On writing about History

Philip St.John lived in Uxbridge, Ontario. He settled there in 1817, if I’m remembering the details correctly. He had emigrated from Cork in Ireland to Upper Canada, but he wasn’t properly Irish. The St.Johns were from the German Palatinate, which is near Heidelberg, and went to Ireland around 1710. Before that, we don’t really know. I’d put money on there being some Huguenot in there. The borders weren’t terribly well defined at that time, and there was a lot of migration out of that part of the world. People had the knack of fighting over it.

What I know for sure is that Philip was known to the local residents of Uxbridge by two nicknames. One was the slightly sarcastic “King Philip” which referenced the fact that he owned the largest wagon in the county. The other was “hypocrite” and it had to do with the fact that he enjoyed the occasional tipple despite claiming to be a teetotaler. I think it’s fairly likely he kept a jug on the wagon.

By the end of his lifetime, Philip did the calculation and figured that he had personally cleared 99 acres of forest from lands that he owned. There was a time in the not too distant past when it would have been possible to walk across all of Uxbridge Township on family land.

It’s not like the family disappeared. The other week I was out having dinner at Morgan’s on the Danforth with Dad and got to meet some relatives. Chances are if you live in Southern Ontario and your last name is St. John, you’re a distant cousin.

One of the things I’ve thought about periodically since starting to write history is what Philip would have made of what I do for a living. I don’t believe they had beer critics in the 1820’s. They barely had advertising. In all probability, he would have handed me a splitting axe and a team of oxen and told me to put up this frivolous pursuit and go clear the stumps out of the back forty. Then again, I know more about brewing beer than he would have, so it wouldn’t have been a total waste.

Writing about history is an odd process in that most of the creativity involved is referential. Many of the writers that I know will have loose ideas bouncing around in their heads that defy capture. They know they want to write something, but they don’t quite know how the pieces fit together. If the information they’ve ingested is left long enough, something will eventually trigger it. Some idle Tuesday afternoon, while they’re staring out the window and dunking a teabag, it will suddenly coalesce into a wholly formed idea.

Writing history isn’t like that. Most of it already happened and you have to wait a long time for a sequel.

One of the advantages my Co-Author Alan MacLeod and I had was the vast digitization of resources that’s happened in the last decade. There’s a book by Ian Bowering called The Art and Mystery of Brewing in Ontario which he published in the early 1990’s. He had to collect all of the data by hand, sifting through archives and newspaper microfiche. As a result, the book is not really a book so much as it is a list of facts. I can see why. How do you contextualize that information without the ability to create a huge index of material? For God’s sake, that was five years before google. He probably had a table covered in index cards.

Google books, incidentally, is a powerful force for good and a massive deterrent for authors. It is now the largest collection of digitally archived information on the planet and it will preserve everything it can get its hands on forever. If you’re an author, you’ll live forever in the cloud. Congratulations! You’re part of the singularity. It is more impressive than Alexandria. It makes the Colossus of Rhodes look like an action figure.

As an author, it’s a worry because it scoops up everything without worrying too much about copyright. Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb’s Pocket Guide is up on there. Most of it is blocked out, and it’s not a useful way to view the data, but it is on there. For reference, I think I recommended that as a Christmas stocking stuffer four months ago. You begin to wonder whether people are going to buy your book or just google it. It’s discouraging because authors periodically like to buy luxury items like soap and bread.

The digitization of material can be pretty overwhelming. I have detailed maps of Ontario at 1846 and 1869 that show all of the data I was able to mine from Gazetteers and Directories. I can see them from the top down, different colours representing different industries, brewing and distilling. In some cases town names have changed and I’m left with a best guess. In other cases, marriage and death records long stripped of their emotional import; of their heft.

The factual information is there in immense and robust detail. It represents lifetimes of work and struggle from people not unlike Philip St.John. The basic experience for all of these people was similar. They were in a new land. They were trying. The best you can do is represent the shapes of those lives as they surround your topic.

There is too much information to be useful. If you were writing fiction, you would expect the scraps eventually to form a larger whole. You might have a beautiful moment of epiphanic glory where it suddenly all made sense. Writing history doesn’t work that way. The argument already exists. You’re merely figuring out how to support it.

My dreams have become oddly literal with this information cluttering up the mental landscape. Rural route concession crossroads with red tail hawks gyring on an updraft. Stinking wharves in Muddy York and winter sleighing on the lake. Canoeing the Missinaibi down to Moose Factory. Long draughts of lost ales from breweries no one alive has seen.

At a time like this, you’d practically be glad of stumping the back forty. Unearthing the roots is difficult work.

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