Young Lower: the historian as creator

JOHN CLARE January 1 1968

Young Lower: the historian as creator

JOHN CLARE January 1 1968

Young Lower: the historian as creator


...and a vivid close-up of the erratic politician they all called Mitch

HIS FRIEND Arthur Phelps, another retired professor living in Kingston, sometimes refers to him as “Young Lower.” The technical basis for this affectionate patronage is a year’s difference in their ages. The reference can also be taken as a tribute to the youthful vigor Arthur R. M. Lower has brought to the writing of his autobiography under the title My First Seventy-Five Years (Macmillan, $8.95). Although he asserts “there is more

to writing than meets the eye,” he also admits to self-doubts — “a second-rate endowment married to a second-rate calling?” This book and others such as Colony to Nation by this dedicated, often angry Canadian scholar, make such fears groundless.

Lower has more to say about what he thinks a historian should be: “He must have some of the gifts of the novelist — capacity to express himself well, to understand the psychology of his characters, to see the logic in human situations ... He is fusing dull facts into something new, accomplishing a genuine act of creation . . . [and] if it rise to great enough heights he is to that extent a poet.”

Lower doesn’t give us much poetry; his descriptions of the Canadian scene he knows so well are brushed in loving but flat strokes. He is at his best writing about Arthur Lower, Canadian. He has long been deeply engaged in the fight for civil rights, academic freedom and better teaching. He has been intellectually if not personally involved in the political and social movements that have shaped this country. And since his years bracket our times this book emerges as a wise and sometimes irascible commentary on Canada’s emergence as a nation.

Canadians well known to all of us by name throng these pages, which tell the story of a teaching career in western and eastern Canada and the U.S. He speaks with affection of former students. He worries about the kind of education Canada has given them. He shows concern for the sexual pressure under which they must study. “Student love affairs can be most disturbing and since they frequently coincide with the spring examination . . . they can be disastrous.” He thinks younger students study better in groups segregated according to sex.

Lower didn’t know Mackenzie King well but he analyzed him from a distance. “He doesn’t understand the nature of friendship. There are plenty of people among his young men who would be quite devoted friends and servants if he would allow them . . . I would put that down to instinctive jealousy ... Of course, he’s very feminine.”

Of the present prime minister he writes: “Most of Pearson’s visible personality is humdrum and close to commonplace. His expertise as a political strategist seems nonexistent.

Evidently he allows himself to be swayed by the advice of those around him . . . His international performance shows he has something on the ball, but how much?”

He pauses at one point to name some historians who have made Canada’s story interesting to us. To that list he might well have added the name of Young Lower.

Lower in his biography has had the advantage of living inside the skin of his subject since 1889. Neil McKenty, a Jesuit priest, had no such vantage point when he came to write about Mitchell Hepburn, the tempestuous, erratic and sometimes brilliant Ontario politician who gave the province its only Liberal government of this century and then abandoned what he had built. He saw Hepburn once when he, McKenty, was a boy.

In Mitch Hepburn (McClelland and Stewart, $8.95) McKenty draws more on his talents as a researcher than those more imaginative gifts of which Lower speaks in his credo for the craft. But he does catch the reflection of some of the sparks this man threw off on the hustings, where he was at his best, 30 years ago. Father McKenty’s description of a defeated Mitch, his face wet with sweat and tears, being booed by a hometown St. Thomas crowd is a poignant bit of writing.

Some people loved Mitch. Others feared him, called him a Huey Long. Mackenzie King, with whom Hepburn had feuded bitterly, confided to his diary when Mitch was seriously ill: “I don’t often wish that a man should

pass away but I believe it would be the most fortunate thing that could happen at this time.”

Father McKenty has caught the many sides of Mitch — his wild i political theories (he was a funnymoney man for a time), his loose living, his many acts of kindness and his remarkable ability to hold in his hand, for a time, the hearts and votes of his countrymen.