Rise to Greatness

By Conrad Black

There’s a tendency for historians to want to climb higher up Olympus as they get older, taking a more extensive view while channeling their inner Gibbon.

Conrad Black has always written from a lofty elevation, but even so his two most recent books – a 760-page history of the United States, and now an 1100-page history of Canada – stand out as monuments to this epic tradition. Size alone reinforces their claim to being authoritative and comprehensive accounts.

And yet right away it’s clear that calling Rise to Greatness a history of Canada “from the Vikings to the present” is misleading. The Viking expeditions are given a single paragraph. Before that, the native peoples get a few pages before being swept into the dustbin of history with a dismissive rhetorical flourish (“Indian society was not in itself worthy of integral conservation, nor was its dilution a suitable subject for great lamentations”).

This is not social or cultural history. What Black is interested in, to the exclusion of everything else, is what he has always been interested in as a historian: political biography.

But even given this limited scope, and despite the impressive page count, he doesn’t quite pull it off.

The bulk of the text takes the form of brief, personal judgments that make little reference to any context outside of the political arena, and which are handed down in a manner that allows for no argument.

As Canada’s archest of arch-conservative commentators, it’s hard for Black to conceal his biases behind a seemingly fair and balanced approach. One of these is his personal identification with great men who have gone on to be reviled. In Rise to Greatness the same pattern can be seen at work, with politicians usually viewed unfavourably by historians (Duplessis, Diefenbaker, Mulroney) being defended, while political icons are grudgingly given their place in the pantheon even as they’re being taken down a notch.

Pierre Trudeau, for example, became prime minister with “that blasé flippancy of people who have never really done anything” or ever had to earn their own way. He possessed “a very unoriginal mind” and “was a traditional French bourgeois tightwad” except when it came to wasting other people’s money.

As for the “endlessly enigmatic” and “unfathomable” figure of Mackenzie King, Black isn’t quite sure what to make of him. He does, however, pause to make a very odd historical comparison. It seems that “King’s patient, devious, systematic removal of rivals and dissidents was a bloodless and ultra-moralistic replication of some of the methods of his almost exact contemporary and analogue in shadowy communist manoeuvring, Stalin.”

Yes, Stalin. This is what they call a stretch. “Of course, the parallels are superficial,” Black concedes. So one wonders why he makes them.

The character sketches are done very much in the voice of Edward Gibbon, pinning historical personages down with piercing, epigrammatic wit. And Black only gets more opinionated and judgmental as he goes along, becoming quite unrestrained when dealing with more recent history. But this is also where he is most entertaining, even when he fails to make a convincing argument.

The problem is that pithiness is no substitute for storytelling chops. Only a strong narrative spine could sustain a book of this length, and Black doesn’t do narrative. This is a book to dip into, not one to read straight through. Before long your eyes start to wander over pages littered in names and dates.

In addition, one of the occupational hazards of the high style is that if you’re going to be judgmental, you’d better be right. Unfortunately, our confidence in Black’s version is often shaken, even when it comes to incidental matters he has thrown in as seasoning.

We are told, for example, that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V “had the papal domains sacked by one of his generals in 1527 when he considered Clement VII guilty of ingratitude.” In fact, Charles was embarrassed by the actions of an army of unpaid mercenaries run amok. Then, in the same paragraph, we find out that it was Erasmus who wrote Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments. News to me.

There are no notes explaining where Black got these ideas, or if they are entirely his own. An even more troubling example of the same tendency is the absence of any support for the knee-jerk claim that the “hysteria of global warming” has now been “largely debunked.” I would like to know when this debunking occurred.

A theme, however, does emerge: that of Canada’s “ineluctable destiny.” This unfortunate (because inaccurate) expression refers to the improbable way Canada has managed to navigate between major powers while maintaining and developing its own independent national identity. Ours is the history of “a country that has grown steadily, always pursued admirable goals, has never been defeated, and has rarely embarrassed itself.”

That’s not a rousing claim to fame, which is one reason Canadian history has always been a hard sell. As Black notes, it is a story without a great deal of glamour and panache, one that has studiously avoided passion and drama. The Canadian way has been “along a path of rarely perturbed moderation, almost noiseless and always tortuous, and always navigating between and well within extremes.” It has advanced “subtly, imperceptibly, and largely unnoticed.”

This lack of notice is why we need great historians. And while Black’s version doesn’t provide a full view from Olympus, it is very much a part, however thorny and contrarian, of the national landscape.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 23, 2014.

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