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History as Story.

Peter C. Newman and the Hudson's Bay Co.

By Chris Carton.

Volume 18 Number 1
1990 January

One of Canada's best-selling authors discusses his formula for success in popularizing Canadian history: romanticism, myth building and leaving out the dull parts.

Enrolment in high school history courses is down. Past high school history is just a memory for most people. But history sells -- maybe not as well as crime or romance or espionage -- but it sells.

Peter C. Newman is a writer whose history is read. People who could only just bear to hang on through the final exam in high school have cheerfully forked over twenty or thirty dollars to read Newman's Hudson's Bay Company histories, Company of Adventurers and Caesars of the Wilderness. Newman chatted with me while he was promoting an illustrated companion to these volumes, Empire of the Bay, which undoubtedly turned up under its share of Christmas trees. Teachers everywhere should ask themselves why.

Newman is one of Canada's best known journalists. Formerly editor-in-chief of Canada's "national" magazine, Maclean's, and the country's largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, Newman looks back to a time when he was an eleven-year-old Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia fleeing Hitler's nazism. In a career that includes thirteen best selling books on history and politics and numerous awards for journalism, the affection he feels for this country seems to be his guiding principle: 'I never took Canada for granted. I always thought this was an incredible, wonderful country. It saved my life when I was running away from the Nazis...and has given me not only a home but an incredible career."

Not taking Canada for granted seems largely responsible for Newman's interest in Canadian history. To him it was never a bloodless version of American history. "We have nothing," he says, "to be ashamed of. Our heroes, our explorers, our pioneers are just as interesting as the Americans'."

Newman feels that this appreciation for the story in Canadian history was perhaps easier for him to come by since he avoided the usual route to knowledge of the subject. Because he had first to learn English he did not study Canadian history until he was an adult. A fortunate consequence of this delay was that he escaped indoctrination with the view that "if it's American it must be more exciting, more colourful."

While the popularity of Canadian history vis a vis American history seems to have improved in the book market, the fate of Canadian history in schools concerns Newman. The problem, he feels, may be the competition for students' time from such things as videos, television, sports and jobs. To overcome this problem he believes that history has to involve students at more than the intellectual level. It "can no longer appeal to just the brain, it has to appeal to the gut." Without apparent regret he suggests that this process may involve bypassing his own work. "I think that kids should be taught the kind of story I write but not necessarily through my books. Maybe books aren't the right format. Maybe that's what's wrong. We should be teaching them on their own terms. If video is what turns them on let's do videos -- and good ones."

What Newman does best in his own histories is tell stories. Describing himself as a journalist with a lot of curiosity and a great capacity for research, he sums up his approach to history, saying, "I tell an entertaining story bound by the facts. I write in an interesting way to involve people." Getting Canadians excited about their history is very important to Newman, who sees in this stimulation a way of returning something to a country he loves. He wants to "re-create history in such a way that Canadians get interested in it just as I got interested in it."

Though criticized by academics for being more story-teller than historian, the author argues that the element of story-telling is inherent in history and forms a necessary connection between a people and their past. As an example of someone else who appreciated this, he points to the late Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror, Guns of August), whose authoritative and universally popular books were also at one time disdained by academics.

Says Newman of the academic reaction to his books, "They've accused me of three things -- romanticism, myth building and leaving out the dull parts. And I'm guilty of all three, but I don't think that makes it bad history. I think that makes it interesting. I don't see anything wrong with investing a little romanticism in Canadian history. Damn it, these were romantic figures." Cautiously, he allows that he may steer clear of "the dull parts," but adds, "I keep saying in my books, If you want the full story, go to these [other] books." I keep listing the academic books." His bibliographies bear this out.

In addition to Barbara Tuchman, a number of the "greats" in Canadian history are favourites of Newman's. Donald Creighton, Arthur Morton, Chester Martin and A.R.M. Lower are all writers who combine "faultless" academic credentials with talented composition. He particularly admires Creighton and says of his books about Sir John A. MacDonald, "You can't read those books and not get excited." The same cannot, he feels, be said for many current historians, whose work shows "almost a conscious avoidance of style." He wonders whether they think it is "a confession of inadequacy to tell a good story."

Making history interesting and accessible had a lot to do with undertaking the mammoth three-volume history of the Hudson's Bay Company Newman has been working on since 1980. Beginning with a desire to give something of Canada to Canadians, Newman elected to write a history of "The Bay" when this seemed to him the best way to focus his attention while retaining the sweep and colour he wanted to impart. "There is," he maintains, "no better history of English Canada than that of the Hudson's Bay Company. This is not just a company. This is a company that became a nation." As well, the history of the Hudson's Bay Company contains ingredients guaranteed to crystalize Newman's literary energies. "First of all, it stretched over a long period of time. Secondly, it had all the elements of a good story -- adventure, exploration, commerce, all kinds of politics, relations with the Indians -- and it's still around."

Regrettably, he notes, two things keep the history of "The Bay" from being, for him, the perfect project. "It was really only a history of English Canada and not French Canada and the story is told only from a white man's point of view." The French language traditions and records of the Bay's rival, the North West Company, represent a gap which he feels unable to bridge as an anglophone. A sadder and more complicated array of problems convinces him that perhaps only an Indian historian with the skill to tap oral tradition will be able to do justice to the native view of the fur trade. This year, following the publication of Volume III, Merchant Princes, Newman will return to more familiar ground and resume his chronicling of the Canadian establishment. While historians may not miss his engaging way of practising history the people he writes for almost surely will. And that ought to suit him just fine.

Books by Peter C. Newman

Bronfman Dynasty: The Rothschilds of the New World. McClelland & Stewart, 1978.

Caesars of the Wilderness. Viking,1987.

The Canadian Establishment. McClelland & Stewart, 1975.

Company of Adventurers. Viking, 1985.

The Distemper of Our Times: Canadian Politics in Transition 1963-1968. McClelland & Stewart, 1968, 1990.

Empire of the Bay. Viking, 1989.

The Establishment Man: A Portrait of Power. McClelland & Stewart, 1982.

Flame of Power: Intimate Profiles of Canada's Greatest Businessmen. Long mans, Green, 1959.

Home Country: People, Places, and Power Politics. McClelland & Stewart, 1973, 1988.

King of the Castle: The Making of a Dynasty -- Seagram's and the Bronfman Empire. Atheneum, 1978.

Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years. McClelland & Stewart, 1963, 1989.

Sometimes a Great Nation-Will Canada Belong to the 21st Century? McClelland & Stewart, 1988.

True North, Not Strong and Free: Defend ing the Peaceable Kingdom in the Nuclear Age. McClelland & Stewart, 1983.

Chris Carton teaches high school History and English.

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