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A Nationalist Giant

A young popular historian assesses Pierre Berton’s impressive legacy

Ken McGoogan

Prisoners of the North

Pierre Berton

Doubleday Canada

328 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 0385660464

The easiest way for an author to attract attention, the fastest shortcut to notoriety, if not celebrity, is to attack a better-known writer in print—the more famous, the more iconic, the better. Martin Amis, take this. Margaret Atwood, take that. Pierre Berton? Why not? When he died last December at 84, no writer in this country was better known. A Companion of the Order of Canada, Berton had won 30 literary awards and received a dozen honorary degrees. He had been a public figure longer than most Canadians have been alive.

Not only that, but by his own savvy count—one eye, as always, on the marketplace—the man had written 50 books. Not all of those sing and dance. Over the years, first-run reviewers have provided plenty of ammunition. All the attention seeker would have to do is load the canon, spike it with nasty witticisms and blast away. When the smoke cleared, wow! He would be The Warrior Scribe Who Felled An Icon!

Sorry to disappoint, but that is not going to happen here. The plain-writing Berton may not have been the finest stylist this country ever produced.

And while marshalling millions of facts into sundry coherent narratives, certainly he made mistakes, some of them grievous. What’s more, he was loud, opinionated and ubiquitous.

He was so larger-than-life, so anti-Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are, that if he hadn’t almost come to personify Canada, at least for Canadians with any sense of history, we would have been tempted to lock him up for being un-Canadian.

Fifty books, yes. And the latest of these, Prisoners of the North, proved a sufficient milestone even before his death to put the editor of this journal in mind of a quasi-retrospective. As she cast about for a writer, a myriad of wide-awake candidates, quickly discerning the magnitude of the task, took a giant step backward, leaving one poor, distracted fool standing alone, toying with his beard and musing that he didn’t know what he thought of Berton because he had not yet written about him.

A full-blown retrospective, the editor admitted, would take a book. But given 2,500 words, surely a conscientious scribbler would be able to outline Berton’s career? And contextualize the magnitude and meaning of his achievement? And doubtless situate the criticisms and assess the arguments of detractors, while gesturing at the scope of any legacy?

I hemmed and hawed and asked if she’d settle for a few riffs.

Time for the requisite disclosure. A few years back, I spent two months at Pierre Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, working on a book in the writers’ retreat that the ubiquitous white-haired one created of his childhood home. I rambled the streets Berton had walked as a boy and explored the ghost town that shaped his consciousness—snooped around in the Robert Service cabin across the street from the house, cheered on the can-can girls at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Saloon, panned for gold in the icy creeks where Berton worked summers in the mines, and made my way to the Dome and looked out over Dawson City and watched the Yukon River winding north from distant Whitehorse and away to the Beaufort Sea.

Pierre Berton himself was True North. And Prisoners of the North, which comprises five extended profiles and so lacks the sweep, scope and ambition of his monumental histories, signals both a return and closure, and so constitutes a fitting final book. But let’s hold on the histories. The number-two tributary in the author’s river of work consists of the Essential Autobiography. Taken together, four volumes tell the story of The Gold Miner’s Son Who Grew Tall and Famous: Starting Out, My Times, Drifting Home and The Joy of Writing.

Pierre Berton, born in Whitehorse in 1920, spent his first twelve years in Dawson City, then moved with his parents to Victoria, British Columbia. He himself identified several key turning points. As a 19-year-old university student,

Berton chucked science to become a journalist. At 21, having joined the Vancouver News-Herald, he became the youngest city editor on any Canadian daily. Five years later, he abandoned a thriving Vancouver career and moved to Toronto to work for Maclean’s magazine. At 38, having published several books, he left Maclean’s to write a column for The Toronto Star. And at 48—with 17 books to his credit—Berton dropped most other work to concentrate on writing a series of histories, beginning with The National Dream.

Starting Out and My Times tell the Pierre Berton story, delivering the first 27 and the next 49 years, respectively. Drifting Home details a rafting trip down the Yukon River to Dawson City and into the author’s past, and The Joy of Writing communicates, with singular clarity, the energy, stamina and sheer bloody-mindedness required, over and above raw talent, to become a successful professional writer. Okay, an outstanding one.

In the 1950s, while serving as managing editor of Maclean’s, Pierre Berton telephoned the highly regarded writer June Callwood and told her, “We’d like an article on the universe.” Callwood, dandling an infant on her lap, said, “The universe?” “Yes, the universe,” Berton snapped, irritated that the conversation was dragging on. “Deadline in two weeks.”

This was “vintage Pierre” according to Peter C. Newman, who adds, in his memoir Here Be Dragons, that when Berton received letters from readers that annoyed him, “he’d write back, canceling their subscriptions.” These anecdotes, clearly inflated for effect, rightly convey that Berton and his media colleagues worked at speed. In My Times, the author describes sending his New York publisher an error-riddled first draft of The Mysterious North, which would eventually win a Governor General’s Award. When the editor reacted negatively, Berton realized that he had churned out the book as he would a news story: “I was a victim of the Curse of Journalism: ‘Don’t get it right, get it first.’ It has haunted me all my life.”

Speed does not help quality, and that, together with the nature of journalism, which engages the Here and Now, militates against enduring value. Times change, battle lines shift and once-burning issues become irrelevant. Nothing dates faster

than a collection of newspaper columns, and Berton produced a few of those. And yet, certain of his books, while journalistic and polemical in conception, will almost certainly be read a hundred years from now. These include The Comfortable Pew, The Smug Minority, The Cool, Crazy, Committed World of the Sixties, Why We Act Like Canadians and The Dionne Years. These works will be read not for their literary merit but as texts that reveal a great deal about the place and times that produced them.

These works also demonstrate that Berton’s latter-day joint-rolling demonstration on The Rick Mercer Show was no fluke, but entirely characteristic. This particular icon has always been socially progressive and activist—indeed, as Mercer observed at the star-studded Berton memorial last December, quintessentially a shit-disturber.

For half a century, as a crusading journalist working in the tradition of his maternal grandfather, whenever a wave of social change swept Canada, Pierre Berton could be spotted surfing the cutting edge.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, and publicly toting a picket sign when necessary, Berton worked tirelessly to improve conditions for Canadian writers. At the founding meeting of The Writers’ Union of Canada, Berton led the battle for inclusiveness, arguing vociferously against elitists who would have turned that socially engaged institution (yes, I am a member) into a cozy club. In 1987–88, while serving as TWUC chair, he put his time, energy and prestige on the line in battling to improve books coverage at Canadian newspapers. Whenever the annual general meeting was held in Ontario, Berton would host a post-AGM party, open to all members, at his Kleinburg residence north of Toronto. On behalf of Canadian writers, nobody has done more.

As a popular historian, the unabashedly nationalist Berton dominated the second half of the 20th century, bestriding five decades like a colossus. With his nine most important books—sweeping, fast-paced histories that appeared between 1958 and 1986—Berton captured the public imagination while offering three master narratives. The first, the story of Canada as created by westward expansion, included The National Dream, The Last Spike and The Promised Land. In these works, which dramatized the so-called Laurentian thesis, Berton focused on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the subsequent settling of the West.

Berton’s second overarching narrative suggested that Canada was created by war and its aftermath. The Invasion of Canada and Flames across the Border treated the war of 1812–13between Britain and the United States, while The Great Depression evoked the Dirty Thirties and Vimy centred on what was, for Canada, the definitive battle of the First World War. Shaping experiences all, Berton argued.

The author’s final creation saga treated Canada as quintessentially North. While Canadian nordicity figures in more than half of Berton’s books, the key works here are probably his best books. Klondike dramatized the gold rush that created Dawson City and, incidentally, lured the author’s father to the Yukon, and The Arctic Grail, that monumental work, recreated the quests for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole.

Three master narratives, then. During The Berton Years, only Peter Newman produced even one comparable narrative. In Company of Adventurers, his three-volume history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Newman depicted Canada as a company town that developed out of the fur trade. And that made four—four creation-of-a-nation sagas intertwined in the popular imagination. Together, these four unfolded through a dozen hefty tomes, providing an all-encompassing vision of Canadian history. The prime shaper of that vision was Pierre Berton—the man who, in the popular imagination, kept history alive.

Sweeping narratives and master visions inevitably inspire detractors. University-based historians disliked Berton not only for his success in attracting an audience, but also for his gung-ho enthusiasm and ebullience. They charged him with superficiality, too-heavy reliance on secondary sources and factual errors. About these last, more often than not they proved correct—but marginally relevant. Such and so had happened in this small town, not that one; this particular musket had not yet been invented; that individual had been an Irishman, not a Scot. The public paid scant attention to the carping. They bought Berton’s histories by the hundreds of thousands.

Obviously, Canadians wanted the big narrative, the sweeping saga. They yearned to know where they came from and how they had got here, wherever here was. And Berton, the most efficient journalist of his generation, was ready, willing and able to focus on the past instead of the present, and to transform himself into a popular historian.

More than that, and like publisher Jack McClelland, his close friend, Pierre Berton understood marketing before the concept gained currency. And he set out to create his own audience. Soon enough, this prodigiously energetic giant was everywhere—not just in print, in Maclean’s and The Toronto Star, but also and more importantly on Canadian television.

Through most of the 1950s and ’60s, here in Canada, television meant one or two channels. Anybody who turned up regularly on the CBC, especially, became known nationally. And nobody grasped the implications more quickly than Berton. In 1957, he became a key member of Close-Up, the CBC’s flagship public affairs program, and also a panelist on the high-profile Front Page Challenge—a show that survived an incredible 39 seasons. Starting in 1962 with The Pierre Berton Show, he hosted a series of programs, including My Country, The Great Debate and Heritage Theatre. As a result of this television work, Berton became a public figure and easily the best-known writer in Canada. And that drove book sales.

Could this happen today? Could an equally gifted individual—driven, charismatic, focused, a whirling dervish of energy—achieve anything like a similar prominence? In a word, no. Canada has changed dramatically. The mass television audience no longer exists. We live in a world of specialty channels and vertical markets: “Let’s see: shall we watch the news on channel 6, the documentary on 27, the reality show on 189, or that movie on 202? Or maybe watch all four at once?” How does one saturate such a universe? One doesn’t. Even a media-savvy super-writer would throw up his hands in dismay.

Afew years ago, when I was co-judging an Alberta literary competition, a fellow juror blackballed a book of historical profiles of notable figures because it featured not a single person of colour. Fact was, in a previous anthology the author had already profiled every prominent visible-minority candidate he could find. Somehow, that didn’t matter.

Similarly, in the mid 1990s, Pierre Berton was assailed for paying scant attention to minorities—a charge that struck a lot of people as shamefully unfair. In The Invasion of Canada, for example, Berton painted a stirring portrait of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. In The Arctic Grail, he drew attention to the crucial role played by aboriginal peoples in northern exploration. Or consider The Exodus of the Japanese by Janice Patton. That hard-hitting little book details the horror and injustice of the expulsion of the Japanese from British Columbia in the 1940s. Published in 1973, the book was Berton’s brainchild. Having interviewed Japanese survivors on The Pierre Berton Show, he not only urged Patton, then a researcher, to write the work, but engineered its publication as well.

Maybe this postmodern world, with its multiplicity of viewpoints and its insistence on alternative perspectives, has rendered the master narrative obsolete—and likewise the nation-state. If not, and if instead we need to add yet one more narrative to the historical skein—the story of Canada as a beacon of the multicultural—then Pierre Berton has pointed the way forward.

How long will Berton be read? If Canada should fail, collapsing into a collection of bickering regions, or evolving into a loose coalition of city states, certain of Berton’s works

would remain locally relevant—Klondike in the Yukon, The Invasion of Canada in Ontario, The Promised Land in the West. And would even a madman try to write about the history of northern exploration without investigating The Arctic Grail?

On the other hand, if Canada survives a while yet as a political and cultural entity, much of Berton’s work will remain broadly significant. As that scholarly historian Ramsay Cook once observed, “it is the popularizers, more than the professionals, who provide this country with whatever tenuous historical conscience it has.”

“But wait!” cries a querulous literary scholar. Pierre Berton wrote narrative history—a subset of non-fiction. And how significant can even excellent non-fiction be, really, in comparison with fiction produced during the same period— in comparison with Real Literature?

That question, variously phrased, always puts me in mind of British artist J.M.W. Turner, who painted landscapes now universally recognized as masterpieces. But during his own day, the sublime Turner received nothing like the adulation accorded, say, portrait painter Joshua Reynolds. In 19th-century England, great artists painted History Paintings, don’t you know? And later, Portraits—but never Landscapes. Mere Landscapes did not qualify as Great Art. Why could poor Mr. Turner not understand that?

And so we approach the bottom line. Do I dare to offend the all-powerful arbiters of literary taste? Oh, what the heck, I’ll eat the peach: When the vast majority of contemporary urban novels have been consigned to the dustbin of literary history, people will still be consulting books such as Klondike, Vimy, My Times and The Arctic Grail. Yes, one hundred years from now, they’ll still be reading Pierre Berton.

Ken McGoogan, who has written extensively on the fur trade and Arctic exploration, recently published Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation.

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