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 Creightons, remembers, "Creighton believed that the writing
of history was as important as the actual research." To our modern
sensibilities, Creightons 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 Inniss economic history
The Fur Trade,
but put flesh and blood on Inniss classic through his broad scope
and political contextualization. Creightons 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
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 Generals 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,
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."
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 Macdonalds
eyes, to measure it with Macdonalds 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] Mackenzies
mind," he snaps in a late essay, "was, in fact, an overstuffed
rag-bag of other peoples 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 wasnt objective and didnt try to be:
"He expected his audience to read his works critically."
of historical figures, though controversial, made them live for Canadians.
In a 1980 tribute to Creighton, R. Craig Brown suggests that, "until
Donald Creightons 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
doesnt have to be dry and dusty. As P.B. Waite puts it, "Creightons
work is inimitable: for its grace, its sheer power of evocation, driven
by Creightons passion for making the past alive and breathing. History
happened; Creighton never forgot that elementary lesson."