Pulitzer-prize winning historian challenges peers to blaze new path.
Historians need to rethink the way they practice their craft, says an acclaimed American scholar who has written one of the most influential books on Samuel de Champlain in a generation.
Pulitzer-prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer was the keynote speaker at the Canadian Historical Association meetings at Congress 2011 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
He urged a rapt audience of historians to try a “third way” of history — one that combines the old-school disciplined methods of historians such as Donald Creighton, with the second-wave of history that focused less on “great events and great men” and told stories about the lives and lifestyles average citizens.
“We need a third way forward,” he said. “There’s a power of fusion between the first two ways that can realize a greater strength by combining both of them.”
There are 6,000 Canadian scholars attending Congress 2011, including several hundred historians. For almost a week, they will be attending various sessions, where colleagues and new scholars will present papers on their research.
The Alfred G. Bailey auditorium at St. Thomas University was packed for the keynote address by Fischer, who works at Brandeis University, a private liberal arts research university in Boston.
Fischer’s latest book, Champlain’s Dream
, has garnered acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. “Champlain’s Dream
is a book every Canadian should own,” the National Post
raved in its review.
In the book, Fischer casts new light on one of Canada’s most famous, yet mysterious explorers, by placing him in the context of his time and his place. Using ethnographic techniques, he builds a three-dimensional portrait of the man who founded Quebec City and explored much of New France.
Fischer said following his address that what impressed him most about Champlain was the explorer’s humanity. Unlike some other explorers, who came to the New World to conquer indigeneous peoples, Champlain hoped to create a new kind of co-existence based on mutual respect.
In essence, he hoped his French settlers and their Native allies and neighbours would someday become one people — “Champlain’s dream.”
“Champlain has lots to teach us,” Fischer argues. “The main idea is humanity: it’s a sympathy for others, a way of treating others, of acting in humane ways. That’s the most important thing.
Critics and academics alike have praised Fischer’s ability to write complex ideas in a highly accessible fashion. His Champlain’s Dream
is no dry academic journal piece. It lives and breathes, making the reader feel as if she or he was actually alongside Champlain during his journey to the North America.
Fischer says accessibility is a key concern for him when it comes to history writing. It’s vital not only to the health of the discipline, but to reaching other people,” he said. “The great question is how to write books that people would want to read — but serious ones, good ones.”