Last year I assigned Donald Creighton's Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937) in my graduate seminar. What would today's students make of a national story written as tragedy, a foundational narrative in which the flawed protagonist is a river and Montreal merchants its instrument, a literary ambition of operatic cadence published eighty years ago?
Would they respond with the sort of venom Creighton's gifted biographer, Donald Wright, compiles, spit back by Canadian historians from the mid-1960s through the 1990s; historians who wrote against what Creighton misunderstood and marginalized: Indigenous peoples, French Canadians, women, places outside central Canada – to enumerate a few – and those who couldn't see the nation's essential logic with the clarity Creighton bestowed on his second protagonist, John A. Macdonald (1952, 1955)? It was the logic of a centralized, transcontinental Canada firmly attached to Britain and wary of the American republic with which it had to share the continent. Or, as personal slights fade and historiographic battles are won, would they see Creighton's masterwork from a more detached elevation, perhaps even experience flashes of recognition of our own scholarly moment? After the couple of turns of the historiographic wheel since Creighton's death in 1979, Wright revisits his Life in History with impeccable timing, but more importantly with impressive scholarship, remarkable flair, and a humane sensibility.
Wright offers us a Creighton firmly rooted in his context but also a Creighton attuned to our times. Now is a propitious moment to see Creighton's work afresh, through the lens of a shared sense that our relationship to the physical environment shapes our history; that political economy is indispensable as hitherto dominant cultural approaches grow tired; that an active history in search of public audience and the sort of political influence Creighton sought on provincial, federal, and imperial commissions gives academic historians purpose; and that history is an open-ended craft shaped by the artist and a narrative that emplots rather than retrieves the past. Hilda Neatby thought Creighton's literary preoccupations violated scholarly norms, but with this biography Wright shows that art need not compromise scholarship.
Attractively hewn in seasons – spring circling back to winter – the Methodist roots of the Creighton family planted in rural Ontario mature into Donald as student at Oxford, husband of Luella who had her own historical demons and vocation, member of U of T's fractious history department, and national sage and nurturer of new talent turned scold, Wright's story of Creighton's life is rich and empathetic without being exculpatory. The emphasis is on Creighton as artist as he honed his [End Page 214] narrative creations, constructions that imprisoned him once the country refused the story he wished to tell about it.
Was "Creighton's Achilles' heel" really "his inability to understand French Canada on its own terms" – one among the blind spots flagged by Wright – or that Creighton learned little and listened to no one? "Granite" is not the finest element from which to sculpt a person or a historian. Creighton's Achilles' heel was Creighton. He may have "suffered for his art," but others – family, friends, colleagues – were made to suffer too. Romantic images of the artist as tormented genius indulge men who behave badly.
As the gap widens between Creighton's Anglo-imperial Canada and Wright's Canada – a decolonized, tolerant, pluralist Canada nurtured by an ever more inclusive social history – Creighton's lament for a conservative British nation in North America becomes Wright's lament for a once great historian whose every word now seemed to tarnish his reputation. Reluctant to explain the spreading stain as anything other than "rigidity," Wright narrates it as the predictable metastasizing of his protagonist's flaws in winter, flaws discernible even in spring – much as Creighton had narrated the St. Lawrence River. To mourn the later Creighton as "pathetic" is meant as an act of kindness, but pathos can shade into condescension. Creighton would have hated it.
Donald Wright offers a consummate portrait of the historian and the history he made, but ultimately...