Pierre Berton Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Pierre Berton 1920–

(Has also written under pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk.) Canadian journalist, historian, novelist, biographer, satirist, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Berton's work through 1997.

One of Canada's best-selling authors, Berton has written over forty books on a wide variety of topics, most notably Canadian history. His historical works have drawn praise from reviewers for their engaging narrative style and their ability to make complex events and issues accessible to readers. Many academic critics, however, have faulted Berton for overdramatizing events and introducing historical inaccuracies, arguing that "serious" historians are overlooked while he "popularizes" history.

Biographical Information

Born July 12, 1920, in Whitehorse, a small town in the Yukon Territory, Pierre Berton spent his childhood in the rugged Canadian frontier. After graduating with a B.A. from the University of British Columbia in 1941, he became Canada's youngest city editor at the Vancouver News-Herald, where he remained for one year before joining the Canadian army. After four years of service, Berton returned to Vancouver, taking a position with the Vancouver Sun as a feature writer. In 1947 he moved to Toronto to work as an assistant editor with Maclean's, where he eventually rose to managing editor, a position he held until 1958. During this time, Berton began producing his first books, including The Mysterious North (1956) and Klondike: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush (1958), both of which earned the Governor General's Literary Award. It was during this time also that Berton began his work in television, eventually becoming a panelist on such programs as Close-Up and Front Page Challenge. When Maclean's objected to his television work, he took a position with the Toronto Star, writing a daily column from 1958 until 1962. Berton collected many of these columns into books such as Just Add Water and Stir (1959), Adventures of a Columnist (1960), and Fast, Fast, Fast Relief (1962). Although he continued his television work after leaving the Star, Berton devoted most of his time to his writing, producing nearly a book a year. Even in his late seventies, Berton continues to publish regularly. He and his wife of over fifty years, the former Janet Walker, live in Kleinburg, Ontario.

Major Works

Berton's histories are characteristically easy-reading narratives that utilize an anecdotal approach. His most notable works, such as Klondike, The Last Spike (1971), and his books on the War of 1812, focus on the development of Canada during the nineteenth century. Central in that development is the birth of a Canadian national identity, which Berton feels is essential considering Canada's proximity to the United States. Berton makes clear the importance of differentiation between American and Canadian cultural makeup in Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image (1975), in which he criticizes the depiction of Canada in film, and Why We Act Like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of Our National Character (1982). Some of Berton's other works include collections of articles from his days as a journalist, a children's book, and a novel, written under the pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk, about sexual fantasies.

Critical Reception

Most of Berton's books have met with enormous popular appeal. Credited with creating a "new Canadian mythology," his historical accounts have made Canadian history accessible to a mass audience by presenting exhaustive research in a readable narrative. Many academic critics, however, fault Berton's work for some historical inaccuracies and the "publicity hype" it has received, claiming that work done by "serious" historians is overlooked as a result. In response to their attempts to distinguish between "popular" history and "serious" history, Berton responds, "History is history. Good history is good history. I don't make any distinctions." These detractors, however, have admitted that Berton's work is well written, and credit it for striking a "deeply responsive chord in Canada's reading public."