Frank Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur
by R. Douglas Francis, University of Toronto Press, 1986, 219 p.
Frank Underhill would have liked the
subtitle. Intellectual provocateur those two words capture the essence and the
limitations of this northern Socrates who spent some fifty years trying to
"stir the flaccid mind of Canada" with his teaching and writing.
Oxford scholar, Fabian socialist, historian,
political scientist, drafter of the CCFs Regina Manifesto, nationalist,
liberal, curator of Laurier House, whatever his station in life Underhill felt
that the only way to make himself useful was to be constantly critical.
Professor Francis of Calgary University has
chosen a worthy subject for his biography but the question is whether this book
tells us anything about Underhill that is not readily available in his classic
In Search of Canadian Liberalism, in the book of essays in honour of Underhill
by Norman Penlington or in various other speeches and articles by or about
Underhill. The answer is yes but not a great deal.
We do catch a glimpse of someone whose feelings
of insecurity and inadequacy at Oxford perhaps contributed more than he would
admit to subsequent views toward this country's relations with the British. We
detect strains of self righteousness as Underhill dabbled in real estate during
his years at the University of Saskatchewan while, at the same time,
castigating the capitalist mentality of western Canadians.
The chapter on his near firing by the
University of Toronto gives splendid insight into how that institution and some
of its leading scholars reacted when a member of the legislature called
Underhill "one of the rats trying to scuttle the ship of state" for
daring to question Canadian aid to the mother country during the 1930s.
Underhill produced no definitive study of
any important theme in Canadian history. He was never completely accepted by
any political party because he found it so delightful to poke holes in all
their arguments. Francis does cover, in workmanlike if rather colourless style,
many of the causes for which Underhill fought – to get more Canadian and
American history on the curriculum, to demonstrate the true nature of
Confederation as a business proposition which favoured certain interests, to
convince socialist politicians to be more pragmatic and less dogmatic, and to
uphold individual freedom as the hallmark of liberal democracy.
Both the introduction and conclusion to this
revised doctoral thesis argue convincingly. if somewhat repetitively, that
Underhill penetrated Canadian politics to its very depths. The reactions he
provoked were to be expected by anyone telling the Emperor he has no clothes.
The book is less enjoyable than a few hours
spent studying Underhill himself. However, if it stimulates people to read or reread
Underhill it will have served a valuable purpose. Whereas Underhill tended to
leave his students sadder but wiser, this book makes us wonder whether the
present generation of political commentators infatuated by single issue
politics, personalities, collective rights and public opinion polls is capable
of producing intellectual successors to Underhill. If not, our political life
will be poorer and more confused than it already is.