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Douglas Fetherling - Hero-Making
by Douglas Fetherling

Most of us think of James Wolfe, the victor of the Plains of Abraham, as he appears at the National Gallery of Canada in Benjamin West's painting, "The Death of General Wolfe": a chinless sort of individual, small-boned, with thinning red hair and an ethereal look quite appropriate to someone who's dying from loss of blood. The painting was completed in 1770, eleven years after the event depicted. But West, an American, did his research well, for Wolfe appears virtually the same in the numerous sketches and paintings made from life. We know, then, pretty much what he looked like-a certain kind of thirty-two-year-old English aristocrat of the eighteenth century. But his thought processes are entirely foreign to us now, so much has the world changed. Wolfe's most famous utterance, made on the eve of the great battle in which both he and his rival, the Marquis de Montcalm, perished, was that he so admired Thomas Gray's poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard", that he should rather have written it himself than take Quebec in the morning. Imagine a military leader today making a statement of this sort. Picture General Norman Schwarzkopf telling CNN: "I would rather be known as the author of Allen Ginsberg's `Howl' than as the hero of Desert Storm."

Alan McNairn, former curator at the National Gallery and former director of the New Brunswick Museum, doesn't dwell on the story in his book, Behold the Hero: General Wolfe & the Arts in the Eighteenth Century (McGill-Queen's, $44.90), but he might easily have done so. Wolfe had been reading Gray's poem during the transatlantic voyage, annotating in the margins as he went along. His copy, a gift from his fiancée, was among the effects returned to the general's survivors following the battle. Amazingly, it remained in the family home in England until the 1980s, when it was purchased by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto for a figure in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars. The acquisition, as I recall, wasn't devoid of minor controversy, because by that time Canadians had given up singing "The Maple Leaf Forever" and James Wolfe had stopped being a hero in Canadian history. McNairn's book is about the start, rather than the end, of the hero-making process.

The news of Wolfe's victory took a month to reach London. Before another month was out, Wolfe was a subject of veneration, and his image was to be found on porcelain and cheap prints-and graven on the hearts of his countrymen. "For the English on both sides of the Atlantic," writes McNairn, "Wolfe's definitive victory at Quebec was a vindication-in the unlikely case that such were needed-of the self-evident truth of constitutional liberty, Protestant beliefs, and unrestrained capitalism. For a nation imbued with the sentiments expressed in Rule Britannia, news of the fall of Quebec in 1759 could not but give rise to spontaneous, ebullient euphoria." If the process involved manipulating the truth a bit, well, no harm done.

One English hack writer, blessedly anonymous, went so far as to hurry into print a mock dialogue between Wolfe and Montcalm in Heaven. As McNairn retells it: "Montcalm, magnanimous in his praise of Wolfe, confessed to coveting his successful adversary's valour and fame. His own misfortune, he claimed, was due to his inferior troops. They were unlike the intrepid and courageous English troops, who had shown themselves to be `aces at picket', standing against cannon-fire `with a composure and steadiness not to be expected among the French.' Montcalm said his troops were like `puppets', losing `their activity and motion' when even minor strings broke. Their faint-heartedness, however, was not unjustified, for their irresolute behaviour reflected the attitude of France herself to her domain in North America. Montcalm damned his nation's government for its disinterest in Canada. His army, he felt, had been ill-supplied by an uncaring nation. With sincere sorrow he recalled his unhappy duty, leading forces condemned to a futile defence of Canada for a monarch who was `governed by a company of comedians.'"

Behold the Hero is a study, not of heroism but rather, of the idea of celebrity as practised in the eighteenth century-especially, but not exclusively, as it relates to iconography, the study of visual imagery of Wolfe by artists and artisans of all levels of competence. I found it a fascinating work. There's also an interesting chapter on Benjamin West's Wolfe paintings (he did more than one) in Imagined Battle: Reflections of War in European Art (University of North Carolina Press, $54.25) by the distinguished art historian, Peter Paret, who tends to put what might be called the lionization of Wolfe (forgive me) into a broader context of military genre painting.;


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