Member of the Week: Harold Bérubé

Bérubé Harold BHarold Bérubé

Full Professor of History

Université de Sherbrooke (Canada).


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I recently published a book on the history of Quebec’s main municipal association, created in 1919. In a way, it completes a research cycle on municipal governance that started with my research on the political history of elite suburbs in Montreal. Local government has a very limited autonomy in Canada, and I’ve tried, through this research cycle, to shed light on the strategies used by municipal actors to circumvent these limits. Now that this cycle is more or less over, I’m launching a new one on the representations of the city and of the urban environment. More specifically, I’m looking at the different roles played by metropolitan newspapers in Montreal’s “urban ecosystem” between the 1880s and 1929. I’d like to explore their role as businesses and institutions in the city, as platforms for political discourses and debates, as mirrors of the city and some of its neighborhoods and, finally, as guides and sources of information for newcomers to the urban world. As historical documents and as institutional actors, newspapers have always played a fairly important role in most of my past research projects and it felt natural to place them, for once, at the heart of this new endeavor. Reading through the recent historiography on the subject, I was particularly inspired by the contributions of geographer Phillip Gordon Mackintosh and of historian Julia Guarneri to this field. As a bilingual city, with a complex bilingual mediatic environment, Montreal should be a very interesting case study!

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This semester, I’m teaching a survey course on the history of Canada since 1840. So, it’s clear that my research interests in urban history have to peacefully coexist with a wide variety of other topics. This being said – and I certainly warn my students about it – the rise of the urban world and the dissemination of urban culture through vectors like newspapers, the radio, and television plays a fairly large role in my lectures. I also talk at length to my students about the transformation of Canada into a suburban nation in the course of the second half of the 20th century. It’s always interesting, when teaching about these transnational processes, to explain to the students how much of a difference the Canada-USA border makes. Next fall, I’ll have the opportunity to offer a seminar more closely linked to my current research project and during which students will have the opportunity, thanks to the unprecedented accessibility of digital sources, to research and compare metropolitan newspapers from across North America and beyond. I’m quite curious to see where this approach will take us.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

There are two books that are currently particularly high on my “to read” list. The first one is Joseph Ben Prestel’s Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo. Two or three things about it caught my attention, beyond the fact that it won the UHA’s prize for best book in non-North American History. I’ve been quite interested by the emotions created or sparked by the city and the urban environment, notably the more negative ones. So, this new contribution on the subject, which reminds me a bit of Nicolas Kenny’s book on the same subject, is quite welcomed. I’m also intrigued by the comparison of two very different cities – Berlin and Cairo – proposed by Joseph Ben Prestel. The second book is Tom Hulme’s After the Shock City: Urban Culture and the Making of Modern Citizenship. This is another book comparing two cities – Manchester and Chicago – but what really excites me about it is the exploration of the notion of urban citizenship proposed by Tom Hulme. So many pages have been written on citizenship at the national level, but I’ve always been interested by the capacity of cities to generate a certain sense of belonging, a distinct identity.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I’d certainly invite them to embrace the transnational/global turn that is sweeping the field right now. Many excellent essays have been written in the last few years on the subject, but, more pragmatically, I’d recommend that, without necessarily embarking on ambitious comparative or transnational studies, they at least read as widely as possible on the aspect of urban history they’ve chosen to examine at the local or national levels. The city is such a “naturally” transnational research object that there’s much to gain from exploring a vast variety of counterexamples to the city or cities that students choose to explore. And of course, I’d invite them to take every opportunity to go in the field themselves in such varied urban environments and simply walk in and explore cities and neighborhoods on foot.

If you had 24 hours to go back in time and live as a 19th century elite in Quebec, how would you spend the time? Where would you go, what would you do, and who would you see?

I would most certainly start by visiting the industrial and working-class districts situated near the Lachine Canal to remind myself of the huge environmental and social costs associated with the rise of Montreal’s economic elites of the last third of the nineteenth century. But I would then make my way up the “mountain” to the Square Mile, the relatively small residential district favored by these elites during the second half of the nineteenth century, to enjoy what was left of those 24 hours. More specifically, I’d probably arrange to be invited to Ravenscrag Manor, which is one of the most prestigious houses of the neighborhood. Completed in 1863, it had 72 rooms, including a huge ballroom, and was decorated in an extremely exuberant and eclectic style (there are beautiful pictures that have captured many of these rooms). With a bit of luck, I’d have the opportunity to smoke a cigar in the company of its owner, Sir Hugh Allan, probably the wealthiest man in Canada at that time. He would probably have a lot to say about his vast business interests, the affairs of the British Empire and his involvement in the first big political scandal of Canada’s history (well, maybe not on that last subject). Somewhat ironically, the manor now houses a psychiatric hospital, the Allan Memorial Institute.

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