Saturday, November 1, 2008

How Pierre Berton did it all

Berton A Biography
By A.B. McKillop
McClelland and Stewart

As my readers will know, I am a huge admirer of Pierre Berton. He died in 2004. Last month his biography was finally released. If the name McKillop sounds familiar, thats because I reviewed another of his books earlier this year.

So here is the Globe and Mail review of Berton A Biography.

At last we see how Pierre Berton did it. The magnitude of the man's multifaceted achievement, that decades-long career as the uncrowned King of Canada, remains astounding: Besides his 50 books, Berton wrote more than 100 feature articles for Maclean's and 1,000 columns for the Toronto Star.

But thanks to this excellent biography by A. B. McKillop, finally we begin to grasp how, while publishing more than a million words of journalism, doing countless radio spots, hosting The Pierre Berton Show and starring on Front Page Challenge, Berton managed to produce one massive bestseller after another, books such as Klondike, The Comfortable Pew, The Smug Minority, The National Dream, The Last Spike, The Invasion of Canada, Vimy and The Arctic Grail.

Berton's method was to become successful enough as a journalist and TV personality that he could maintain a support staff of skilled professionals. He was fond of insisting that he only ever used a single researcher, and that is roughly true: The renowned Barbara Sears served with distinction and got paid accordingly, receiving a percentage of royalties.

But what Berton tended to gloss over was that in his heyday, while his capable, ex-journalist wife kept the home fires burning in Kleinburg, just north of Toronto, he also employed a superb substantive editor, a full-time secretary, assistants and expert readers as necessary (Michael Bliss, are you there?); above all, as business mastermind, organizer, negotiator, promoter par excellence and psychological protector, the formidable Elsa Franklin.

Having created this elite attack squad, and given that he was an experienced journalist with a terrific sense of story, and also a workaholic of stupendous, almost superhuman energy - essentially a writing machine - well, it's no wonder that Berton managed to transform himself into an iconic figure. Love him or hate him, all through the 1960s, '70s and '80s, short of hiding under a rock, you could not get away from the ubiquitous Berton.

In this evenhanded, judicious and authoritative work, McKillop does justice to the colossus. He presents the story of Berton, so much a man of his times, within the context of those times, and he does so wisely and well, highlighting his subject's strengths while pinpointing his weaknesses. He shows, finally, how, after a long, long, long stand atop the heap, the extroverted Berton, who grew up through the Great Depression and served without seeing action in the Second World War, finally found himself out of sync with the times.

Certainly, the book has weaknesses. It starts slowly and develops predictably, a slave to chronology. But this is an academically conventional, cradle-to-grave biography, and those are the shortcomings not of this work but of the genre. If it is relentlessly expository rather than scenic, and looks nothing like any book Berton himself would have written, the work is all the more interesting for that.

Here we find an unabashed academic - McKillop is chairman of the history department at Carleton University - taking on a narrative historian who created a wildly successful career while constantly battling university-based critics and nitpickers, most of them squirming with envy. The good news is that McKillop gets it. He appreciates that Berton was writing for an audience of intelligent non-specialists: people who would read history as educational entertainment, but had no patience for the abstruse theorizing of those writing for their specialist peers, always with one eye on the tenure track.

Of course, as a cultural historian, McKillop puts this differently, observing that writers of academic and popular history "served different purposes and readerships." The former "sold their points of view to colleagues on the grounds that what they were saying was new and innovative." The latter "sold their stories to the public by describing the very experience of those events. ... The two tasks were different, and neither was more legitimate than the other."

McKillop makes the case that to academics, Berton was a maverick who played by his own rules. There existed no well-defined place in Canada for a serious popular historian who emerged from the conventions not of academe, but of journalism, so those who regarded themselves as the sole certified guardians of the past, feeling threatened by this ebullient Hercules, defaulted into attack mode.

McKillop himself is less interested in Berton as historian than as larger-than-life personality and Canadian icon. Early on, he worried that his subject "risked being remembered primarily for his contributions to Canadian history: as Mr. Canada, the popular historian." While acknowledging that, for almost 30 years, Berton was "the premier chronicler of Canadian history," McKillop felt that "measured against the backdrop of his times, his life was of much greater canvas and significance than this."

The biographer suggests that the most important and revealing years of Berton's life were those between his 1947 arrival in Toronto as a hungry young journalist from Vancouver, and the 1970 publication of The National Dream. During those years, he observes, Berton moved beyond local celebrity to become "a controversial national figure known to virtually every Canadian."

He also stresses that Berton made his name when "Canadian celebrity" was a contradiction in terms. His analysis of how Berton did this - not just by becoming omnipresent in the media, but by remaining, until near the end, uniquely in tune with the country at large - is alone worth the price of admission.

For the rest, the epic saga is well known. Pierre Berton (1920-2004) was born in Whitehorse and grew up in Dawson City, Yukon. He discovered newspapering while attending university in Victoria and Vancouver, and shone brightly enough as a West Coast newshound that Maclean's magazine came calling from Toronto. Through it all, and for years afterward, Berton kept growing.

McKillop does turn up the fact that Berton's father, Frank, spent 10 years, from 6 to almost 16, in a New Brunswick orphanage. And he writes that Berton himself "did not know about his father's years at the Wiggins institution." Elsewhere, he suggests that this ignorance may have been feigned, the result of "a glance away by the son."

Proceeding methodically, even doggedly, McKillop guides us through some rough patches without losing focus - the embarrassingly jejune Sordsmen's Club, for example, whose 20 or so male members entertained female guests with five-hour luncheons, where they would make clear their expectations: "Late in the afternoon, couples would disappear, sometimes upstairs."

In the end, blemishes, weaknesses, warts and all, Pierre Berton remains standing, a friendly giant. And we emerge from his story dazzled anew, knowing that we will not see his like again.

Ken McGoogan, a winner of the Pierre Berton Award for History, has sojourned in Berton House in Dawson City. He has just published Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures and Romantic Obsessions of Elisha Kent Kane.

681 pages, $37.99

It will be a while before I can afford to buy this. I may have to get it from the library or wait for the paperback.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo! I think Pierre Berton was a great Canadian. I've read most of his books and hope to read and collect all 50 of them. I'm certain that the majority of them will continue to sell for years to come.Thanks Mr. McGoogan for writing a just review. Thanks Mr.Mckillop for writing the biography. And and even bigger belated thanks to Mr. Berton for his talent and gift of writing lively "educational Canadian history" books.
Tom Ranco
Montreal, Quebec