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25 February 2007

Recent Reading in Books Acquired Lately


Recent Reading in Books Acquired Lately

A few inter-related centres of gravity for my interests in understanding the past have emerged from what I've been reading recently. One of these centres relates to the period around 1890 to 1910; geographically the Klondike and Pacific Northwest is what I've kept 'running across' in several of the books I've just now acquired, while the other reading I've gotten into centres around Montreal.

The poet Milton Acorn fits in here somehow, but the collection of poems I've got of his is not from the Montrteal period but rather about Prince Edward Island. (There are essays specifically about PEI history as well as poems, many I am certain were written by Acorn as a young man on the island.)

Since I have got many notions about how all these writings, writers and their subjects seem to work together into something coherent, I will just post short items about them and my thoughts from time to time, without trying to wrap anything up into one neat package. (That's a benefit at least I, if not you the reader, have license to enjoy.

Although I've sold nearly everything of Jack London's I once owned, I still have Irving Stone's bio of him written in 1935. Yesterday I picked up Laura Beatrice Berton's autobiographic "I Married the Klondike". For photos mostly I've been looking through the folio format "The Streets were Paved in Gold" by Stan Cohen. Many other books and collections, including Robert Service's poems, have also influenced my thinking about the two or three poles of attraction I am thinking of here.

Two interesting points: in Dawson a Carnegie Library was built with a $25,000 donation from that foundation in the same year that Laura (née Thompson) Berton arrived to teach kindergarten - on a salary that was more than 5 times what she'd been earning in Toronto. She and the new library arrived just after the gold seams in the Klondike had run out: at least the placer deposits one or two men could get out by digging.

Nearly all the American prospectors had returned home (many a bit richer) or moved on to another Eldorado just as Dawson was being 'institutionalized' with permanent emplacements for the bank, the Mounties, the established churches and this Carnegie Library . . as well as the school where L. Berton was to teach.

I won't even attempt to tell the stories of the Klondike and these people in a post, I've barely digested the stories myself and could spend a year going over what I have here.

The Berton who Laura Thompson married was a miner-prospector, one of the Canadians who stayed on. For 20 years in the Yukon, he as a working journalist, she as a teacher and amateur novelist, they dug in in a rigorously more domestic manner than the first prospectors had accomplished. In the Yukon, the couple raised the famous-to-Canadians man-of-letters Pierre Berton. The Berton seniors settled in Oakville, Ontario in 1932.

Jack London, like Berton senior, was on the early trek up over Chilkoot Pass and up to mining territory by river raft with the first wave. They both braved the worst conditions and yet also lived the early high-times of a boom town that had struck it rich.

Robert Service arrived later. (I see that he figures in the I Married the Klondike narrative, and I cannot wait to dig into read more about how Service succeeded early as a writer-poet and started earning more from publication than the bank manager for whom he worked.)

London had a harder time of it to get good pay for what started out as 'partial publication' of the Klondike stories, even though he had already been well received in print for stories about roughing it -- both at sea and on the western plains all the way to Chicago.

(to be continued)

24 February 2007

My Own Info-Cultural Overload


John Murray Gibbon wrote and published in 1935 a history entitled "Steel of Empire" which is subtitled "A Romantic History of the Canadian Pacific, the Northwest Passage of Today". The maps and illustrations are magnificent, including the one of Canadian water and rail routes on the inside covers. No, I did not Google J. M. Gibbon or search for the book on ABE or anything -- I left that task to my friend at the bookstore, who finally sold me this 423 page tome for CAN $10 instead of the $28.95 my other friend, the bookstore owner, had marked lightly on the fly-leaf page.

Yes, I probably will also purchase and read Pierre Berton's "The Last Rail" plus a few other histories of Canadian railroads and railroading.

The really interesting of part of this visit to the neighbourhood bookstore yesterday, however, revolved less around the titles I scanned on the shelves but the conversation(s) three of us had about 'transportation' into Montreal. Turns out that the woman (I forget her name, dammit!), the one who always comes in on Fridays to buy three pop-lit titles, arrived in Montreal by rail from Halifax in 1950 -- at age 3 after a sojourn in a DP (displaced persons) camp in Eastern Europe from birth to her departure to Canada. Her family was from Lithuania and did I ever get an earful about the situation of Lithuanian immigrant to Canada following the last world war (the present 'world war', actually . . the war that never really ended . . in my humble opinion).

You would be privileged to have heard, or to have me recount here, her personal history (which is not at all a private history). But in the 45 minutes or so that we spoke, the topics ranged so widely that it would take a volume greater than Gibbons's to relate the details and enough background for anyone outside my neighbourhood to understand the facts properly. This just shows the complicated state and entertwined themes of personal, local, social, ethnic, religious, world and linguistic histories. And this is no exaggeration.

(The rapport we three experienced and our mutual interest in exchanging stories is typical of the many high-points in interaction with customers that one sees in the typical used-bookstore on a typical day, by the way. Something I find nobody has time for in the retail trade for new books.)

Such conversations, of course, stimulate my interest in finding out more, meeting other Lithuanians and having more conversations with people I've met over the years who were also DPs before arriving in Canada. In terms of piquing my interest in reading, well one doesn't even know where to begin. But is my reaction typical? Aren't most people simply overloaded with all the details and complications of life as we've lived it over the past half-century or so?

Communities of people in my immediate vicinity seem to be so fractured along linguistic, familial and political divides that the last thing that comes to my mind is that they have a common culture, a common literature. The most common literature I can think of would be a book like 'Microsoft XP for Dummies' or some guide for shopping, dining out in or simply visiting in 'City X'; tour guides to the amusement park, in other words.

Sadly, as well, it seems so typical that the notions about 'sharing stories' are mostly being mouthed by narrators who are thinking more in terms of undergrad or graduate courses in lit and creative writing than by the real DPs in our midst. Or, one day I meet an interesting Cuban and learn immediately that her family 'fled Castro' and the next day the Cuban I meet is in a cultural delegation loyal to Castro! It's the same thing with the Chinese, although none of them are formally sponsored by the present regime. The Chinese storekeeper plays the capitalist entrepreneur card AND the card-carrying Maoist card simultaneously! And where does all this leave the 2nd-gen Eastern European who fled both the communists and the fascists and whose parents got jobs with Northern Electric and whose pension and estate melted when Nortel went into free-fall? But, typically, where does this leave the person who doesn't care a damn about politics but who wishes that their parents had immigrated to Los Angeles instead of to Québec. Where do you even start?

It is no wonder that the No. 1 Target being attacked by the performance poets I've heard and seen lately has been the boob tube and/or the instant stardom 'for everybody' epitomized by " Star Academy" shows. But where would we be if the show were called 'Estonian for a Night'?

Conclusion? I guess I'm suffering from information overload just based on one 45-minute conversation in a bookstore yesterday. I think I too will turn on the boob tube and tune out for a little break or pick up an escapist novel I see on the shelf. I don't think I could handle a romantic-historical narrative about how all history revolves around circumnavigating the earth in a timeless search for oriental spices.

23 February 2007

Photo Images, Imagination, and Hard-Pan Montreal and Urban Reality in Hindsight


There is an interesting comment thread that ran yesterday on 'neath's' blog Walking Turcot Yards. It's happening under some photo images of Montreal's Sohmer Park from around 1910 and for Blogaulaire the discussion has opened up many issues (and a few books) about the history of industrialization in Canada, Québec and the world.

What's so important about Sohmer Park? Check out the post HERE first and see what it looks like in the images.

First, the park started as a private investment sort of like some amusement parks in the twentieth century - but not the kind many of us are familiar with. (I remember the Palisades Park in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, with the big roller coaster ride, for example).

Sohmer Park gets two types of photo treatments as far as we can find: one treatment makes it look like a Manet painting, almost like a bourgeois urban paradise. The other photo treatment makes Sohmer Park look like some sort of after-birth, some sort of spectacle and fight arena as a sop to the working class out behind the rail yards out beyond the 'Chateau' Viger . . the Viger Hotel and Railway Station.

Perverse as it may seem, I am most interested in the latter view: Sohmer as a low-rent version of Madison Square Gardens for the Francophone workers. But they did hold, over the last quarter of the 19th century, higher brow concerts and orchestral performances with a resident conductor in the concert hall there. So there was a complex reality reflected.

It all has to do with how workers looked at culture and how the real bourgeoisie looked upon the workers. And, especially for Montreal, these realities are far from simple and most difficult to work out conceptually from the perspective of the 21st century.

What is traditionally projected back into time is a notion that the English lived on the west side of town and the French on the east side. Add to East versus West view the notion that the Irish lived south of the Lachine Canal, down around the Victoria Bridge (both of which the Irish came to build - not far from where thousands of them had died of 'ship fever' in the fever sheds) and you start to paint the social history of Montreal the way it has come down through the mists of time.

What such a view of social and industrial history is likely to miss is the rural penetration of piece-work at manufacturing textiles, a trade run by French Canadian entrepreneurs . . and with the total collaboration of the church hierarchy. It is a phenomenon that antedates heavy industry in Lower Canada.

When you scan photos of Montreal taken in the late 19th century or early 20th, it becomes easy to lose all distinction between light and heavy industry and to completely forget about domestic piece-work. The shoe and clothing manufactures were immense industrial operations that spread out from Old Montreal to the east and the machines were run on steam power - burning first coal and then oil. So if you look east, you see smokestack after smokestack and are likely fooled into seeing the east side as the heart of Montreal's manufacturing activities. But it doesn't matter which direction you face: from Old Montreal, look in any direction at this time and the whole thing (as a panorama) looks industrial.

You are 'looking over the heads' of the more traditional bourgeoisie of "La Cité' with any photographic panorama. The well-off districts, the homes of the notaries, the clerical establishment, even of the financiers are still concentrated near the centre of trading activity - clustered around Old Montreal and around the mountain. The manufacturing is also nearby. Textiles, though, are moving east to Hochelaga and then north to the plateau while the metallurgical industry is moving from St. Anne's parish out west along the Canal Lachine over time and with development of the railroads. But because these industries all rely on heavy generation of power in the plant (not from hydro-electric power) they are 'soiling the nest' so to speak of Montreal's urban black-frocked elite.

Photographers and those of us who keep gazing at the documentary records in the image archives may collectively think that we are staying close to the 'best' original sources. But the silver and albumin images lend themselves as easily as do any contemporary novels and belles lettres to a misreading and anachronistic projections of 21st century prejudice backward in time.

There may have been a time in the 19th century when doing piece-work or taking a job in concentrated leather manufacture was considered more dignified than working in heavy metallurgical industry. If anything, it is the trade union struggles that drove wages up in industrial manufacturing and the failure of same in textiles that drove wages down in that sector (today considered tertiary). The same could be said of mining: prospecting for gold is different from digging coal.

Sohmer Park evolved as a venue for concerts into a venue for wrestling and exhibits of brute strength by strongman Louis Cyr. The Chateau Viger moved from a luxury hotel to a bland complex of white-collar offices serving as stenographer to the beer business and the paper-pushers at City Hall and the Palais de Justice. Trying to 'understand' Sohmer Park in 1910 is NOT the same thing as trying to situate the original intent of building a concert hall east of Old Montreal in 1871, and for many reasons including the Great Fire of that year in Montreal (not to mention in Chicago).

Social and economic realities in Montreal are complex. There are elites competing for power over Lower Canada and the Maritimes whose wealth depends either on the Dominion or on more native wealth. There are those whose status depends either on Rome or on Chicago and New York. Some 'capitalists' depend on trade with the interior; others depend on trade with the Mother Country. And there are those in-between. And then there are the ex-slaves be they Black or Irish or what Pierre Vallières termed the 'white niggars of America'. Very complex, indeed!

Note: We need to keep in mind the 'vestimentary' history, i.e., what people wore in the various epochs of modern times. In fact, Charlie Chaplin playing a bum in a bowler hat in the silent film Modern Times should always be kept in mind when reading photographs. I decided to not run photos with this post, but what I could run from the Gold Rush in the Klondike would blow your mind . . . the dresses that the women in Skagway and Dawson 'packed in on their backs' in 1897 . . .

You cannot even begin to read a 19th century photograph until you understand what workers and miners thought about how 'clothes make the man'. And I most certainly include women in this remark.

And you cannot understand a thing about Québec history from photographs unless you conceptualize the competition between manufacture being legitimate IF it is in the hands of the French Catholic merchant-manufacturer versus the "illegitimate" English-Protestant focus upon producing wealth inside a Colony. This distinction, by the way, goes all the way back to the fur trade. But we tend to forget it when looking at smokestacks on the Montreal horizon as we scan photographs taken in the period 1880 - 1910. To be explicit: I am saying that a smokestack is not a smokestack; that in the popular mind it matters very much whether the smokestack bears the name Royal Electric Co.' or 'Hudon Cotton Mill.' And that in this period, more and more of the names on the plants, of light or heavy industry, become Scots, English or colonial. If Sohmer Park evolves from a watering hole for the Francophone bourgeoisie to become an amusement park for the Francophone working class, the change in status reflects more fundamental changes in the division of labour and wealth in Lower Canada generally.

Everyone knows, however, that in the rest of Canada power and population flows North-South, not straight back to the Mother Country. (After all, the railroad was not built East-West overnight. All the 'images' in the West are a reflection of the demographic centre-of-gravity south of Canada's borders.

The entertainers - even out in the backwoods of western Canada - could have come straight from New York's Broadway! And it becomes oh so vulgar compared to what Queen Victoria would have wished for her dominion!

It is like the old joke we used to play when the tour guides at St. Gabriel Farm were all nuns: 'So les filles du roi were sent over from France so that the 'colons' (the King's New France settlers) could have wives and propagate in the colony? And you say these 'filles du roi' were from the 'best families' of France? Well, what about all those abandoned children, the offspring of prostitutes on the streets of Paris and Orléans? What did the King propose to do about them?. Those were some interesting, ironic, conversations with the nuns concerning the 17th century. Back then, the Church did have the aspiration of molding the colony. But in the late 19th century, two hundred years later? Who, then, had aspirations of molding the colony? Was it another King, another Queen, or was it the Church or was it the captains of industry? Or were they all competing over the seat of power? Who?

The Dragon's Almanac 2007 - 23 Febuary


from Justin Wintle

"There is plenty of gold around but how many white haired friends?"

. . (215) Chinese
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