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Reviewed by:
  • Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss: Figuring the Social
  • Jeffrey L. McNairn (bio)
E.A. Heaman, Alison Li, and Shelley McKellar, editors. Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss: Figuring the Social. University of Toronto Press. 2008. 464. $77.00

The Festschrift has fallen out of favour. And for good reason. While not immune to the genre's limitations, Figuring the Social reminds us of its value. Certainly Michael Bliss's prolific career of nearly four decades in the Department of History at the University of Toronto merits such treatment. Especially well served by E.A. Heaman's respectful but probing introduction, this collection of thirteen original research essays, combined with reflections on Bliss as a graduate supervisor and media commentator - all by former students - and Bliss's own 'confessions' as a medical historian, provide an occasion to reflect on a number of questions: the nature of social history and the role of the historian; competing sources of authority and experience; and the balance between individuality and [End Page 292] the singular event, on the one hand, and the group and impersonal structures on the other.

Not that all the contributors come to the same answers or investigate similar topics. Far from it. Reflecting Bliss's own willingness to range widely, the collection includes sections on politics and business, religion and the family, health and public policy, and medical science and practice. But Heaman is surely right to question the easy charge of fragmentation aimed at social history. Disparate research topics can speak to one another in numerous ways and, to the extent that history purchases coherence at the cost of propping up national or ideological grand narratives, fragmentation is a positive good. It is certainly more in keeping with Bliss's own practice of rarely writing 'national' history and his more general skepticism about large claims and lazy pieties. Gene Allen's use of empirical detail to reveal a relationship between the corporatization of newspapers and their ability to engage readers as citizens - between private gain and civic virtue or capitalism and democracy - which was intricate and paradoxical rather than merely antithetical, as critics of modernity often imagine, reflects this sensibility well.

Evinced by Bliss's own scholarship, the value of attending to the details of process - of how, precisely, a medical discovery or a public policy came to be - finds ample confirmation here too, especially in James Struthers's fine study of home care for Canada's aging veterans. Another persistent question uniting Bliss's work with that of his students in this volume is the nature and consequences of claims to authority and expertise, whether of the historian, doctor, father, business person, or the state. Medical authority, for instance, often saved lives but looks very different in Alison Li's study of the exaggerated claims for endocrinology regarding rejuvenation or Geoffrey Reaume's history of lobotomy in Ontario. Questions of authority also emerge from Sasha Mullally's nicely handled comparison of the published and unpublished life writings of a rural Cape Breton doctor. The published version failed to mention the patients who died.

Finally, Bliss's belief that only a fully rounded study of individuals can capture the complexities of human motivation and the possibilities for choice and higher achievement is also manifest in a number of the studies of particular surgeons and medical researchers. It is, however, David Marshall's compelling account of the intimate letters of the Rev. Charles Gordon (better known as the novelist Ralph Connor) to his son as a means to investigate broader themes of masculinity and secularization that best captures this approach and Bliss's concern with prose style.

If Bliss's distrust of theorizing and over-generalization has left a more questionable legacy than these, it may be in the reluctance of a few of the contributors to ask bigger questions of their empirical findings. History is about the tension between the general and the specific. Whether we call it [End Page 293] argument, analysis, or theory, the general must be grounded in the specific, but it alone can tell us what those specifics mean and what conversations we, as historians, are engaged in.

Figuring the Social reminds us...


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