Pierre Berton a dry historian? Tell me another.

Posted by on Jun 12, 2016 in Brian's Blog | 0 comments

A story in Saturday’s web edition of the National Post declared that Pierre Berton was a “Yukon-born writer of dry history books.” Somebody who actually reads the paper must tell me if the story also appeared in the print edition.

The NP story was not really about Berton. It was about Malcolm X’s 1963 guest appearance on Front Page Challenge, a popular CBC television game show of the period, for which Berton happened to be a regular panelist.

Most of the NP story was a fairly straightforward account of the panel’s awkward interaction with Mr. X, the American black supremacist, after they failed to guess his identity on the show. But down there, deep into the story, six paragraphs from the end, comes the zinger: Berton was a writer of dry history books.

The writer of the National Post story was Tristin Hopper. I looked him up. He’s a former reporter for the Yukon News who describes himself on his LinkedIn page as a specialist in “non-boring Canadian history.”

Berton

Pierre Berton

So there we have it. A self-described specialist in non-boring history – who may get to write a book some day – dismisses as “dry” the most successful popularizer of Canadian history this country has ever known.

Berton, who died in 2004, took a lot of criticism throughout his writing career. Most of it came from academic historians who thought he should leave the writing of history to them. “Trivial,” “hasty,” “sloppy” and “demeaning” were some of the words these university historians used to describe Berton’s work, which won him three Governor General’s Awards, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, 14 honorary degrees and the Order of Canada. He also won two National Newspaper Awards, which means he was no slouch as a journalist.

One of his severest critics was a leading academic historian named Jack Granatstein who once wrote, in a review of Berton’s book My Country, that Berton “consciously makes his work interesting.” Berton’s reaction: “Well, professor, I sure as hell don’t consciously make it dull.”

Nor, as Mr. Hopper would have us believe, did he consciously – or unconsciously – make it dry. Berton used colourful anecdotes to great effect when, as he explained in his literary memoir The Joy of Writing, they served the purpose of “illuminating an event or revealing a character.” His research was detailed and thorough, his eye for description and texture were laser sharp, and his prose had a precision, an energy and a sureness of tone that made for compelling reading.

Was Mr. Hopper being mischievous when he made his dry-historian dig at Berton? Did he just slip it in and hope that his copy editor in Hamilton – or wherever the Post gets edited nowadays – wouldn’t catch it? Perhaps. But he should have resisted the temptation to slight. Because he lived in Whitehorse for a while, Mr. Hopper may have visited the Berton house in Dawson City, and he surely knows that Berton wrote several major books, including Klondike, The National Dream and The Last Spike that have achieved considerable significance in Canada as definitive – not to mention hugely popular – works of narrative history. All of that calls for a more flattering adjective.

Or was Mr. Hopper aiming for satire? Well, as George F. Kaufman famously said, satire is what closes on Saturday night.

 

 

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