Quebec and Its Historians, 1840 to 1920
Terry A. Crowley is a professor of history at the University of Guelph,
and the author of Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality.
“Je me souviens” — the Quebec motto proudly displayed on the province’s licence plates — denotes a people who have traditionally been more historical-minded than most other North Americans. The way in which that historical consciousness has been formed and fostered had not been examined intensively prior to the researches of Serge Gagnon, professor of history at the Université de Québec a Trois-Rivières. Gagnon’s original work, a much longer study which appeared in French under the same title (Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1978), attempted for the first time to place the development of nineteenth century French-Canadian historiography within its broader societal context.
This translation under review was first a chapter in Gagnon’s original book. A new introduction and conclusion have been added, but they have not entirely obviated the problems in presenting the former part as a new and complete whole. In this English version Gagnon concentrates on four historians who produced influential syntheses: F.X. Garneau, Abbé Ferland, Benjamin Suite, and Abbé Groulx. Gagnon is at his best when he is engaged in the historian’s work of placing these individuals and their ideals within a historical context. Less successful is his attempt to catalogue the historical interpretations proffered in their books. Moreover, the author frequently talks about individuals who appeared in the original work but whom the uninitiated reader of this volume will not know. As well, it is difficult to know just where Gagnon is leading us. The four biographical studies are interesting in their own right, but what more Gagnon would like us to know about the evolution of Quebec’s historical consciousness is not readily apparent. For instance, at one point (p. 69) Gagnon notes that Benjamin Suite’s perception of history belonged within the French-Canadian tradition, but nowhere are we told what constituted that tradition.
Gagnon is a pioneer. His book is enlightening and valuable despite these reservations. It is hoped that he will continue his work by studying the sixty years since 1920.