Kenneth Dewar, Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas

By Ann Walton

MQUP, 2015.

MQUP, 2015

This April, historian and professor Kenneth C. Dewar arrived at Carleton University’s History Department to launch his new book, Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas. The room was bustling with students and professors all chatting as we waited for the talk to begin. The subject of Dewar’s book was of particular interest here. Not only did Frank H. Underhill (1889-1971) teach at Carleton, the historian’s donated collection of books and journals still line the walls of the reading room named in his honour, and the annual graduate and undergraduate colloquiums bear the Underhill name. But Dewar’s discussion ventured in directions beyond the biographical; he spoke of the intellectual and political climate of Underhill’s time. What was so truly remarkable about the afternoon’s discussion was that it also encouraged a conversation regarding present-day politics.

H. Blair Neatby offered some opening remarks. “Frank was a guy that students gravitated towards after class,” he recalled. Underhill seemed to possess the capacity to provoke, to spark debate. I couldn’t help but imagine Underhill the professor, surrounded by a circle of students, all wanting to get a word in, to ask questions, to disagree. And after Dewar’s talk, as he opened the floor to questions and conversation, and as more spilled over into the lobby next door, I thought of the scene that Neatby had so eloquently described. Dewar’s captivating talk about Canadian intellectual history–explored through Underhill’s biography–seemed to encourage a similar reaction. Many were keen to ask questions. Some members of the audience leaned forward eagerly in their chairs, wondering aloud about Canada’s current social and intellectual climate, about the state of its social democratic parties. This desire to bring the past into the present, to discuss the relationship between Canadian intellectual history and present-day politics, seemed fitting given the afternoon’s subject.

Taking to the podium, Dewar broke with ceremony unapologetically. Instead of reading an excerpt from his book, he launched into a discussion of its subject, arguing that Underhill’s evolution of thought offered a kind of glimpse into Canadian intellectual history, including the changing role of the intellectual. It is true that Frank Underhill is much more than a book about the historian; it delves into the intellectual and political climate of twentieth-century Canada. Seated with students in my Canadian historiography seminar the day before the book launch, Dewar had reinforced this. With hands clasped before him, he explained that Frank Underhill was not really a biography. “I wanted to trace Underhill’s evolution of thought, not his life,” he said.


Carleton University

Born in Stouffville, Ontario in 1889, Underhill was a ferocious reader, devouring English and American writers of a socialist or progressive persuasion. His influences were found in Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Leslie Stephen, George Bernard Shaw, and John Stuart Mill. Later he would discover Walter Lippmann, Graham Wallas, Richard Hofstadter, and H. Stuart Hughes, all writers who would have a tremendous influence on his career. Intellectuals, in Underhill’s view, were not merely thinkers. They were dissenters, critics, and cultural figures willing to risk their careers or reputations for a greater purpose.

But Canada, according to Underhill, possessed no Carlyles or Ruskins, no Burkes or Shaws. It was only after he returned from his studies at Oxford and completed his service in the First World War that he pieced together a history of Canada’s own intellectual traditions, from the writings of George Brown of Toronto’s Globe, the Canada First movement, the nineteenth-century historian Goldwin Smith, and the nationalist Henri Bourassa. These were figures that fed his interest in national politics, a topic that would dominate his life’s work. He wrote prolifically, contributing book chapters and essays to edited volumes and academic journals, and writing for magazines such as Canadian Forum, where his column “O Canada” developed a strong readership in the 1920s. What these essays reveal, said Dewar, is not only an intellectual whose thought shifted considerably over the span of his career, but also the wider “atmosphere” of a time, or the climate of opinion in which Underhill lived.

When an audience member asked Dewar if his research on Underhill had uncovered any surprises, he spoke of his own lingering curiosity about Canadian liberalism. How did the radical or “left” liberalism of the nineteenth-century–its emphasis on localism and small government–shift to a centralist liberalism, or social democracy in the twentieth-century? This was the question that Dewar posed after completing his research on nineteenth-century Radical journalist and politician Charles Clarke, and it continued to haunt him as he started research for Frank Underhill. But he soon discovered that Underhill’s biography might trace this shift in Canadian liberalism, providing the insight and context he sought.

What surprised Dewar was that Underhill often changed his mind. A flaw in character, say some. Not so, according to Dewar. Although he possessed a volatile personality, Underhill adapted to new circumstances, he “revised his opinions.” In the 1930s he was penning the CCF’s Regina Manifesto, and helping to found the League for Social Reconstruction. He was also an isolationist; his criticism of British imperialism nearly cost him his job at the University of Toronto. But by the 1960s, he was casting a vote for the Liberals, and defending the United States in the Cold War. He was also publicly recognizing Mackenzie King’s role in fostering national unity throughout the war. Social democratic ideas started to penetrate the mainstream after the Second World War, but the CCF’s leadership, according to Underhill, was losing its appreciation for critics and dissenters. Additionally, Underhill criticized the New Party (an alliance between the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress) for failing to offer new solutions to the economic demands of the present. The political spectrum began its transition to the left. The needs of the present in 1960s Canada, argued Underhill, were best met by a Canadian equivalent to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” in the United States. “Liberals were not social democrats,” said Dewar, “but many of them were open to social democratic ideas.”

Kenneth Dewar at Carleton. Photo by Michel Hogue

Kenneth Dewar at Carleton. Photo by Michel Hogue

Dewar’s discussion concluded by answering questions from the audience, and in Underhill fashion, our attention turned towards today’s national politics. Some wondered aloud about the likelihood of an NDP-Liberal coalition in the 2015 federal election; others asked what had become of social democratic parties in Canada. Dewar thoughtfully considered our comments, remarking that both the NDP and the Liberals had helped to create the twentieth-century social democratic state. In his book, he reinforces this, asking, “Do they not share common values and interests?”

My knowledge of Underhill before Dewar’s book launch had been limited to a single chapter in Donald Wright’s The Professionalization of History, and it had unfortunately–to no one’s fault but my own–left only the vaguest impression of Underhill. Here, I learned of Underhill the professor, separating the women from the men in his tutorials, fearing the female presence would hinder the quality of discussion, especially in matters concerning politics. It was only later in preparation for Dewar’s book launch that I read Frank Underhill’s own words, the most striking found in a convocation address he gave at Queen’s University in 1959. In a powerful sermon, he blasted university staff and professors for shielding themselves away from the world of politics. Canada needed more professors “publicly discussing embarrassing questions in an embarrassing way,” Underhill charged. It was the job of universities to produce an élite, “young men and women with disciplined, critical, inquisitive minds,” who could be, “dissenters, non-conformists,” and who could take up the cause of unpopular minorities. As I read more of Underhill’s work, this relentless public engagement and criticism remained constant. Even in 1960, when his opinion of the Liberal party was no longer a flat-out rejection, he blasted the party at the Kingston Thinkers’ Conference, seizing the opportunity to criticize Liberal governments, the Liberal party, and the conference’s agenda.

Underhill was certainly not shy about making waves in the interest of educating the public, especially during periods when public criticism of the government was not as prevalent as it is today. Dewar closed by lingering on this point: the unique position of intellectuals had changed over the years. Not only have magazines such as Canadian Forum and Saturday Night vanished from the newsstand, but few now hold the opinion that there is but one public. The digital age, argued Dewar, has presented countless avenues for communicating with a host of publics, and intellectuals engage in public debate alongside a myriad of professional political strategists, satirists, and think-tank experts. In discussing these changes, Dewar was not uncritical of Underhill along the way, sometimes pointing to how Underhill’s representation of the term ‘intellectual’ was self-serving at times. But he did land on a final and important take-away, one that was not lost on me as we trickled out of the room, some of us still thick in conversation. Frank discussion and tolerance, including the ability to disagree, are still fundamental to our engagement in public affairs and debate, regardless of where we might each stand politically.

Ann Walton is an MA candidate in History at Carleton University.


Further Reading

Dewar, Kenneth C. Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s          University Press, 2015.

–. “Frank Underhill: Intellectual in Search of a Role.” The Underhill Review (Fall 2008): 1-10.

Francis, R. Douglas. Frank H. Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur. Toronto: University of            Toronto Press, 1986.

Underhill, Frank. “The University and Politics.” Queen’s Quarterly 62, no. 2 (Summer 1959) and       reprinted in In Search of Canadian Liberalism, 263-70.

–. “Some Aspects of Upper Canadian Radical Opinion in the Decade before       Confederation.” Canadian Historical Association Annual Report 6 (1927) 46-61.

Wright, Donald. The Professionalization of History in English Canada. Toronto: University of            Toronto Press, 2005.

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