William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Grey Mass Hung Over a Chunk of Canadian History

Reviewed in this essay:

King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny by Allan Levine. D&M Publishers Inc., 2011.

William Lyon Mackenzie King exists only dimly in our collective consciousness, as a kind of great grey mass hung over a rather substantial chunk of political history. Refreshingly, Allan Levine’s new biography cares little to remedy this.

There’s a bad tendency in Canadian history to write the Great Man bio as a kind of book-length rebuke, that says: “Shame on you for not knowing and celebrating all this already!” Levine feels no such impulse. In fact, he is distinctly ambivalent about King and his legacy.

The focal point of Levine’s biography is King’s diary. This is the strangest document of any historical importance in Canada, by a comfortable country mile. Levine puts it succinctly: “You can’t make this stuff up.” It’s the too-personal window into the soggy, superstitious, sometimes paranoid, always vainglorious reflections of a sexually repressed, badly insecure loner. King is not personally likeable – egomaniacal, petty, with a penchant for pouting. His embrace of ghost hunter, fortune teller spiritualism in all its galling fraudulence raises sincere questions about his intellectual competence. His relationship with his mother is the unsettling stuff of Greek tragedy.

Levine doesn’t revel unfairly in all the delirious detail, as some of King’s detractors have. Neither does he dismiss it all as something quite apart from and immaterial to the story of the man that guided Canada through the Second World War. He insists that his subject is one man. The King who consulted daily with the ghosts of his family and past prime ministers, was the same King who engineered political success beyond anything seen before or since. And his ability as a leader is unimpeachable: 22 years as prime minister, Cal Ripken-like longevity which will not be touched.

There are some frustrating absences in the biography. Though it takes us deep inside his head, it is hardly an intellectual biography of the man. I continue to wonder why the proud grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie – the radical of English Canadian history – was so immediately committed to such moderate politics. He always saw himself as the inheritor of his grandfather’s mission, but his liberalism was of the Victorian, Dickensian variety, which worried for the poor but saw salvation in the benevolence of good Christian elites. Before he had even graduated university he had developed a reputation for being overly wedded to the ruling class, after surreptitiously playing both sides of a student strike. This strikes me as a true puzzle not addressed in the book, but the author’s focus is on the personal and not the political.

It is a very readable biography. Levine’s wryness and occasional exasperation are the appropriate accompaniment to King’s perverse private imaginary. He resists the temptation to lionize, and the result feels like a true story told straight.