Complicated Ghosts

Two biographies examine men both lauded and reviled

Which comes first, the biographer or the subject? That is more than a chicken and egg question, for biographers bring their own personalities, ambitions and baggage to the people they write about and it affects the way they approach and analyze the material. Case in point: these two biographers, Mark Abley and J. William Galbraith, one experimental and the other traditional, use different means to enlighten the reader about the true natures of their respective subjects, Duncan Campbell Scott and John Buchan.

Both subjects are prominent figures from the recent historical past, both were born in the Victorian era and died in the 1940s, both achieved substantial fame and applause in their lifetimes, and both have since been branded as intolerant, prejudiced and bigoted—in one case as a vicious anti-Semite; in the other, as a racist and supporter of, if not advocate for, the cultural genocide of First Nations peoples. What is the truth about these two individuals? Despite the best attempts of writers Galbraith and Abley, in history there is never absolute truth, only good arguments.

Philip Guedalla, the great English biographer and historian, in 1929 defined biography as “a very definite region bordered on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium.” He was having fun, and he is not very charitable, but neither was he wrong. Biography as a literary type has a long, long history, but its basic form has not changed a great deal—although research tools and different emphases have evolved. Basically, the form is one of three: autobiography (self-serving and inconclusive since the writer cannot describe circumstances of his or her own death), memoir (similarly a narrative but more episodic and descriptive of other events or people) or straightforward narrative biography (an intimate life-to-death account based on oral or written documentation—most commonly a “life and times”). All of these form, and in contemporary writing are informed by, social science methodologies—psychology, sociology, psychotherapy and so on. Still, basic biographical methodology has not varied much: data of all type are collected, a thesis is either imposed (or better) emerges, and a life story based on that research is related. The varied experiences of the subject and the skill of the writer in interpreting and describing them determine whether the account is convincing and appreciated by others. Thus endeth the lesson.

What most biographies have in common is that they are non-fiction. But, during the last quarter century or so, a type of writing that straddles fiction and non-fiction has emerged: creative non-fiction. This genre, which has its own characteristics and conventions and a growing popular and academic following, lends itself particularly well to biography (and especially literary biography). Literary style and technique are employed to establish a factually convincing account. The overall events described must exist in the real world, and have actually happened, but a gloss is applied where, for example, a character might be introduced to expand or elucidate a point of view that the actual documents do not permit. The idea is that existent documents do not take you far enough to provide real insight into the subject.

This is the approach taken by Mark Abley in Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott. But the tradition he invokes is much older than that of creative non-fiction. In ways Abley’s book is a kind of “ghost story” as he employs a revenant—that is somebody returned from the dead—which is an ancient storytelling device most frequently now used in horror films and fiction. In this case the revenant is Duncan Campbell Scott, renowned Canadian poet but also deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs and a principal architect of the despised residential schools system. This courtly and intelligent zombie makes a series of visits from the afterlife to the Abley residence in Montreal on a quest to discover why contemporary Canadians have condemned him. Scott is outraged, saddened and distressed that novelist Will Ferguson nominated him as one of the ten worst people in Canadian history in a 2007 The Beaver (now Canada’s History) magazine. Incidentally, John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker were both on the list as well.

Exactly why Scott has chosen Abley as a confessor is not exactly clear (because he is a poet and writer like Scott, we are told), but during a series of visits the two converse and argue about Scott’s role—as a poet empathetic with the fate of Native peoples, and as a facilitator (or enabler to use the current phase) who destroyed their culture, caused pain, discomfort and death, and left (perhaps unintentionally) a disastrous legacy through his work at Indian Affairs. When Abley claims, at the outset, not to know a great deal about Scott, he is charged by the revenant to study the historical record to understand his actions and apparent contradictions. Conversations between them are interspersed with well-researched and historically accurate accounts of Scott’s activities. All of Abley’s speculations about Scott in the fictive parts are based on solid evidence. We learn of Scott’s government and creative lives as Abley conducts his careful research. When a conclusion is drawn—and there is a judgement made in the end—it is evident how Abley came to it.

This latter technique is reminiscent of another experiment in biography less known than it should be. In 1934, A.J.A. Symons (brother of the novelist Julian Symons) wrote a book called The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography about Frederick William Rolfe (the self-styled Baron Corvo), an eccentric English writer of the turn of the last century. Symons found conventional biographies unconvincing—arguing that biographers too frequently amassed details of a subject’s life, presented them according to a set viewpoint, and came to weighty and final conclusions. He objected to the seeming omniscience of the writer. Instead, Symons thought it would be more honest and ultimately more persuasive if the biographer explained how he or she encountered the subject, collected and evaluated evidence—accepting or rejecting certain details—and showed how the selected facts and other material pointed toward a conclusion. His argument was that a much truer and convincing picture of the subject would emerge.

The problem for me with Abley’s book is that despite the author’s scrupulous attempt to be fair and honest there is a sense that he has put Scott on trial; toward the end of the book he acts less as objective investigator and more and more as something of a prosecutor. His own prejudices become clearer in the acknowledgements, which somewhat undercut his objectivity. And finally, at the conclusion of the account, Scott seeks not just understanding, but also a kind of forgiveness for his actions. That seems unrealistic—even for a ghost, maybe especially for a ghost.

The past really is a different country; people did things differently there and the consequences of their actions could not be fully understood by them. That does not mean we excuse Scott. He was responsible for actions that even at the time he lived—a time of ubiquitous paternalism and unbridled social Darwinism—might be questionable. Abley might have made more of this. But Scott was not evil and does not deserve Will Ferguson’s condemnation. He was misguided, and terribly, terribly wrong in his administrative policies with catastrophic results for many Native people and for Canadian society at large.

The damage lingers and, whatever its origins, the effects have to be addressed. Abley’s original approach to presenting and understanding the issues—through the prism of one man—reveals much but also suggests much remains to be revealed. Agree or disagree with the conclusions, this well-crafted and engaging account makes good reading.

J. William Galbraith’s John Buchan: Model Governor General is a much more conventional account about a figure who is much less controversial than Scott. Still he is not without detractors and not only for his alleged anti-Semitism. Buchan’s unalloyed imperialism has damned him as a brutal colonialist and his observations about black people have led to many considering him a racist. Mordecai Richler was a sharp critic and joined others, such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, in exposing what they saw as a constant stream of anti-Semitism in Buchan’s work. Lately, Canadian authors Ian McKay and Jamie Swift in Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety have drawn attention to Buchan’s role in South Africa, where, as one of Lord Milner’s bright young men, he influenced divisive policy and had a hand in running what were the first concentration camps. You will not find much discussion of these themes in Galbraith’s book, however—not surprising, since he is a council member of the John Buchan Society.

But, as with Abley’s volume, this book is not entirely a traditional life and times—and that is both a strength and a weakness. Galbraith has chosen to focus at length on Buchan’s years as governor general of Canada, from 1935 to 1940. After a sketchy outline of Buchan’s earlier life and achievements, of which there are many, and an even briefer sketch of the state of Canada at the time of his accession, we turn to a thematic analysis of Buchan’s years of Canadian service. Galbraith is building the case that Buchan sets (or at least should set) the mould for the role of all governors general. He does this in five parts and the titles of each section indicate the nature of his argument: I. “A Refreshing Change: The Model Takes Shape,” II. “Making the Statute of Westminster a Reality: Statesman in Canada,” III. “‘The Best Bridge’: Statesman Beyond Canada,” IV. “‘Never Be Off the Road’: Reaching Out to Canadians” and, finally, V. “Encouraging Excellence.”

To take each one of those topics in turn.

I. Yes, Buchan was a refreshing change as he was not a titled aristocrat; in fact, he only took the title of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir at the insistence of the king. He was a commoner and rather proud of it (although he did like pomp and circumstance and his role at the centre of it).

II. Essentially the 1931 Statute of Westminster gave substance in law to the Balfour Report’s 1926 statement that the Dominions and the British government were constitutionally “equal in status.” The Earl of Bessborough was governor general back in 1931, but Buchan held the post as Canada developed a more independent role during the growth of fascism in Europe, British appeasement and the outbreak of the Second World War.

III. Buchan saw his role as acting as a bridge between Britain and the United States and was instrumental in securing the support of American president Franklin Roosevelt, a link that became crucial for Canada and Britain when war broke out in 1939.

IV. Buchan was a sportsman, and that might have accounted for his wanderlust, but he thought it was important to see and be seen both as an individual and as a figurehead. As such, he travelled all parts of the country and was the first governor general to visit the Arctic.

V. Buchan is probably best remembered now for his establishment of the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1937, but that was only one of his many activities in promoting the arts and particularly history—curiously the Tweedsmuir Histories, local scrapbooks compiled by Women’s Institute branches and encouraged by and named after Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir are not mentioned by Galbraith—an unusual oversight in this exhaustive account.

The book takes up some 500 pages and there is inevitably overlap and repetition. In the end, the attentive reader, or even the one whose attention might understandably wander a bit, is largely convinced. Yes, Buchan was a fine governor general at a challenging time, but a great deal of his success resulted from the extraordinary person he was and the influence and connections that he had fashioned through his long career as a lawyer, businessman, high-level civil servant, influential writer over a huge range (100 books!), member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, and his vast and well-placed international acquaintanceship. Not many of our contemporary candidates come with those credentials.

What this book calls out for, despite its length, is more and not less. It should and can profitably be read alongside Andrew Lownie’s John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier for a better understanding of the personal context. By the way, Lownie too is a member of the John Buchan Society, but he gives us more of a “warts and all” account—or, at least, he accounts for the warts. For a close-up of a top-down view of Canada and especially Rideau Hall in the late 1930s, however, and for further understanding of the peculiarities of dealing with Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King, the Galbraith book offers a great deal of interest. In the end it is Buchan’s role as a moral compass that seems most worthy.

Incidentally, Galbraith is particularly suited to investigate byways of the corridors of power. Readers might recognize his name as having been in the news lately regarding reviewing the activities of the Communications Security Establishment Canada concerning issues of data privacy and intelligence gathering at home and abroad. Galbraith’s day job is executive director of the Office of the CSE Commissioner.

Oh, and to address those lingering criticisms. Certainly Buchan was an imperialist, but somehow that term has become meshed with the now entirely negative word “colonialist.” What is the difference? Well, the traditional definition is that imperialism is the theory and colonialism is the practice. By those terms, Buchan was always an imperialist, although some might rightly question his early experience in South Africa before the First World War. But his championing of the new Canada that emerged after the Statute of Westminster certainly suggests that he was at best an evolved imperialist at least as far as the white dominions were concerned. As for those who find Buchan anti-Semitic, anti-black and even anti-feminist, they are confusing his fiction with his own personal views. That is not to deny there is a fair bit of anti-Semitism in his characters’ speech and unwelcome observations about race differences in his other books, but traces of the latter disappear after Hitler’s rise to power, and it should be remembered that Buchan was a committed Zionist and indeed was on the Nazi list of Britons to be incarcerated for his “Pro-Jewish activity” if they successfully occupied the country. He came from a period when God was an Englishman (or at least British) and, although like Duncan Campbell Scott he may have had a certain personal empathy for some particular minorities, he largely played to the prejudices of his contemporary crowd.

The novelist L.P. Hartley was right when he wrote in The Go-Between that “the past is a foreign country.” The biographer’s role is to issue us a passport for a visit, but we cannot really appreciate the place unless we leave our contemporary prejudices behind and immerse ourselves in the new terrain. Both these books are helpful, but to truly understand the past we need an extended visa.