"In his day, as in ours, poets tended to make wild suggestions, play with possibilities, toss out ideas, knowing full well that their ideas would never be acted on. Not Duncan Campbell Scott. He didn’t make suggestions; he gave orders. He spent much of his life being obeyed."
Acclaimed Montreal poet and journalist Mark Abley’s Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (Douglas & McIntyre, November 2013) is much more than a biographical séance performed on the decaying legacy of Confederation poet and civil servant Duncan Campbell Scott, who is both revered for his poetry and harshly criticized for policies destructive of aboriginal culture. Rather than merely rehashing the paradoxical quality of Scott’s public service career against his poetical outpourings, and arriving at that logical but irremediable cry of posterity -- "How could a poet set out to destroy another culture?" -- Abley takes the conversation one step further. His challenge to readers is not merely the unraveling of Scott’s persona in order to locate him on the good or bad side of history; instead, Abley asks "after such knowledge, what forgiveness?"
Abley’s question confronts the deeper crisis undercutting any narration of Canada’s colonial past which seeks to represent the unique but simultaneous histories of North American settlement, and by extension, history as the story of civilization. Confronting the utility of progressive historiography itself, Abley suggests that the purpose of history is not to choose what to remember, or conversely, what to forget about the torrid clash of European and Indigenous cultures. If progress demands the vanishing of the uncivilized, and thereby the revelation of evil actors, Abley suggests that a historiography which moves beyond progress is capable of more than administering guilt. "Guilt is a corrosive, negative emotion," writes Abley. "Justice is a much more positive one."
What is the historiographical method of justice? Abley performs it for readers in the very structure of his text. Blending together biography, history, journalism, and fiction, Abley brings to life a dynamic and densely layered account of Canadian experience. The main conceit of the text – that a fictionalized Mark Abley has been tasked by the ghost of Duncan Campbell Scott with recovering the poet’s waning reputation – may initially put readers off. However the series of ensuing conversations between the fictionalized Mark Abley and a ghostly Duncan Campbell Scott allows Abley to represent the various perspectives informing Canada’s "Indian Question" beyond the typical dichotomies of past vs. present, or Europeans vs. Aboriginals. Readers are given many different angles from which to consider the problems inherent in cultural assimilation. While creative licence is taken in the design of Duncan Campbell Scott’s ghost, this fictionalization is balanced against Abley’s extensive historical research not only into Scott’s life, but also into late nineteenth and early twentieth century policies concerning indigenous populations, Scott’s personal and political contemporaries, emerging academic opinion, and most successfully, the private considerations of the fictional Mark Abley, which render the complex and humanizing struggles of an individual attempting to reconcile the good and bad parts of modern Canadian identity.
Conversations with a Dead Man is an unorthodox mash-up of sources, but it is this generic variety which allows the text to both entertain and succeed. The outcome may be unclear – Abley neither fully exorcises himself of Scott’s ghost nor does he redeem him – but this is in itself a kind of just reconciliation. The point for Abley is not to resurface Scott only to banish him forever, but to hold the past and present in reciprocal co-existence. If progress demands that some people must be "ashamed of their ancestors," Abley suggests that history may allow us to live with our ghosts.
© 2014, Pamela Davison
Pamela Davison is an undergraduate student at Concordia University, pursuing a double major in English and Political Science. She was born on the Prairie and has travelled widely across Canada, but feels most at home in Montreal. Her love of books and writing was deeply ingrained by her mother (a journalist) who wouldn't let her daughter watch PG 13 movies but let her read anything she wanted.