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Dent, John Charles

DENT, JOHN CHARLES, lawyer, journalist, author, and historian; b. 8 Nov. 1841 at Kendal, England, son of John Dent and Catherine Mawson; m. 17 Oct. 1866 Elsie McIntosh, and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 27 Sept. 1888 in Toronto, Ont.

John Charles Dent immigrated with his family to Canada West as a small child. He studied law in the Brantford office of Edmund Burke Wood, later treasurer of Ontario and chief justice of Manitoba. Dent was called to the bar in 1865 but, disliking the practice of law, he returned to England to embark on a new career in journalism.

Dent learned his trade working for the Daily Telegraph in London. At this time the extension of the franchise, the advance of literacy, and technological innovations were transforming part of the British press into media of mass communications, creating a new and larger reading public, and altering reportorial style. The Telegraph, founded in 1855 and taking its name from the invention which had recently accelerated the transmission of news, was priced at 1d. when competitors were selling at 4d. In search of a mass public, it was pioneering the field of “sensational journalism.” Dent is also reported to have contributed “a series of articles on interesting topics” to Once a Week, an intellectually undemanding periodical catering to the interests of the lower middle class. Dent’s contributions cannot be identified, but his later fiction is of the sort favoured by this magazine. In 1867 he moved to the United States. He is said to have been employed on the Boston Globe, founded in 1872 as a “commercial and business journal of the first class,” but driven to sensationalism when it neared bankruptcy in the competitive Boston market.

In 1876 Dent’s experience as a popular writer was of interest to Goldwin Smith who, with John Ross Robertson as proprietor, was about to found the Toronto Evening Telegram, an organ intended to support Edward Blake and the Liberal party. This was Smith’s only venture with a journal catering to popular taste, and he himself did not intend to direct editorial policy. He did, however, reserve the right of appointing the first editor, who was Dent. The Telegram soon departed from the liberal convictions of Smith to pursue the imperialist and conservative enthusiasms of Robertson; within a year Dent resigned his position to become editor of the reform-minded Weekly Globe. Whether these facts were related is unknown but Dent’s later political views certainly coincided with those of the Globe and its owner George Brown* rather than with the Telegram’s. Dent remained with the Globe until shortly after Brown’s death in 1880, when he became a freelance writer of popular history.

Within a year he began two major undertakings. The first was The Canadian portrait gallery in four volumes containing biographical sketches of 204 leading figures in Canadian history. Some had already been written for the Weekly Globe and a few were written by other contributors; Dent’s own work amounted to 185 biographies or some 888 pages. Also in 1881, he began publishing The last forty years: Canada since the union of 1841, which, like the Portrait gallery, was issued serially. Consisting of 735 pages of text in two volumes, it long remained the leading account of the period in English.

In achieving so much so quickly, Dent owed a great deal to Sir Francis Hincks who, as he acknowledged, possessed an invaluable knowledge of the past, being the last leading politician of the 1840s still alive. Hincks, moreover, had a keen interest in history, particularly with regard to the role he and other “Baldwinite” Reformers had played in it. In 1877 he had published a short Political history of Canada between 1840 and 1855 and he was then at work on his more lengthy Reminiscences of his public life which appeared in 1884. Both books were highly tendentious, aimed at correcting errors of fact and interpretation being made by historians, at assailing what were taken to be mistaken views of old political opponents, and at establishing Hincks’s own view of the past. At one time he had hoped to assist Louis-Philippe Turcotte in bringing out a “corrected” edition of Le Canada sous l’Union, 1841–1867 (1871–72) which he himself had intended to translate into English. Turcotte, however, died before this project could be accomplished. Dent’s undertakings therefore provided the old man with just the sort of opportunity for which he had long been waiting. He now advised Dent closely as to factual detail, and even contributed an article on an old enemy, Sir Dominick Daly, to The Canadian Portrait gallery. His most important contribution, however, probably lay in providing the basic conceptual framework of The last forty years.

Donald Swainson, a close student of the latter book, has remarked that while the chapters on the 1840s seem carefully researched and well organized, Dent’s treatment of the period from 1850 to the 1870s resembles “a hasty and annalistic ‘history of his own times.’ It appears more than coincidental that the good work corresponds with a period in which Dent’s mentor was active in politics and, more especially, with the period covered in Hincks’s Political history. Up until the 1880s, moreover, most historians believed that “responsible government” had been achieved not in 1848 (the date now generally, if misleadingly, accepted) but in 1840, a conviction which corresponds with that of old opponents of Hincks such as Egerton Ryerson; Hincks was still seeking to undermine that belief. In this regard, Dent employed Hincks’s “Baldwinite” concept, and it governed his understanding of early Canadian politics to a truly remarkable extent. As Swainson observes, he “was obsessed with the issue of responsible government and in The Last Forty Years devoted considerable space and great passion to it. It is the book’s major preoccupation.” Yet the “struggle for responsible government” was more than a preoccupation; it is the book’s single unifying theme, in the absence of which the later chapters fall into conceptual disarray.

Dent returned to this theme, to project it into a more distant past, in his last major work, The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion, published in two volumes in 1885. The second volume, which deals with the immediate causes and events of the rising, is of some enduring value in that it contains information which does not survive elsewhere, and because its author displayed a more reasonable regard for evidence here than elsewhere in his text. The first volume, which in treating long term causes deals with almost the whole of the colony’s political history, is a mixture of fact and fantasy amounting to historical myth.

Partly inspired by models derived from English “Whig” history, this volume contains the story of a “struggle for liberty” which partakes of melodrama. Its heroes are moderate Reformers standing in the evolutionary tradition of “responsible government”; its villains are British officials and local Tories opposed to this tradition and radicals who departed from it by embracing republicanism and taking up arms in 1837. Dent’s many critics early took note of his simplistic, black and white presentation of the politics of the period and, more especially, of his savage characterizations of those he saw as villains. John King, son-in-law of William Lyon Mackenzie, in his rancorous rebuttal of Dent, The other side of the “Story”, observed: “In one chapter we find the late Chief Justice [Sir John Beverley Robinson*], and the late Bishop [John Strachan], compared to ‘half famished tigers of the jungle.’ In another [Robert Fleming Gourlay’s] description of the Bishop as ‘a lying little fool of a renegade Presbyterian’ is approvingly quoted. Here, there and everywhere the most offensive epithets are applied to William Lyon Mackenzie, while [John Rolph] is little short of an angel of light.” Dent’s critics, and Dent himself, however, seem not to have realized that they were dealing less with a product of historical research than with symbols, or dramatis personae, which emerged from, and reinforced, a preconceived thesis treated as a plot.

It is therefore instructive to compare Dent’s historical writing with some of his purely imaginative work which was published posthumously in 1888 in The Gerrard Street mystery and other weird tales. As with The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion, these tales contain symbols which, within the context of particular plots, give expression to a noteworthy historical point of view. In the 1880s Dent was caught up in the emotively charged debate as to “the political destiny of Canada”: whether it would become federated with the British empire, be annexed to the United States, or develop into an independent nation. He did not pretend to know what the outcome would be, but he had a marked preference for independence. This bias, which was related to his pervasive concern for “responsible government,” is also apparent in his fiction, most notably with respect to his use of English, Canadian, and American symbols.

“The haunted house on Duchess Street” is a tale of Gothic horror in which the Horsfalls, a terrorized family of Americans, including a George Washington Horsfall, are driven from an ancient Canadian house, associated with old compact Tories, by the ghost of the autocratic Captain Bywater, an Englishman as the name was intended to suggest, who had perished there of his own immoral excesses. The symbolic implications of the plot and the curiously evocative names Dent tended to assign to his characters are even more apparent in “Sovereen’s disappearance.” Callously abandoned by a dissolute English husband called Sovereen, a Canadian heroine is befriended by an upright American, Thomas Jefferson Haskins. When the husband, broken and ruined, returns, he is tenderly nursed on his deathbed by Mrs Sovereen who resolves to live out the rest of her life in virtuous widowhood. And of the same order is “Gagtooth’s image,” wherein a central image, representing disappointed hopes for the future in the United States, is transferred from an American to a Canadian context, there to be cherished by the narrator.

The symbolic content of these stories is similar to that of Dent’s histories. They are also suggestive of how literature functioned in relation to history in the mind of their author. As a popularizer Dent sought to make dry-as-dust history interesting by means of literary techniques. In the introduction to his posthumously published short stories we are told that, like Macaulay, he believed “the incidents of real life, whether political or domestic, admit of being so arranged, without detriment to accuracy, to command all the interest of an artificial series of facts; that the chain of circumstances which constitute history may be as finely and as gracefully woven as any tale of fancy.” Yet Dent’s powers of fancy, even unfettered by historical fact, were governed by borrowed stereotypes. In his short stories, however, he did manage to manipulate his own symbols, whereas in his imaginative projections upon the screen of history he appears rather to have been manipulated by them, to have become, in effect, symbol-bound.

In 1884 Dent edited and introduced the collected speeches of Alexander Morris in Nova Britannia; or, our new Canadian dominion foreshadowed, which, as the title suggests, reflected a nationalist point of view he fully shared. That same year he published some largely rehashed material in Toronto, past and present, which he wrote in collaboration with Henry Scadding. In 1887 he founded and edited Arcturus: a Canadian Journal of Literature and Life where he published some of his fiction and gave expression to the dim view he had come to take of national politics. Addressed to “a wide circle of readers . . . [to] deal with questions of general interest in a readable and popular manner,” this weekly collapsed within half a year of its founding.

Dent was honoured for his contributions to Canadian letters by election to the Royal Society of Canada in 1887. This election was bitterly resented by certain Conservatives who remembered him as having written in 1883 “foul libels on [Sir Charles Tupper] and on Goldwin Smith in the Toronto News”; nor can it have been any more to the taste of Liberals who yet regarded themselves as standing in the tradition of William Lyon Mackenzie; nor to French Canadian historians such as Henri-Raymond Casgrain who, reacting against Dent’s Anglo-Protestant biases, had delivered a stinging critique of The last forty years before the Royal Society in 1884. Oddly enough, he seems to have owed his election to the support of Colonel George Taylor Denison III, a prominent imperialist. While sharing some of Dent’s nationalist fervour Denison must have been completely out of sympathy with his hankerings after independence. It was perhaps in the hope of wooing Dent from these that he acted as sponsor. In any event nothing came of it for Dent died of a heart attack in the following year.

In his time Dent was assailed by critics of all political stripes who were far from accepting his interpretation of Canadian history and whose criticisms, on the whole, were quite well taken. Dent, however, published several stout volumes, as they did not, and over the years his views tended to win out. Thus as a popularizer of a point of view, his achievement was a great one.

Dent's Canadian History Readers
By D. J. Dickie

Book 1 - All About Canada For Little Folk
Book 2 - All About Indians
Book 3 - How Canada Was Found
Book 4 - The Long Trail
Book 5 - When Canada Was Young
Book 6 - In Pioneer Days
Book 7 - The Canadian West
Book 8 - How Canada Grew Up


The Book of New Canadians

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