Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Peter C. Newman and Political Biography

The annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities wrapped up today. On the whole I had a good time, meeting up with a mix of eminent scholars, new grad students and old friends and also hearing some good papers. This was the first year that the Political History Group, a group that I helped found, was able to sponsor some sessions. Although I was quite happy with the roundtable that I organized on the current state of the field of political history, my real excitement was for a roundtable on political biography. We'd brought together a mix of new scholars (Cara Spittal & Adam Chapnick) and very well-known biographers (John English, Peter C. Newman) to speak about the challenges and developments in their field.

This was not the only session on biography that was held at the CHA, and indeed just before heading into our session, I'd attended another session dealing with issues of gender, historiographical theory and biography. During that session, panelists and the session attendees wrestled with questions of performativity, of private lives, and of reinjecting emotional and affective ties into history, particularly when it touched on political issues.

What I found particularly striking about attending these two panels back-to-back was the extent to which the "old school" political biographers were explicit about the fact that the issues which were so important to the social and gender historians in the prior panel were also issues that they had long incorporated into their own work. Indeed, Peter C. Newman spoke at length about how as a political journalist, he always paid more attention to body language and to the emotional content of what was being said, than to the words themselves. He spoke passionately of the need to tap into human feelings to make biographies appeal to readers. It was quite refreshing, and perhaps a bit ironic, to discover that the political biographers were already well in-tune with the issues of such great importance to the academic social historians, albeit perhaps in a less theoreticized mode. And of course, it was delightful to hear Newman's anecdotes from his encounters with our past Prime Ministers!

Clearly the field has a great deal of vitality. As John English, currently co-editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, pointed out, the DCB gets 280,000 hits a month, a far cry from the 20,000 that were predicted when its internet site was launched in 2003. The most hits, he noted, were for political leaders of the past. It would seem that interest in political history is indeed alive and well, which is very gratifying for those of us working in the field.

I would have liked to hear the panelists speak more about the new developments in their field, such as Cara Spittal reflections about the impact of microhistory on her work on the Diefenbaker era. It's clear from reading English's biographies of Trudeau that his work has been influenced by women's history, gender history and even new understandings of political history. However, I believe that political historians would benefit from being more explicit about the new influences on their work, which is often casually derided by some social historians, despite the increased sophistication and theoretical models which increasingly underpin their work. That qualifier aside, I think this panel went well, and perhaps might help spark some increased activity in this under-populated field of Canadian history.

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