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French Colonial History 4 (2003) 15-18
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La Nouvelle France/Les Nouvelles Frances
I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay homage to and discuss the implications of Peter Moogk's La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada—A Cultural History. 1 An important contribution to the field of French colonial history, this is also an interestingly personal work in two distinct ways. First, the book can be seen as the summa of decades of research on the socio-cultural history of New France. Second, it takes the form of a set of reflections about identity: reflections that are explicitly linked to the author's youthful encounter with the French-Canadian Other. These musings seem also to have been fueled by Peter Moogk's continuing consternation with the way public debate, especially on the fundamental issue of federalism versus sovereignty, is conducted in the province of Quebec.
"All written history will be marked by the character of its author," Moogk states in his "Introduction" (xiv). The character emerging through the pages of La Nouvelle France is that of an indefatigable archival researcher with an imaginative eye for telling detail. Drawing on early Canada's rich judicial and notarial records, as well as on a broad array of private and governmental sources, the author offers a panorama of colorful anecdotes, occasional statistical tables, and personal profiles of hitherto obscure figures from the past. His endnotes are quite amazing; by my calculation, you could pave a path from New Haven to Jupiter and back with the manuscripts he cites!
Readers familiar with Moogk's earlier publications will not be surprised to find a wealth of material on artisans, soldiers, social hierarchies, immigration, and that wonderfully Moogkian topic, "verbal aggression." Illustrative examples abound. Thus, we meet Jean Legouel (111-12), a [End Page 15] young Louisbourg joiner who happened to come before the courts accused of theft. Legouel hailed from Brest, where he had worked in the royal shipyards. And how did he end up in the colonies? His father had caught him thieving, denounced him as incorrigible, and arranged to have him shipped off to Ile Royale.
We also learn about a soldier, Joseph Poulin dit La Brie, originally from a village about six leagues from Paris (114). This individual left a trace in the archives, not for any misdeed, but because in 1757 he decided to marry a Canadian girl. The bishop of Quebec conducted an investigation to determine whether he was free to marry, a process that entailed reconstructing a life story in order to ensure that there was no living wife back in France. The testimony of people who had known La Brie in his native land indicated that, as a youth, he had moved to Paris from the country, that he was employed for a time as a servant, and that he was then indentured as an apprentice upholsterer. In his twenties, he accepted the king's bounty, enlisted in the Marine troops, and shipped out for Canada.
La Nouvelle France touches on so many topics that it is impossible to do justice to its richness. Jesuit missions, government administration, celebrations and public rituals, language, names, family relations, religion, and folklore are just some of the subjects dealt with. And the Moogk trademark is everywhere in evidence: concrete details and evocative vignettes that bring readers face-to-face with real people who lived and died all those centuries ago.
After opening this window onto a vanished world, one might expect Moogk to conclude with observations about the pastness of the past, and about the great chasm separating the material circumstances and mentalités of Joseph Poulin's time from those of our own. But in fact, Moogk is more inclined to bring out connections between then and now. Specifically, he points to enduring features of French-Canadian culture—the importance of the family, an authoritarian style in politics, a tendency to reason deductively from first principles—which he traces back to the French régime. This is the second respect in which I would say that La Nouvelle...