Publishing Patterns in Canadian Historiography

10 08 2011

Toronto-based historian Christopher Moore recently posted the titles of some books in the current catalogue of University of Toronto Press.

He wrote:

University of Toronto Press has a long and diverse list that seems to undermine the theory that Canadianists do not write about pre-twentieth century topics.  Titles forthcoming, and in some cases already published, include:

  • Jan Noel, The First French Canadian Women, examining the first couple of generations of daughters of the founding population of New France.
  • Elections in Oxford County 1838-75 by George Emery, a micro-analysis of politics in one Ontario county in the era of “open” (ie, no secret ballot) voting and democratic reform.
  • Carmela Patrias, Jobs and Justice: Fighting Discrimination in Wartime Canada, 1939-45
  • The Colonization of Mi’kmaw Memory and History 1794-1928 by William C. Wicken
  • Jerry Bannister’s The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era

In a recent book review I referred to the scarcity of new research on pre-1900 Canadian history. Moore quoted my remarks on his blog on 22 July.

Canada has a large and well-funded historical profession and there are many scholars who work on the Canadian past, particularly periods after 1914 and, especially, 1945. The gender, aboriginal, military, and environmental histories of 20th-century Canada are the subject of intensive research. Very few historians of Canada, however, now work on 19th-century topics or in political history. There are approximately ten specialists in 19th-century Canadian history and only one or two of them can really be described as political historians. Even allowing for Canada’s smallish population, which is now half that of the United Kingdom and a tenth that of the United States, the volume of current research on 19th-century Canada is shockingly low.

I said this in the course of praising two new books on 19th century Canadian political history (biographies of Macdonald and Thomas D’Arcy McGee).  The words that Moore quotes were preceded by a sentence that he decided not to reproduce: The publication of these two books is a sign of a possible revival in 19th-century Canadian political history.

I stand by my earlier comments. Very few Canadian historians work on pre-1900 topics nowadays. I wish that I were wrong about this, but sadly this isn’t the case. I hope, however, that there might be a revival in the near future.

I’m pleased to see that UTP has published a few works on pre-1900 Canadian history. That’s great. I’m also glad that Moore has publicized George Emery’s new study of electoral politics in Oxford County. Emery was one of my best mentors in grad school. But as Emery often told the students in his quantitative methods class, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” I haven’t had the chance to do a comprehensive bibliometric study and create some bar charts, but I’m pretty certain that we would find that focus of the Canadian historical profession has shifted in recent decades to the 20th century in a pretty major way. I’m not the only person to point this out. Allan Greer, a specialist in the history of New France who recently retired from U of T, has said that same thing in print. Other historians have observed the same trend in casual conversations. Greer, I should point out, was replaced by a historian who specializes in Quebec in the 1960s. Emery is a professor emeritus. I could go on.

I repeat that the historians who work on 20th century Canada include some really great scholars. I have nothing against 20th century history and can well see why people regard it is relevant and exciting. But the older periods also deserve attention.

The really striking thing about the decision of the vast majority of Canadian historians to ignore the 19th century is that there are large communities of scholars working on the histories of the United States and Britain in this period. 2009 saw the publication of a large number of works on Abraham Lincoln. Sure these works varied in quality—some of them were clearly rushed into print to take advantage of the bicentennial of his birth—but even the sheer volume of publications on Lincoln in normal years shows that 19th century American history is alive and well. Granted, the population of the US is ten times that of Canada, but even so, the per capita output of works on 19th century US history is far greater. That’s why you have specialized journals such as American Nineteenth Century History, the Journal of the Early Republic, and the Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, not to mention all the publications related to the Civil War.

Consider also Britain, which has a population roughly twice that of Canada and similar systems for making primary sources available to historians. Several books a year dealing with Benjamin Disraeli are published, some by historians, others by literary scholars more interested in his novels. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario has several scholars who work full-time on Disraeli but none who work on Sir John A. Macdonald, who lived in Kingston. I’m not saying this to disparage the Disraeli Project, far from it, but simply to suggest that we should also have research into Macdonald. Consider also the number of book on Gladstone, whose life span roughly overlapped with that of Macdonald. Here are some of the recent books on Gladstone.

Daly, Mary E., and K. Theodore Hoppen. Gladstone: Ireland and Beyond. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011.

St. John, Ian. Gladstone and the Logic of Victorian Politics. London [u.a.]: Anthem Press, 2010.

Boyce, David George, and Alan O’Day. Gladstone and Ireland: Politics, Religion and Nationality in the Victorian Age. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Windscheffel, Ruth Clayton. Reading Gladstone. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Shannon, Richard. Gladstone: God and Politics. London: Hambledon & Continuum, 2007.

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One response

11 08 2011
Christopher Moore

Thoughtful and interesting comments. Your earlier note about the need for more pre-20th century work was indeed in my mind. And a few counter examples do not disprove your thesis, of course. I note, however, that the McGill-Queen’s fall list, about which I’ve also posted, also has several pre-20th century titles.

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