You’d think that a span of nine days including two weekends, Thanksgiving Monday, and Western University’s inaugural fall reading week would be relaxing. That’s ample time to rest and recharge for the sprint to the Christmas break, right?
Alas, the work of a graduate student is never done. I’m buried under readings (fancy that — it’s reading week) and 56 midterms that need to be marked by next Tuesday.
Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to post something in here, even if it’s just a brief reflection on something that stood out to me in the last few weeks. So here goes.
One theme that’s emerged recently with Charlotte Gray‘s visit to Western for the Goodman Lecture Series is the tension between history written inside and outside the academy. I prefer the terms popular and academic history — some use public history for the former, but I feel that public history is a separate field within academic history that encompasses the popular in many applications.
Anyways, this year’s Public History MA cohort got to sit down for lunch with Mrs. Gray, who argued in her lectures that academic and popular history have — or at least ought to have — a symbiotic relationship. You know, what then-Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi told the Gungan leadership in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:
You and the Naboo form a symbiotic circle, what happens to one of you will affect the other, you must understand this…
The tension between public and academic history — or even just established history and recent discoveries — is real. Here’s an example, one I ran by Charlotte Gray at lunch.
In 2012, Historian David O’Keefe and his team produced Dieppe Uncovered, an hour-long documentary on Operation Jubilee, the infamous raid on the north coast of France that became Canada’s single worst day of casualties in the Second World War. The docudrama’s “cutting-edge research has uncovered new information that may change history books and the perception of the Dieppe Raid.” Check out the trailer below.
Just to get my bias out of the way, O’Keefe is a colleague of mine who I admire quite a bit. But I was very skeptical as I watched the film air on History Television for the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.
O’Keefe followed this up with a 2013 book called One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe. It was a national bestseller and was nominated for many Canadian literary awards that year. It was well-received by the book-buying Canadian public. The book was also a pleasure to read. It is organized more like a mystery novel using real historical evidence than a typical monograph with the thesis and supporting arguments stated up front.
Yet responses in the established historical community in Canada were largely negative. Popular Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, writer of the Canadian Battle Series of books (including Tragedy at Dieppe) had a lively debate with David O’Keefe on a CBC Radio One program back in 2013. They debated whether or not the intelligence-gathering mission was the driving purpose behind the operation. Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, took issue with O’Keefe’s conclusions in The Necessary War, volume one of his recently published Second World War series:
But while the operation was expected to provide valuable information to assist in breaking the U-boat codes and gaining an upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, the failure of the Royal Navy to devote any of its large ships to the Dieppe operation would suggest that this stealth raid did not matter as much to the navy as some historians have sensationally claimed — going so far as to argue that the entire Dieppe raid was but a cover for the commando pinch. It was not.
That’s a fairly blunt appraisal.
Here’s my question. Should Professor O’Keefe (he teaches at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec) have written an academic article, say in Canadian Military History, before taking his findings to the public? Arguably his chosen course — a docudrama and then a mystery-style non-fiction book — doesn’t make the evidence he presents as accessible to scholars for their review. However, in doing so, O’Keefe may have been scooped, and his work may not have reached the broad audience that it did. For me, this is a Catch-22 — you’re damned if you go about it either way.
This leads me to a second question. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the Canadian public — or at least those interested enough to watch the film or read the book — to make up their minds about the raid? Perhaps not, if we consider that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have much in the way of historical training. Or perhaps so, if we consider that the Canadian public is as highly educated as it’s ever been in history.
What do you think? Leave me a comment below. As for Charlotte Gray, I can’t remember her response… as I said, it’s been an exhausting week.
In other news. This year is the Western History Department’s centenary, and they’re hosting some great events on October 27th to celebrate the occasion. One of these is the Greatest (Dead) Canadian competition. My nominee is Brigadier Milton Fowler Gregg, VC PC OC CBE MC ED CD.
Gregg died on 13 March 1978, aged 85. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest. He was an incredible leader and manager who applied his administrative skills to make Canada a better place.