François-Xavier Garneau

He excelled in primary school, but lack of money apparently barred his way to a classical education. His self-education and natural reserve explain the "proud independence" which impressed his contemporaries.


Garneau, François-Xavier

 François-Xavier Garneau, notary, civil servant, poet, historian (b at Québec City 15 June 1809; d there 3 Feb 1866). The greatest writer of 19th-century French Canada and its most important historian, he had a major influence on the thinking and letters of his time. The son of an unschooled, poor father, young François-Xavier was soon known for his keen intelligence.

He excelled in primary school, but lack of money apparently barred his way to a classical education. His self-education and natural reserve explain the "proud independence" which impressed his contemporaries. Having decided in 1825 to become a notary, he spent 5 years clerking for Archibald Campbell. The latter had an outstanding library and encouraged Garneau to study both English and French history and letters. He also helped him make a trip to the US, where Garneau discovered American-style democracy and confirmed his sense of identity as a North American.

In 1831 the young notary went to London for 2 years as secretary to Denis-Benjamin Viger, sent to defend the rights of French Canadians. Garneau learned much about British politics and society and visited Paris twice. Back in Québec in 1833, he halfheartedly exercised his profession, wrote poems, started a cultural magazine and eagerly followed the debates in the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, dominated respectively by French Canadian nationalists and the Anglo-Canadian establishment.

Garneau began his work as a historian in the late 1830s. He worked, above all, on a vast synthesis of French Canadian history, the 3-volume HISTOIRE DU CANADA, which appeared between 1845 and 1848. A supplement published in 1852 brought the account up to 1840. Garneau presented the history of French Canadians as a struggle for survival - against the Indians and Anglo-Americans on the battlefield, and then against the English-Canadian oligarchy in the parliamentary arena. The work was hugely successful and caused Garneau, while still alive, to be hailed "national historian."

For over a century, novelists, poets and political thinkers borrowed from his documentation and interpretations. His spirited and passionate style assured the Histoire lasting success. After 1845 the clergy began to show concern about certain Gallican (seeGALLICANISM) and liberal aspects in the work, and Garneau then developed a more conservative nationalism in religious matters. For 100 years the historiographical interpretation of French Canada was a synthesis of Garneau's political interpretation and the religious one of Catholic historians such as Abbé Ferland.

Garneau lived a quiet life first as a notary and, later, from 1844 to 1864 as city clerk. He was peace loving, even timid, but held firmly to his opinions. His capacity for work was legendary. Though impassioned by politics, he never entered political life. In his view, the church should either be subordinate to the state or uninvolved in sociopolitical affairs, yet he viewed Catholicism as integral to the national identity of French Canadians. In his nationalist interpretation of history and the love of his native land which pervaded his style, Garneau remains a major figure in French Canadian literature.