A Sense of Time and the Arbitrariness of Anniversaries

September 3, 2019

Written by guest blogger Shirley Tillotson.

A historian’s sense of time has a lot in common with a musician’s. Both are about rhythms, resonances, repeating motifs with variations, and moments of change, like changes of key. If that’s how you think about time, then the one hundredth year of something is no more interesting than the one hundredth note of a Mozart concerto.

And yet, when the Canadian Historical Review (CHR) reached 25 and 50 and 75, it published anniversary essays. And now I have written one for the one hundredth volume. Oh dear.

But what if our “present day” – the years since, say, 2008 – is genuinely a moment where conditions require historians to take stock and make some changes in what we do? What if this anniversary comes near the end of one period and the start of another?

At the CHR’s twenty-fifth volume in 1944, Donald Creighton and G.W. Brown knew for sure that they were living through a turning point. A leading historian said in 1940 that the war’s “awe inspiring storm” had prompted historians to think about the meaning of their work in relation to “a present which seems unprecedented.”1

Rumours in 1942 that arts faculties would be shuttered to better support more war-relevant research got Creighton and others moving to mount a defense of their discipline. The Creighton who co-wrote the CHR’s 1944 anniversary essay was about to write his Macdonald biography, aiming to make Canadian history compelling to a mass public.2

By comparison, the journal’s fiftieth anniversary essay in 1970 gave no sign that the late sixties were any kind of pivotal moment. Maybe Maurice Careless, that essay’s author, should have felt a bit more urgency about the role of scholarly history. But he said nothing about how irrelevant most of the CHR’s content then was to the surrounding political and cultural tumult.

In 1995, the seventy-fifth anniversary article was more attuned to its time. In it, Marlene Shore briefly discussed the then-serious question of post-modernism. Acknowledging that the CHR had lost some of its claim to intellectual leadership, Shore wasn’t complacent. Agonizing about the murder of Canadian history was very much the flavour of the early 1990s.

Today, I feel a bit more Creighton-esque – just in mood! – than either Careless or Shore. I’m proud of what Canadian historians have accomplished in the journal’s past 25 years, just as Creighton was of the first 25. But, like him, I also feel a sense of crisis in democratic culture, and I think it’s a crisis that calls for historians to step up and step out.

Our next Creightons are among us and some of them are publishing in the CHR. I don’t mean by “our next Creightons” people who work to the point of “a crisis of depression and nerves,” as Creighton said of himself in 1954, though too many of us would recognize ourselves in that description. Nor do I mean Creighton at his worst, despairing and vitriolic during the 1960s. I mean people with political vision and heartfelt values around big questions, historians whose research is deep and who write and teach brilliantly.

With Creighton, and echoing Shore, too, I urge the CHR to ramp up its efforts to make historians seen and heard. In my essay, I celebrate some of the ways that this has been happening, and I point to places where historians have shifted to a more vivid, pointed voice, one that can be heard even amid the racket on social media.

Here, I want to add an appeal. Meet us part way, journalists and videographers, artists and activists. Look again at the grand, old, but not so grey Canadian Historical Review. You don’t need a centennial calendar year to find material there for stories that are newsworthy, even astonishing, and seriously meaningful for today’s politics.

Tillotson says she’s feeling Creighton-esque.

Shirley Tillotson is professor emeritus at the University of King’s College and at the Dalhousie University Department of History. Her research has been mainly on the relation of people as citizens in relation to democratic government between 1920 and 1970, with emphases on gender, labour, and money. She was the recipient in 2019 of the jointly awarded Canadian Historical Association prize for that year’s best scholarly book in Canadian history and the Governor General’s History award for scholarly research. Read her latest article in the Canadian History Review entitled “The Canadian Historical Review at One Hundred Years” free for a limited time here.

Endnotes

1 Donald Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 149.
2 Wright, Professionalization, 160-69.
3 Creighton diary quoted in Donald Wright, Donald Creighton: A Life in History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 195.

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