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Parsing the French Diaspora in North America

Philip Marchand, Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America , McClelland & Stewart, Toronto , 2006. 444 pages, HB $37.99

About a year ago, Toronto Star book columnist Phil Marchand and I had one of our occasional writers’ lunches at a fashionable café on Toronto’s College Street. We like each other, but we’re not naturally comfortable with each other’s intellectual habits. I’m a foul-mouthed ex-Protestant Liberal Anarchist given to sweeping generalizations and absolute judgements that I stand behind only until the next curiosity undermines and rolls over them. Phil, who is the country’s last full-time book critic, is a practicing Catholic, and a firm believer in careful judgments and the language that goes with them. Among the things we share are an abiding interest in Marshall McLuhan, a sharp distrust of culturally-mainstream industrial novels and most of the novelists who write them, and more obscurely, a respect for the Jesuits, and the kind of intellectual methods they practice.

I suspect Phil finds my respect for the Jesuits more than a little puzzling because I have no Jesuit training, and little visible predilection or capacity for either disciplined thinking or codified reasoning. I’ve explained to him several times that I’m attracted to intellectual tools I don’t possess because I learn from them, and that the writers who most delight me are those who do things differently than I can. He nods his head when I say this, says nothing for a moment, and then moves the conversation on to a discussion of the intellectual toolboxes writers carry, which is another subject in which we both have more than a casual interest.

I noticed, soon after we sat down for lunch, that Phil seemed slightly agitated. I took it as a reaction to having just completed a draft of his now-published book Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America. He seemed to want to talk about the manuscript and not-talk about it at the same time, and having been in that position myself, I found it easy to empathize. He described it as a book about the 17th century French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle—better known simply as La Salle, the man who first explored the Mississippi River and was murdered by his own men in 1687 somewhere in the wilds of east Texas at the end of a long string of misadventures that were mostly self-inflicted. I listened with interest, more because he’s a good raconteur than out of any specific curiosity about La Salle. I caught enough to recognize that La Salle was a much more interesting character than I’d thought, and that Phil’s book wasn’t going to be a laconic historiographic recounting of a mildly underestimated explorer’s life. But I had a bee in my own bonnet, and about halfway through the lunch it got out and pretty much took over.

This was around the time of Pope John Paul II’s final death-spiral, the tributes to his tending of the flock were pouring out of the newsrooms of the mass media like a sticky and distinctly light-obstructing syrup, and I was annoyed by all of it. I’d never found much to admire about Mr. Wojtyla’s character or his activities as Pope, and have long regarded his deeply conservative social values antediluvian and his pronouncements about birth control as among the primary obstructions to controlling the global spread of HIV. Seeing any chance of balanced critiques of his achievement being swept away by the onslaught of sentimental journalism infuriated me, and as soon as it seemed we were done with La Salle, I launched into a tirade that was more colourful than thoughtful.

I got caught up in the sheer relief the tirade was giving me from the sugary unction vomiting from virtually every set of lips in the mass media—Phil’s excluded—and, well, I sort of lost my mind. I was soon not slagging just the deserving Mr. Wojtyla, but the Catholic Church, organized religion, and eventually, the silliness of believing in a “planning” intelligence in the universe.

The airier my flight became, the quieter Phil grew, and the more uncomfortable he looked. At one point in the flight, I recalled dimly that he might not be wholly in synch with all the Stations of the Cross I was splashing verbal napalm over, and geez, wasn’t he a practicing Catholic or whatever?

Never mind that. I was flying too high and fast and having too much fun to be brought to earth by anything short of a judo-chop across the throat, and Phil, who is a profoundly gentle person as well as a civil and forbearing man, declined to administer even verbal restraints. The lunch ended uneventfully, Phil looking a little dazed, and me with a nagging sensation that too much of what I’d been splashing around had landed on me.

Marchand isn’t one to hold grudges, and so this fall, I was invited to the launch of Ghost Empire at the Nicolas Hoare store on Toronto’s Front Street. I attended, naturally, and purchased a copy of the 441 page book, got Phil to sign it—and quickly left the premises.

The publisher, McClelland & Stewart, following the current fashion in Canadian publishing, wasn’t serving the guests drinks or canapés to celebrate the occasion, and I guess Phil wasn’t willing to put himself out of pocket personally the way a lot of authors are forced to do these days if they want to make a social splash with a book. The result was that the launch of Ghost Empire wasn’t remotely celebratory. Mostly it was a lot of older people wandering around looking pretty much the way I felt, disappointed and a little irritated at the new chill penury of Canada’s most prestigious publishing house.

I t occurred to me that the utter solemnity of the event might have something to do with the recent management changeover at M&S from that of literary and cultural nationalist Doug Gibson to the more bottom-lining regime of Doug Pepper, recently repatriated from a lengthy stint in New York City at Random House. But other possibilities loomed: was the new M&S management possibly disinterested in the projects Gibson left behind? Or was it that the book had been judged a failure, and the M&S marketing people were cutting their losses?

Whatever the truth was, it landed Ghost Empire on my bedside stack, where it quickly sank out of sight on a half-conscious instinct not to participate in a possible failure of a man I like and admire. The book didn’t reappear until close to Christmas, when my sense of duty generally overcomes my instincts. But when I finally sat down with it and began to read, I didn’t come up for air for three hours. When I did, I was asking why in hell M&S hadn’t organized a parade for Phil Marchand. Ghost Empire is wonderful.

The book’s executive summary, before I get into why it’s wonderful, goes something like this: Ghost Empire is a history of the French Diaspora in North America, covering its political and social evolution from the day Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1535 through the French military defeat at Quebec in 1759 and the divestment of its territorial assets, to its cultural evolution since. To deliver on this, Marchand uses the dual lenses of La Salle—his adventures and misadventures—and the author’s own contemporary retracing of La Salle’s 17th century exploratory routes.

Marchand’s larger purpose isn’t so linear. The core proposal he makes is that the political defeat of France in the 18th century and the much more gradual fading of French influence in North American life is a cultural tragedy. His argument, which I’ll summarize with a brevity he’d reject, is that the French brought two conflicting approaches to life in the New World: the Jesuit approach, which espoused religious conversion of aboriginal populations without exterminating their culture; and the mercantile one, which involved the usual exploitation of resources but with a surprisingly unprejudiced degree of cultural integration and interdepence with existing populations. In both, the French were much less brutal than their British and American competitors, who triumphed through sheer numbers of settlers, Protestant religious bloody-mindedness and a willingness to displace or exterminate any local population that tried to oppose them.

The evidence with which Marchand structures his arguments is wide-ranging and mostly convincing, whether he’s recounting the activities of Jesuit missionaries amongst the Hurons, Algonquians (and the Iroquois who massacred them), or contextualizing our understanding of the Métis voyageurs. To this La Salle becomes his cipher, and one of the marvels of the book is how accurate that choice turns out to be.

La Salle embodies virtually everything the French brought to the table in North America, good and bad. There’s his Jesuit training, which seeded both his utter lack of prejudice towards the aboriginal peoples he encountered and his dislike of most European authorities, including the French ones. There’s his remarkable courage and perceptiveness on the trail, which likely prevented the murder of him and his traveling companions a dozen times over.

Then there’s his downside, which Marchand elucidates unsparingly. La Salle was famously erratic and egomaniacal (the Jesuits expelled him as “unsteady”), chronically careless of fine detail, and given to fits of depression, obsession and paranoia. He had terrible skills as a day-to-day administrator, and was as bad a handler of his compatriot underlings as he was an astute judge of the character of the aboriginal peoples he encountered. La Salle is, among many things of relevance, a walking reminder that foresight is frequently blind to social surroundings and practical reality, and that courage and enterprise are often devoid of common sense—and that even though we can’t live without them, they are often very hard to live with.

Over and over again, Ghost Empire reveals an authorial intelligence that I’ve long suspected was informing Marchand’s writing, but which rarely gets expression because his everyday job is skewering pastel novels without openly appearing to do so—which is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel without letting anyone see the gun. Admirable, but a deployment of lesser skills than he exercises in Ghost Empire, which reveals him as a writer with a sharp eye for ground level detail, and an unexpected gift for the sort of wild contextualization that conventional history tends to miss.

In one two-page passage, for instance, the close reading revealed more of the outlook held by the French in Quebec and the geographic and technological assets that shaped it than I’d learned from reading a half dozen books on the subject in the past.

I t comes in a discussion of Jean Nicolet’s wildly theatrical landing at Green Bay in the 1630s, 45 years before La Salle arrived there. “When I first read about this period of history,” Marchand writes, “it amazed me that people kept running into each other in the vast wilderness of North America . Eventually I realized that it was much easier to hide yourself in modern America than in seventeenth-century America . Back then you could wander off in the woods, to be sure, but in order to survive you eventually had to fall in with an Indian band or a European settlement—and news of strangers spread quickly…

“Moreover, given the absence of roads, there were only certain routes that travelers could take, and those were on water. This is worth pondering for a moment, because if you want to understand the French in America, you have to understand water routes…

“…If La Salle, and other Frenchmen like him, could regard the wilderness as a tonic, rather than the playground of the devil, as the New Englanders did, it was because within it they could get in a canoe and go places. The innumerable lakes and rivers made bearable Cather’s suffocating forest, Kerouac’s ‘utterly hopeless place to which the French came,’ Whitman’s ‘extreme of grimness,’ Wyndham Lewis’s endless tundra ‘dotted with the eternal fir tree.’ And the French, unlike the English, who were hemmed in by the Allegheny Mountains , had full access to rivers and lakes. …

“…[the] means was the birchbark canoe—easy to carry, easy to make, easy to repair. The raw material of that canoe, the birch, also grew in abundance only in areas dominated by the French. (The Iroquois often had to make do with much less handy and durable elmbark canoes.)

“This system of inland waters made it harder, however, for travelers to travel unnoticed. You couldn’t hide yourself in a lake or a river. …The [local tribe at Green Bay] then, had plenty of warning that somebody of great importance and interest was dropping in for a visit.”

This is extremely perceptive and swift observation, but what Marchand does next is equally typical of the book, except that this time he’s after the distortions built into the historical record, and how hilariously—and specifically—they occur. He goes to the local courthouse to look at a 1910 mural of Nicolet’s landing, painted “by a German-born Milwaukee artist named Franz Rohrbeck. It was a lively painting, but unfortunate for a number of reasons. ‘Rohrbeck confessed to having a number of rather stout German burghers…as models for the figures represented in the painting,’ a contemporary newspaper account of the unveiling stated. ‘As a result, the dozens of savages who greeted the French explorer are pictured as short, obese persons, in sharp contrast to the well proportioned, lithe beings other artists and photographers have shown.’ Nicolet, in his Chinese robe, firing his pistols in the air, looks like a drunken cowboy shooting up the Long Branch Saloon. Rohrbeck painted him bug-eyed with excitement—the effects of too much brandy, or the transport of being a visionnaire, perhaps, like La Salle .”

This sequence—sharp, quick, and non-judgmental—is a microcosm of what the book does in literally thousands of other places. It’s impossible not to trust an eye this good, and that opens you to the wealth of endearingly incorrect intellectual quirks at work in Marchand’s array, ones that he works intelligently enough to turn them into strengths. Along the way, he argues convincingly against the intellectual brutalism of Marxism and other fundamentalisms, makes merry with historian Francis Parkman’s rhetorical Anglo chauvinisms—a trick I never thought I’d see anyone succeed at—and at one point, even manages to make a convincing case for Hillaire Belloc as a travel writer. Marchand gets away with it because of his deliciously self-ironic stance as the book’s modern-day investigator of the French remnant. His encounters along La Salle’s route are crowded with the kinds of close and careful observation only the very best writers are capable of, and they converge into a rich, slapstick-riddled human fabric that makes you wish there was more of it in our lives. And not incidentally, he made me wish I was French.

Behind this are several serious and worthwhile purposes. One thing Marchand wants, I think, is to turn contemporary liberal humanist arrogances back on themselves so they can be re-examined and cleaned of accumulated rot. He also wants to make a case for the sort of Catholicism I suspect he practices himself, one that is softly communitarian and without the sort of rigid ideologies that are making everyone’s spiritual lives difficult these days. But ultimately, he’s out to convince us that life is more textured and interesting along the sentient boundary between cultural orthodoxies. I think he succeeds in all of these, sometimes gloriously. And among the many things the book does, it exacts a deserved revenge on me for my idiotic tirade about Catholicism and the advisability of religious faith over lunch. I stand gratefully corrected, and more than a little enlightened.

Ghost Empire is a book that is easy to read, profoundly informative, and frequently both insightful and hilariously entertaining. It succeeds partly because Marchand’s research is so thorough and penetrating, but also because the juxtaposition of its narrator and his main narrative vehicle, along with the landscapes, people and the difficulties they face are so different. It is hard to imagine two more different characters than La Salle and Marchand, and Marchand plays on this difference with a degree of control as purposeful as it is self-deprecating.

So I’m not fluffing Ghost Empire by calling it “wonderful”. I’m using the most exact term I can find to describe both its expository method and the reaction I had to the book. I’d call it revelatory, but I don’t want to get into that again after my borderline-asinine lunchtime attack on Catholicism. At very least, he has made me wonder about a number of things I’d never seriously considered about the French in North America .

It says a lot about the conditions of publishing in Canada that neither Ghost Empire or Don Akenson’s remarkable two volume 1500 page An Irish History of Civilization are likely to receive the readership or the acclaim they deserve. The reasons neither book will get its due are as simple as they are depressing. Both employ unconventional narrative techniques, which is to say, neither upholds the ridiculous pretence—endemic to television—of authoritative objectivity, and neither writer inflicts a single “inspirational” sentence. That’s because neither author is interested in activating the vast hordes of readers eager to be ethnically aggrieved (and thus privileged above their fellow citizens), even though both the French in North America and the Irish globally have legitimate grievances to be aired.

Instead, both writers assume the two things about their subjects that have constituted the core values of Western intellectual systems for at least two centuries: a.) that the delivery of heretofore unrecognized or misinterpreted information makes life better for everyone, and b.) that partisan, devotional or fundamentalized discourse is more often than not synonymous with bullshit, or is at best of inferior cultural utility. About their readers they’ve assumed the presence of the intellectual good will and free curiosity that have been the cornerstones of those same intellectual systems. They have, in other words, written for the Happy Few, and the Happy Few are proving to be shamefully timid and, well, few.

This is, by the way, one of the least recognized effects of the transformation of Western cultural discourse from that of structured enquiry into a marketplace of opinion and belief. Such a marketplace abandons standards of discourse for the comfort and consolation of appetite and prejudice—to self help, celebrity and to populist vulgarizations like The Da Vinci Code, all of which replace contextuality with fundamentalization.

But let’s not conclude this on a sour sermon. Phil Marchand has written a very good book, one that delivers its readers to a sweeter and far more textured understanding of the French Diaspora in North America. Go out and buy the damned thing, and spend a week with his elegant, quiet intelligence. He won’t spray you with a single tirade or sermon, and you’ll come back to a richer world than you left. That’s something wonderful.

3173 words, February 14, 2006

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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