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Donald Creighton was big: his conception of history, his passions, and his legacy all loomed large in Canadian history.

A key figure in Canadian historical circles who taught at the University of Toronto from 1928 until his retirement in 1971, Creighton believed that history was literature, was art. Perhaps no other academic historian in this country saw Canadian history so completely as an epic drama, peopled with heroes and villains. Ian MacPherson wrote in a tribute to Creighton published in the Canadian Forum that his work "was history in the grand manner, evocative, literate, and personal."

Creighton was first and foremost a writer. U of T professor Ramsay Cook, editor of The Dictionary of Canadian Biography and a former doctoral student of Creighton’s, remembers, "Creighton believed that the writing of history was as important as the actual research." To our modern sensibilities, Creighton’s prose can occasionally be a little ornate. Speaking of John A. Macdonald as a young man, he writes, "The landscape of his character, if it had passed through the first primitive period of upheaval and subsidence, was still a new unknown land, with hazy and uncertain outlines." But his writing is remarkably vigorous and alive. It grabs readers and plunges them into the middle of Canadian history.

Donald Creighton entered the University of Toronto as a student in 1921, and studied at Oxford University in the mid-1920s. He returned to Canada, originally to research and teach French history at U of T, but a lack of funding for archival research in Paris forced him to turn to sources closer to home. Fortunately for Canada, Creighton became at first interested, then passionately absorbed in the drama of Canadian history. In an article in Saturday Night magazine in 1977, Heather Robertson remarked that, "His influence on Canadian history has been so intense, so pervasive, that he has, to a very great extent, created it."

Early on, Creighton wrote narrowly focused academic articles, but he quickly hit his stride when he turned to big subjects that suited his larger-than-life personality. His first book, and one of his best, The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937), had its inspiration in Harold Innis’s economic history The Fur Trade, but put flesh and blood on Innis’s classic through his broad scope and political contextualization. Creighton’s description of Jean Talon, a historical figure in his later Dominion of the North, offers insight into what Creighton himself must have felt when he first became fascinated with the great river of the St. Lawrence: "He [Talon] had suddenly become conscious of the river and of the enormous continent into which it led. He had yielded to that instinct for grandeur, that vertigo of ambition, that was part of the enchantment of the St. Lawrence."

In the 1950s, Creighton published possibly his best-known work: his famous two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald (recently reprinted by the University of Toronto Press), for which he won tremendous popular and critical acclaim, including two Governor General’s Awards.In his later years, Creighton grew more pessimistic – and more controversial. Between his retirement from the University in 1971 and his death in 1979, he published numerous polemical articles and became a voice for the Canadian nationalist movement. He raged, "We are ignorant of our history, ill-informed about our own institutions, unaware of our own achievements, neglectful of our scholars, authors, and artists," and warned, "if we Canadians ever lose our sense of identity and purpose, we will have lost everything." But at the same time that his popularity grew among nationalists, his anti-Quebec views and his conservative, imperialist attitudes alienated many of his colleagues and readers.

Donald Creighton was a man of extremes, and he provoked extreme reactions in others. His feuds with historians such as Frank Underhill were legendary. Though difficult with many of his colleagues, he was by all accounts a kind and generous teacher. R. Craig Brown, U of T historian and author of a biography of another prime minister, Robert Borden, says, "He was a wonderful supervisor who took a close personal interest in his graduate students and their affairs." Ramsay Cook remarks, "He never expected you to follow him blindly. Though he held strong opinions, he never pushed you into agreeing with him."

Outrageous, volatile and passionate in his personality, Creighton lived his life with as much emotion as he wrote his history. His explosive character led John Gray, the former president of Macmillan, to nickname him "the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang" (Saturday Night). But his outward appearance, tall, angular, and spare, gave little warning of the volcano within. The exterior Creighton was formal, distanced, and somewhat stiff. Always impeccably dressed, usually in a three-piece suit, he once boasted, "none of my students have ever seen me in a sports jacket."

Creighton took things personally, in his history as well as in his life. He chose subjects he felt strongly about. His great strength, one that drew him to biography as a form of historical narrative, was the ability to submerge himself in historical individuals and their context. "History," he said in his most famous epigram, "is the record of an encounter between character and circumstances" (Toward the Discovery of Canada). In the introduction to the recent edition of John A. Macdonald, P.B. Waite remarks, "Creighton was not just concentrating on the central character, he was trying to be the central character, to see the world through Macdonald’s eyes, to measure it with Macdonald’s thinking."

His greatest strength as a historian was perhaps his greatest weakness as well. Creighton became so absorbed in those he saw as the heroes of Canadian history that he often embraced them and vilified their enemies. "[William Lyon] Mackenzie’s mind," he snaps in a late essay, "was, in fact, an overstuffed rag-bag of other people’s ideas…" This weakness is fatal, however, only if you expect history to be objective, a viewpoint that has been roundly trounced in these postmodern times. Ramsay Cook insists that Creighton knew he wasn’t objective and didn’t try to be: "He expected his audience to read his works critically."

Creighton’s portrayal of historical figures, though controversial, made them live for Canadians. In a 1980 tribute to Creighton, R. Craig Brown suggests that, "until Donald Creighton’s biography of Macdonald was published a quarter of a century ago, John A. was a shadowy figure in our historical memory." Through his books and the numerous students who have followed in his footsteps to become great historians and teachers, Creighton has made Canadians more aware of who we are as a people. And he has taught us that history doesn’t have to be dry and dusty. As P.B. Waite puts it, "Creighton’s work is inimitable: for its grace, its sheer power of evocation, driven by Creighton’s passion for making the past alive and breathing. History happened; Creighton never forgot that elementary lesson."

 
     
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