Tuesday, June 26, 2007

John Buchan

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the incipient racism of John Buchan, a much admired British statesman and author. I often find that the inner dialogue of the fiction writer displays subconsciously the social context of his period in intriguing ways. In my first post I showed how Buchan, writing in 1940, characterized the First Nations as fungi, the halfbreeds as grassy filaments, the American as a shrub with deeper roots, and the British as a solid oak.

While this is of particular significance in Canada, it is representative of the racism of the 1930's elsewhere. I cannot help but find Buchan's views so pervasive as to be unremarkable in his time.

Here is what Grumpy Old Bookman has to say about Buchan and his attitudes. He rightly points out Buchan's about face on Jews. However, I shall not be so forgiving because of his attitudes, expressed in 1940, towards the Native people of North America.
    But one cannot, I suppose – and I say this with a deep sigh – one cannot leave Buchan without touching, briefly, upon his alleged ‘anti-semitism’ and racism.

    It is perfectly true that the 2005 reader, who has had an awareness of political correctness injected into his veins, will wince a bit at some of Buchan’s throwaway remarks. There are references, for example, to a ‘nigger band’ playing in a nightclub. And there are indeed derogatory references to Jews, as in the description of the same nightclub’s clientele: ‘the usual rastaquou√®re crowd of men and women… mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos.’

    Before we get too excited about this, we do have to remember that we are talking about the English (a term which in this instance includes Scottish) upper classes here. Buchan married into the aristocracy, and he mixed with the greatest in the land. It is undeniable that, in the 1920s and 1930s, such people were typically arrogant, and were dismissive of almost everyone on earth apart from those few who came from their own select background. See the film Gosford Park if you want to know how they treated their servants.

    Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that words such as Frog (for Frenchman), and Wog (for an Arab) were in frequent use well into my lifetime. Indeed, when I was a boy we were sometimes cautioned that ‘Wogs begin at Calais’. In other words, you can’t trust anyone but an Englishman; and you can only trust him if he went to the right sort of school.

    With the benefit of hindsight such attitudes are unattractive; but in their day they were commonplace, and it is a little hard to abuse Buchan for being a man of his time.

    Once anti-semitism, in its virulent form, appeared in Nazi Germany, Buchan was quick to condemn it publicly; so much so that Hitler promptly added him to the list of men who, after the proposed German invasion of England, were to be imprisoned for ‘Pro-Jewish activity’. In due course Buchan realised the sensitivity of some of his earlier (and entirely trivial) references to Jews, and eliminated them from his later work. If you wish to know more, the issue has been dealt with in Roger Kimball’s valuable essay on Buchan.

    It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if such a remarkable body of work, by such a remarkably far-sighted man, were to be ignored, or, worse, condemned, on the strength of a few lines here and there.
    My intent is to move next to an examination of Archibald Flemings experiences with the First Nations of Canada.

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    I recently tried to reread Mr.Standfast and came to a halt as Hannay describes one of the speakers at at British political rally as "a big buck nigger"