Blogs > Cliopatria > John Kenneth Galbraith, citizen and historian

May 1, 2006 2:58 am

John Kenneth Galbraith, citizen and historian

John Kenneth Galbraith’s death passed to a large extent unnoticed in Canadian media today, despite his Canadian birth and education. This is, on the one hand, surprising in view of the eagerness of nationalistic Canadians to claim their own (I have sometimes been tempted, after seeing one of these exercises, to define a “Canadian” as “a famous person who has lived for at least 15 minutes in Canada”). From another point of view, however, it is an apt tribute to a man who was beyond single and solitary attachments.

Although born in Canada, he moved to the United States and took American citizenship (to work in government employment), made numerous trips to India, where he served first as an economic advisor to the government and later for two plus years as American Ambassador, and then spent a good deal of time in Gstaad. He so defied national loyalties that in the case of talks over a bilateral dispute, both Canada and the United States appointed him as their representative (one wonders whether the softwood controversy, which seems finally to be adjusted, would have had an earlier resolution had Galbraith been handed the dossier).

The range of Galbraith’s interests and abilities was similarly astounding in its breadth and—let us say at once--audacity. In addition to his role as an economist, his profession and the role for which he was best known (if not necessarily most heeded), he was famous as a liberal political theorist and critic, speechwriter and political activist (such as in his opposition to the Vietnam War and to the current conflict in Iraq) and television personality. In addition, Galbraith worked for extended periods as a journalist/editor with FORTUNE magazine (his service later prompted Henry Luce’s wisecrack to President John F, Kennedy that he had taught Ken Gabraith to write and had regretted it ever since). He also spent time as an expert and collector of traditional Indian painting (on which he cowrote a book), wrote THE SCOTCH, his elegiac essay on the Scots of Canada, and published a pair of novels, including the bestseller THE TRIUMPH. Most importantly for historians is Galbraith’s 1955 work THE GRAT CRASH. This history of the 1929 stock market crash retains both its lucidity and currency. It also offers a model of literary fluency, irony and humor that many a historian could do worse than to take as a model.

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peer Eisenstadt - 5/1/2006

Well stated as always, Greg. I would just add that Richard Parker's magesterial biography of Gailbraith, is one of the finest bios of a 20th century American political figure I have read, and does full justice to the many facets of his career. I guess with his passing, we have lost the last major intellectual figure (perhaps with the exception of Arthur Schelesinger) whose worldview was shaped by the New Deal, and who believed that government had as a major purpose the protection of average citizens from the inequities and irrationalities of the free market. As you implicitly raise, the question of Gailbraith's "Canadian-ness" is as interesting or futile as these questions tend to be--certainly his familiarity with agricultural cooperatives in Canada, and Canada's rich history of cooperatives certainly played a significant role in his early intellectual development.

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