Pierre Berton: 1920-2004

Pierre Berton passed away earlier today.

A few weeks ago, I and my house-mates found ourselves in the odd position of trying to explain Pierre Berton to a German grad-student. I don’t remember what we said about Berton, whose works are on our parents’ books shelves and maybe some of our own, even if we haven’t read them. Talking about bow-ties, black-and-white TV shows vaguely remembered and certified Canadian subjects like the War of 1812, the Klondike and the railway just didn’t convey the institution that he was. We then had to try and tell the German grad-student why Berton’s televised joint-rolling lesson was insanely hilarious. Recreational drug use aside, Berton achieved a cool that not only appealed to CBC listening parents, but also literary hipsters like Russell Smith. (Since the Globe and Mail considers its back-catalogue so precious, you need to be an Insider to get at Smith’s article on Berton. Also, it’s nice to see that the National Post is able to use Berton’s death to keep its sniping feud with the CBC alive.)

Berton’s death marks the second passing this year of “an old man of Canadian letters.” Jack McClelland, who published a number of Berton’s books, died in June.

CanLit’s grandfathers are slipping away.

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