January 28, 2013 by LeVoyageur
My 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 They can be very much stuck in their times, full of data that becomes outdated over decades.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