What’s My Story? The White and the Gold

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January 28, 2013 by The Editor

The White and the GoldMy reading over the past year has been concentrated primarily in the area of French Canadian studies. Over years of genealogical research I gleaned only bits and pieces of the wider story of the French in North America. About a year ago I decided that without knowing more fully the history of such things as the fur trade, early French exploration, and the relationship between the many historical communities where my ancestors lived, I would never really be satisfied. I needed to go beyond names and dates

I’ve tried to read widely, from popular media and blogs to academic articles and mass market books. It’s been a real eye-opening education for me. The more I read, the more I feel I need to read. There are so many facets to the history of the French in North America, the history of New France, and the new course of civilization that arose when Europeans arrived I could spend the rest of my life just studying this topic.

Part of this project has been trying to figure out what is necessary to read – which works lay out the fundamental history of early North America in a way that gives a broad overview, which works take the reader into specific events and subcultures, which works focus on trade versus missionary activities or settlement patterns? Part of the project has also been knowing what I can tolerate in any given week. I’m not always up for a heavy academic tome.

So I came to Thomas B. Costain’s The White and the Gold in early December, well over a month ago. It was recommended by many people on various electronic forums I participate in. Although over half a century old, it remained vivid in the memories of people who had read it and was well-regarded.

I approach older, expansive histories like this one with some caution. They can be very much stuck in their times, full of data that becomes outdated over decades. The writing can be stale and outmoded. But they can also be a window into the mindset of their times, a valuable way of understanding how history has been told up until now.

Costain’s work is very much reflective of all these qualities. Although categorized as a commercial history, it is very much of a piece with the standard Euro-centric approach to history common until fairly recently. This is the kind of history in which, primarily, Northern European men (especially Protestants), are the forces around which history happened. It is the kind of history in which events at the margins, on the frontiers, are important only so much as they are directed by the main players of state and colonial power.

Costain was a journalist and novelist of historical fiction, and so his work is very readable.  Judging from this work, he told a good story and I wonder now what his fiction must be like. So the book is on my nightstand, being slowly read as a story before bedtime. But truthfully, I’m not sure it even belongs there. It certainly does not belong in the category of great histories. While it may enliven the senses as to the epic, adventurous times of New France, it is also a work that has outlived its reliability as a popular history.

How many times can a modern reader take in the terms “savage” “red men” and “dusky men” and not begin to realize that this is a history meant for another time? How many times can the early French inhabitants be reduced to ignorant, fool-hardy, temperamental drunks who were prone to violence before you begin to wonder if something is amiss? As I wrote earlier, sometimes reading older history books can be a window into the intellectual climate of another time. So it is with The White and the Gold.

This was a standard history for its times, focused on the affairs of the elite: the crown, the church, the nobility, the businessmen. Of course, it is also about adventurers and Indian chiefs, and great priests and the trials the early settlers endured. It also pulls no punches in describing the ‘losers’ of history as miserable pawns of a more important destiny.

And that is where the book truly fails me. It must be understood that only in recent decades have many people begun to appreciate that history is not just about men like Henry IV and Champlain, however interesting they were. Yet The White and the Gold’s approach has a corollary effect in simultaneously reducing aboriginals and les habitants to ugly stereotypes. In so doing it perpetuates myths and leads readers away from a deeper understanding of their histories.

To that end, there are other books that are both readable and written for a modern audience, even if they do not address all facets of life in New France. My recommendations for general histories would be the works by W. J. Eccles (The French in North America) and Peter Moogk (La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada). Costain’s work is no longer in print although many copies are available used.

see also: The Tree: A Fiddle’s Tune

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10 thoughts on “What’s My Story? The White and the Gold

  1. Maybe we confine ourselves as well when we stay unilateral, in a one-sided conversation that presumes to know another person is ‘savage’ or whatever. A real dialogue doesn’t just connect me but enlarges my self. We can see how Mr. Costain was stunted by his exclusive community–I wonder how future people will see our self imposed limitations?

    • That’s a very good question Rebecca. And we certainly have our limitations. History, or the study of history, is itself a dialogue isn’t it? If we encounter history with the story already prejudged, with certain expectations, we’re not really encountering history – we’re just confirming our place in the world.

  2. rosewater12 says:

    There is a term used repeatedly in HUCK FINN that was common in Mark Twain’s time. It is, reasonably, shunned in 2012. Yet PC historians do us no favors by censoring reality. Our current sensibilities twist the meaning of valuable historic documents.

    • Rosewater12 – I agree we need to be open to the reality that was and to understand why it no longer is (or shouldn’t be as the case warrants). I don’t think it does anyone any favor to whitewash history. As Rebecca mentioned above, true dialogue should enlarge a person. The historians who want to erase the offensive parts of history, or conversely not understand that they are offensive, aren’t really part of a dialogue. I’m not sure they’re even historians.

  3. James, I few days ago, I discovered that in Quebec, most people do not know that the 1837-1838 Rebellions occurred in both Canadas. Yet, that is not a detail.
    By the way, Gabriel Franchère was a famous voyageur. He worked for John Jacob Astor and retired in Minnesota. Also, in their travel accounts, explorers mention certain voyageurs by name. We also have accounts by visitors to North America. Moreover, there are stories on the Internet.
    http://www.radio-canada.ca/radio/profondeur/RemarquablesOublies/aubry.htm. & http://www.radio-canada.ca/radio/profondeur/RemarquablesOublies/JBaptiste_charbonneau.html
    It isn’t much, but… Best, Micheline

    • Thank you for the links Micheline. I’m not surprised people are unaware of such facets of history. If Canada is anything like the US in that regard, knowledge of history is limited in the extreme.

      • You’re right. History is not considered an important subject. But it is and one should be told the facts, not versions of the facts.
        I also think people would like to know about the voyageurs. They were involved in fur-trading, but they also worked for the explorers.
        Thank you James and take care,
        Micheline

      • I’m not sure I get your meaning specifically, but in a sense isn’t all history writing a ‘version’ of the facts. I don’t think any historian comes without baggage. He or she may not have an agenda per se, but they are a product of their milieu, their times. So that’s why I try to give Costain a bit of credit and understand his work from the perspective of his times, but also to understand that he was limited by his times.

        As for ‘just the facts’ , with regard to voyageurs, doesn’t it that seem that if we were limited to just the facts, then traditional history would not really tell the their story at all? It is material culture, anthropology, archaeology, ethnology that have allowed us to understand their culture in a much more meaningful way only in the past 30 odd years.

        Cheers,
        James

  4. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your review of Costain’s book, James. I also agree with your comment that no “historian comes without baggage.” Sometimes that “baggage” is new documentation, more accurate translation and transcriptions, or archaelogical finds previously unknown or misunderstood by earlier historians. Costain’s work can now truly be considered historical fiction, as is Parkman. And so history is always on-going.
    Suzanne

    • Suzanne,
      Thank you for writing. It is very true what you say – it is easy to become stuck in established orthodoxies. I know scholars whose lives were spent in areas of research that suddenly changed and they were unable to transition to new modes of thinking. On the other hand, it’s also too easy to toss the baby out with the bathwater…. So much of ‘history’ is actually interpretation and emphasis. This is where modes of thinking that undermine historical accuracy and obscure a full picture of past experience have been most felt. With Costain’s work (this one at least), I think the jury has fully deliberated however. It’s time is past.
      James

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