it, and gradually the cards became an outline of the book. When he began to write, he had at hand a plan and the materials to implement it. "I'm like General Montgomery," says Berton now, "I don't make a move until I have all the preparations done and I know exactly what is going to happen."
Journalism also told Berton what kind of book he wanted to write. "I don't call what I do popular history because there is academic history that is popular and non-academic history that no one reads. I call it narrative history. When I started no one in Canada was writing this kind of history. The only exception was Bruce Hutchison." Berton, famed as a journalist for his ability to spot the big story, then get the facts and lay them out in clear vivid prose, planned to apply the same qualities to narrative history. "I'm very influenced by the movies. I try to visualize, I like to see the background. There's a place in the first book [it's volume one, page 222] where I say the meeting between Donald Smith and James J. Hill is like a widescreen movie. Someone criticized that, but that how I like to see."
The richness of the archives helped make that widescreen vision possible. "The railway books started as one book. In fact, I always start a book with the fear that there will not be enough material, enough good material." Once or twice he has abandoned a topic on those grounds, but the archives usually provide. "I make nothing up," Berton says firmly. "I don't need to make up the weather, or the time, or someone's thoughts, when there are sources to tell."
Berton's narratives thrive on that special kind of detail. "Daniel McMullen, for instance, the man who revealed the stolen telegrams in the Pacific Scandal. He had been mentioned, but no one had looked into who he was, his height and age and the fact that he had once been in the ginseng business, all the things that make a character vivid." The archival work that provides that kind of detail, the work that also turned up Edward Mallandaine and put a name to the boy who squeezed into the famous Last Spike photograph, is what underpins Berton's historical narrative style, and it has hardly changed since the railway books.
By then it was time to write. Berton told everyone he was going to Mexico. Instead he went home. To insure quiet, and over the protests of his family (barely heard, one suspects), he took out the telephone. With the card index and twenty binders of notes beside his typewriter, he began the frenzied three weeks that produced the book. "Of course that draft was very rough. I'll write three or four drafts of a book, and up to thirteen of some sections. But I like to get a book down on paper. And I don't always start with Chapter One. In the railway books, I think I started with some of the parliamentary debate, because I knew there was good material there. I had the background on everyone, not just Macdonald but people like Lucius Seth Huntington, too, and with the background in place, those great speeches just leapt right off the page."
The second book emerged at nearly the same pace. Berton points out that over the years The Last Spike has matched the sales of The National Dream, no easy feat for a sequel, but he also thinks they are very different books. The first book was more complex because it was about the competing plans and personalities when the railway was indeed mostly a dream. "In the second book, when they are actually building the railway, the story drives the narrative, and the style is very simple because the story just carries it along."
The railway books appeared in 1970 and 1971. Berton thinks the time was right for the new kind of history he was providing: Centennial year had whetted Canadians' interest in Canada. In any case, the books met instant acceptance and extraordinary sales. Berton particularly remembers a book-signing in Victoria, when orderly lineups collapsed and four hundred people crowded around waving copies of the book at him.
Soon came the television version -- surely one of the best things television has ever done on an historical subject. That sold more books, and really the demand never ceased. Berton had created an audience, and he and his audience have gone on together ever since. The success of The National Dream made him an historian, and almost twenty-five years of Berton histories have changed the landscape of Canadian historical writing. "When I did the TV series My Country, we did 52 episodes. Now I think someone has done a book about every topic we took up in those episodes."
He thinks his best books are those that tap "his" theme -- people moving in time and space. But he thinks a subtheme is vital too. "It's there in all the books, and I never say it straight out. But when I find the subtheme, maybe halfway through the research, I know I have a book.
"Klondike is not really about gold. It's about man's quest, it's about seeking, it's about the odyssey. Vimy is about the frontier, tough, practical, adaptable frontier Canadians who could do what the sophisticated Europeans could not. And 1812 is about the stupidity of war -- about how the least stupid general is always the winner. The Arctic Grail is about the snobbery of the English class system, which is really what defeated Franklin and the others.
And the railway books? "Oh, that's nationalism, the we can do it legacy." Perhaps indeed, nationalism is the theme of all his histories. His journalism is often critical and controversial, but his history tends to the epic more than the expose. Berton has waged unrelenting war on Canadians' sense that their country may not be interesting, may not be great, may not be worth our attention. The measure of his success is how hard it is now to go back to when Berton was fifty and no one thought of him as Berton the historian.v
Pierre Berton concluded his Margaret Laurence lecture by describing a writer's fear. It's not so much death he fears, he said to appreciative laughter, as the frustration of being taken with a book only half done and never to be completed. The man who lives with that delicious fear is the same one who created the railway books, writing almost around the clock and waking up eager for the sheer satisfaction of writing some more.
He's probably more to be envied for that than for all the fortune his histories have earned.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 1993
It's a kind of detective work, he says, trying to explain both the rather extraordinary work he does and what attracts him to it. "I'm about the only freelance curator who works in both the contemporary and historical fields of Canadian art." When someone in Canada has a problem, a challenge, or an opportunity involving images of Canada's history, as often as not a call will reach Robert Stacey at the Archives of Canadian Art and Design in an old industrial building on the edge of downtown Toronto.
Not long ago, Penguin Books called Stacey about their remarkable new historical novel, Isobel Gunn by Audrey Thomas. Could he find the right historical image for the cover? Another call came from Nanaimo, B.C., where a team of citizens trying to save the historical murals in a local hotel wanted an expert's eye. Meanwhile, making the rounds at a Toronto art-auction house, Stacey looked at a portrait attributed to Paul Kane being readied for a sale, and raised doubts. Could this attribution really be verified?
Stacey outlined the problems with the Kane portrait. It is a workmanlike portrayal, but when it was done in the 1830s, Paul Kane had barely begun to paint; his known portraits from this era are crude daubs. Stacey quickly established that the documentary record linking Kane to the portrait is after-the-fact guesswork, regularly repeated but never investigated.
The auction house withdrew the portrait from sale pending further scrutiny. For Stacey, it was another example of how thin our art-historical expertise actually is, even for artists of the importance of Kane. "We have to go back and establish the facts. We have to stop relying on hearsay and do the stylistic analysis and see what we come up with."
When the Nanaimo team working to save the murals from the Malaspina Hotel called, it sounded like another in a long sad sequence -- trying to save art that hardly any one cares about. But even in a quick investigation, Stacey pointed out the kind of entwining links that he constantly finds waiting to be discovered in Canadian art.
"About 1900 to 1950," Stacey explains, "there was a golden age of historical mural-painting, a movement to get Canadian history into public places." The Malaspina Hotel murals, made in 1938 by E.J. Hughes, Orville Fisher, and Paul Goranson, have been badly damaged and are now removed from their original site. Stacey had only some photos to work from, but one in particular, showing the Spanish captain Malaspina trading with chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound in 1791, kept intriguing him.
"I kept saying, 'This reminds me of something,'" he says. Then he saw it. Paul Goranson had modeled his figures on an earlier example of Canadian historical illustration, a widely-published drawing entitled "Indians Trading with the French," by the famous historical illustrator Charles W. Jefferys. For Stacey, it was another example of almost invisible links woven all through Canadian historical art -- the more so because Jefferys is both Stacey's grandfather and one of his recurring interests as curator and editor.
"Mural paintings became unfashionable," continues Stacey, not only as art but for the attitudes they are seen to perpetuate: too many cringing native people, defeated French generals, and heroic European men. But in Goranson's painting, it is Captain Malaspina who is the supplicant and the intruder, not the powerful and magnificent Maquinna. Anyway, says Stacey, "the murals are often in disrepair or covered over, but we can't just cover the story up because it embarrasses us. We can't destroy the evidence of an artistic tradition." (Nanaimo's Malaspina University College has offered to provide a home for two of the six murals.)
The commission to find artwork appropriate Audrey Thomas's novel unleashed another of Stacey's passions. He is convinced that, even on minor projects, Canadian historical imagery deserves serious research -- and that research almost always pays off. Since Isobel Gunn is set in southwestern Manitoba about 1806, Stacey set himself not to settle for some familiar fur-trade image, but to locate artwork specifically from that time and place.
"To do this work, it is vital to have contacts in archives, to be able to talk about what is in the collections, maybe never photographed or published. In this case, someone put me on to a reproduction in an old Beaver by William Richards, a rare HBC factor who made images as well as writing reports. It was in the HBC archives -- and I had a cover.
"There is an episode in the book that has Isobel Gunn, her baby, and a man travelling on snowshoes. Richards's sketch shows exactly that, in the same region and drawn within a few years of the period of the book!"
As he talks of his detecting assignments, Stacey keeps circling back to the need for more work in Canadian art history. Again Paul Kane provides an example. Stacey and some colleagues are trying to bring about the first full-scale exhibition of Kane's original sketches. "Kane's well-known paintings are mix-and-match creations, using many elements from his field sketches. They are fictions, a romantic creation, totally unreliable as evidence and not intended as such. Only the field sketches and the field notes make it possible to reconstruct what Paul Kane actually saw in the west. Yet they have not been seen in bulk in Canada since 1848."
Universities and institutions have departments devoted to art and art history, but Stacey laments that "nobody is doing that obvious basic research. Students in the mainstream, in universities, are not being made to do it. They are doing theory. And our institutions are so downsized or demoralized that they can hardly help the ordinary user. Today the person who answers phone inquiries doesn't know and has not got the hands-on experience to know. It is harder and harder just to get access to what is already there."
Another Stacey target is the way historical art is routinely misused. "What really bothers me," he says, "is the laziness of historians, of art directors. A lot of writers use illustration in a very cavalier manner. They act as if everything were in the public domain and don't credit the artist or the source -- partly because things get swiped so often. So one sees the same images, and the same misinformation about them, perpetuated again and again."
Stacey does not lack for projects. For the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, he is curating an exhibition of Qu'Appelle Valley paintings ("After the Group of Seven went to northern Ontario, Charles Jeffreys went to the Prairies, and he really discovered the Qu'Appelle valley as a subject for art."). In Toronto, he is assembling an exhibit of the art of Daniel Wilson. Wilson, a nineteenth-century teacher and president of the University of Toronto, was a great early Darwinian -- and a patron of Paul Kane -- but Stacey knows he was also a noteworthy, neglected artist.
With a team of colleagues, Stacey has launched an ambitious project to create an online national image bank. He intends to build the Paul Kane project into, not only an exhibition, but also a book, a film, and a digital resource. Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing with new detecting assignments.
Can Stacey's remarkably precise and wide-ranging knowledge of Canadian art and history be sustained in a freelance career forever depending an uncertain market, I wondered. Shouldn't he be snapped up by one of our great cultural institutions? Stacey laughs ruefully. "I've been too busy to take a job. I have too many projects on the go."
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2000