Review: History’s People: Personalities and the Past

Posted 10 August, 2016 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

History’s People: Personalities and the Past (CBC Massey Lectures)
By: Margaret MacMillan
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase

In History’s People internationally acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan gives her own personal selection of figures of the past, women and men, some famous and some little-known, who stand out for her. Some have changed the course of history and even directed the currents of their times. Others are memorable for being risk-takers, adventurers, or observers. She looks at the concept of leadership through Bismarck and the unification of Germany; William Lyon MacKenzie King and the preservation of the Canadian Federation; Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the bringing of a unified United States into the Second World War. She also notes how leaders can make huge and often destructive mistakes, as in the cases of Hitler, Stalin, and Thatcher. Richard Nixon and Samuel de Champlain are examples of daring risk-takers who stubbornly went their own ways, often in defiance of their own societies. Then there are the dreamers, explorers, and adventurers, individuals like Fanny Parkes and Elizabeth Simcoe who manage to defy or ignore the constraints of their own societies. Finally, there are the observers, such as Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, and Victor Klemperer, a Holocaust survivor, who kept the notes and diaries that bring the past to life.

History’s People is about the important and complex relationship between biography and history, individuals and their times.

I’m a fan of the CBC Massey Lectures series, I think it’s a great series showcasing great thinkers, academics, and public figures discussing an array of topics that are interesting from an academic standpoint but also ties in well to our everyday lives and/or the world we live in. I’ve read and reviewed a few in the past (see shiny new tag; I’ve read 5 to date, but only reviewed 2 over here) but I was really excited when I heard last year that Margaret MacMillan was going to be the featured lecturer for the latest installment. You may have heard of Margaret MacMillan for her books like Paris 1919 and Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World. She’s a prominent historian too and was a lecturer when I was at UofT; alas I never got close to signing up for her class, it were pretty popular and hard to get into. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed reading Paris 1919 years ago and was looking forward to reading her take on prominent historical figures and their impact on history.

History’s People was an interesting snapshot of, as I just mentioned, prominent historical figures and their impact on history, their respective societies. Some either were forces of nature who made an impact–for good or for ill–on the times and societies they lived in. Some took risks, others defied expectations, and others still left behind records of events they had experienced. The grouped individuals based on what category they fell under, a mix of “the great men of history” and other strands such as women’s history, intellectual and cultural history, those up top and the everyday man caught up in large events. It’s a pretty straightforward text, but perhaps what stuck out for me the most was the Canadian history content :3 I haven’t studied Canadian history since high school so I didn’t know in-depth the sort of man William Lyon Mackenzie King, one of our prime ministers was, but I thought that segment on his was the most illuminating as it sort of informed on some level the kind of society and national identity Canada has developed over time. Certainly provoked a lot of thoughts on my part.

The academic in me of course laments at how short the CBC Massey Lectures can be on such topics, which then I would have to remind myself that these are meant to be snapshots that are easily accessible for general consumption and that focused in on a few examples. She of courses touches on famous figures and Canadian figures; I would’ve appreciated some more examples from the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere and see how they compare with their counterparts, but that would have been outside her scope of expertise.

Overall History’s People is an interesting dialogue about individuals and the times and societies that they live in and their overall impact on the times, for good and for ill. Those with a passing interest in history or are interested in how history and biography links together will want to check out this title.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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