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A historian’s history

Biographer turns the light on himself and his times.

by Paul Axelrod

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Michael Bliss asks whether anyone outside his family would be interested in a historian’s memoir and concludes (correctly as it turns out), that they would. The result is Writing History: A Professor’s Life, a readable, entertaining, and at times, surprising chronicle of the life (so far) of one of Canada’s best known academics.

The author of several award winning books, including The Discovery of Insulin, biographies of medical superstars Sir Frederick Banting, Sir William Osler, and Harvey Cushing, and an exceptional portrait of Sir Joseph Flavelle, one of corporate Canada’s leading figures, Bliss, now retired from the University of Toronto, also found time to write numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and appear regularly on radio and television. Ambitious, self-assured, judgmental, and of rapier wit, he became one of Canada’s few “public intellectuals,” justifiably proud of his place on the country’s cultural landscape. In its conceit, gossipy quality, and startling condemnations of selected public figures, this impolite book is delightfully un-Canadian in character. Those who have crossed the author’s path will pore through the index, sometimes at their peril.

Bliss admired popular historian Pierre Berton, even serving as an “academic adviser” on his history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but author Peter C. Newman is rather more severely judged. Bliss found his books to be “unreadable, inaccurate, and smarmy.” He thinks Don Harron (a.k.a. Charlie Farquharson) was the “smartest interviewer” he ever encountered, and has kind words for broadcasters Barbara Frum, Peter Gzowski, Steve Paikin and Michael Enright. Former Prime Ministers Kim Campbell, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, not so much. Not only did Bliss detest the Conservatives’ promotion of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, but he considered the party’s recent leaders (Stephen Harper excepted) to be weak and misguided and Mulroney to be a “shallow, glib, hustler.” Perceived publicly as a conservative – Preston Manning, in Bliss’s view, was the “best prime minister Canada never had”– the author’s political leanings are actually those of a small-l liberal, who favours individualism and deplores religious evangelism. He has been a longtime atheist, since a brief flirtation with undergraduate theology, and he deeply respected Pierre Trudeau for his commitment to “one Canada” and for securing the Charter of Rights.

Bliss writes glowingly of those academic colleagues (professors and former graduate students) who shared his extraordinary work ethic – and who produced important scholarship – but delivers a verbal spanking to ’60s U of T student activists including Bob Rae, at the time a “loud, arrogant … pretentious pup.” He relished the academic freedom that university life offered while deploring the pettiness of university politics. He laments the current state of Canadian historical writing, which he finds frequently uninteresting, unreadable, and ideologically anachronistic. Nuance, which infuses Bliss’s own scholarship, is largely absent in this provocative, preachy, and possibly polarizing memoir.

Still, there are some intriguing personal revelations. Reared in the pleasant southwestern Ontario village of Kingsville in the 1940s and ’50s, the Blisses were, by all appearances, an iconic middle class Canadian family. His father was a country doctor, and his mother a smart, judgmental woman who raised a family without pursuing her own academic and professional interests. It turns out that there were serious mental health issues in the family, involving Bliss’s father, mother and older brother. All of this was largely hidden from the author until he was an adult, but accounts, at least in part, for his continuous need to prove himself, and for his periodic episodes of deep self-doubt which, curiously, sit alongside his uber-confident aura.

Colourful stories aside, a historian’s memoir interests other historians mainly when it tracks an author’s intellectual journey. Bliss’s work covered the disparate fields of business, political and medical history. We find out little about how he intellectually engaged these subjects. What we know is that he seized a topic, worked relentlessly, and produced a tome, each of which, in his immodest view, was better than the previous one. But how does the historian master the technical worlds of science and medicine? What theories, methodologies or cultural currents shape the narratives? Amid tens of thousands of documents, how is the wheat distinguished from the chaff? In Bliss’s rendering, everything appears to happen magically, as if hard work were all that mattered.

This autobiography, then, is revealing without being deeply introspective. As a veteran biographer, Bliss surely knows that his own account of his past is likely to be very different from that of an arm’s length observer. But historians in Canada rarely write biographies of other historians (though Blissophiles could consult Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss for additional insights). So this book is the most we are likely to get, and we could do worse.

Writing History: A Professor’s Life, by Michael Bliss, published by Dundurn (Toronto), 2011, 428 pp.

Paul Axelrod is a professor in the faculty of education at York University.

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