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At Large - Revised Versions
by Michael Coren

DID YOU KNOW that, far from being merely an amusing and gifted satirical writer, Stephen Leacock was in the pay of the German embassy's foreign intelligence department between 1933 and 1938; that John Diefenbaker's stated aim, made in the secret meetings of his kitchen-cabinet, was to bring Canada into a tasting and intimate alliance with South Africa and to introduce the policy of apartheid into North America; and that John Buchan, the novelist who was made Governor-General as Lord Tweedsmuir, was in fact a highly accomplished transvestite who, masquerading as the Duchess of Gwent, seduced three highly placed Quebec politicians into supporting Ottawa's declaration of war on the Axis powers in 1939?

No? Welt, do not be unduly alarmed. Alt of this material will be appearing in my new revisionist history of Canada entitled "Just Beyond Libel: The Canada Nobody Knows Because I just Made It Up," with a print-run of 100,000; to be publicized by the author's appearances on "Shirley," "The Dini Petty Show," "Shirley ... .. MuchMusic," and "Shirley." The book is dedicated, by the way, to Joe McGinniss, for his sterling efforts in the field. For the uninformed, Mr. McGinniss is the author of The Last Brother, a "Twilight Zone" account of Teddy Kennedy and the rest of the American political clan that leaves much to the imagination; that is, to the writer's imagination.

We are living in the age of revisionism. Aside from McGinniss's fatuous account of the Kennedy family we now also have a less ridiculous but perhaps equally egregious biography of Winston Churchill by the British neoconservative academic John Charmley. There is no denying that Charmley's is a sophisticated work with some interesting things to say about its subject. But the only aspect of the tome that made it a best seller in Britain, and has given it such a controversial popularity in Canada, is that Charmley makes the claim that Churchill's bellicose stance against Germany was wrong, that Britain and Canada's war against Hitler was ill-advised. These arguments are tired, predictable, require no analysis here, and, of course, are easy to make in the comfortable 1990s. The point is that what we have here is revisionism for revisionism's sake.

The most wretched tentacle of the genre is not really revisionism at all but recidivism - the falling back into ideological and intellectual crime. I speak of those writers who deny the Holocaust and attempt to coat their emotional spasms with a veneer of scholarship. Imagine if the good guys had not won the Second World War, would the victors have allowed Holocaust asserters to write books about their beliefs? Within the answer to that question lies an indicative tale.

Let us be clear: intelligent, cerebral revisionism is a good thing. If thorough and objective research reveals a new and surprising side to a character, or shows us that our preconceptions were misconceptions, then history, literature, and truth have been well served. But this is rare indeed. In Canada the publication of the diaries and subsequent biographies of Prime Minister Mackenzie King were vital, showing Canadians that their leader for so many years was unstable, obsessed with the supernatural, and dangerously uninformed about Adolf Hitler.

Similarly, recent work on Lucy Maude Montgomery has expunged some of the more fatuous beliefs about her life and shown her to be a more real, flawed, and pained human being than we had thought, and in so doing, I believe, enhanced her stature as an author. Again, a kind of revisionism that has a plausible purpose and does justice to its subject. And also particularly brave in this country, where we have yet to form and formalize our mythology and are hence shy of blackening sepulchres that are grey rather than white.

Britain and the United States, however, could learn from Canada's lesson. What used to be the cutting edge of non-fiction is now in jeopardy of becoming nothing more than the blunt edge of a soiled knife. The description "revisionist" biography will soon possess the same value as the ludicrous "unauthorized," indicating that within its pages we will learn more about Diana Ross or Michael Jackson's body parts than we ever thought possible and ever wanted to know. At the root of all this is a meagreness and an ennui that permeate contemporary non-fiction writing. Mercenary authors grope around for subjects that will sell sufficient books to justify the distended advances paid by eager publishers. The writers then indulge in necrophilia, in a literary screwing of the dead. It simply will not do. The past deserves better, and so do we.


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