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Volume 19 • Issue 1 (2016)

Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas

Kenneth C. Dewar
Montréal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015

Reviewed by R. Douglas Francis

Frank H. Underhill was one of Canada’s great public intellectuals. From the 1920s to 1970 (he died in 1971), he carried on a very active life of public lectures, debate, and especially essay writing, mostly relating to Canadian political thought. He was also a very popular history professor, first at the University of Saskatchewan from 1914 to 1927, except for the years he fought in the First World War, then at the University of Toronto from 1927 to 1955 and, after retirement, as an adjunct professor at Carleton University. Here he enlivened the minds of his students―and future leaders of Canada―in Canadian and British intellectual and political history. He was a founding member of the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR) in 1932, a group of Canadian intellectuals who modeled themselves after the British Fabians. They came to be known as the “brain trust” for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Party, providing the party with ideas and its platform.

Underhill drafted the Regina Manifesto, the guideline for the party from 1933 to 1960. He was the major contributor to the Canadian Forum, a quality journal of progressive thought, especially during the financially difficult years of the Great Depression. At times, he seemed to carry the journal solo. His name, or more often his famous or infamous initials “F.H.U.” was assurance to readers that the essay, article, editorial, or book review, which they were about to read was an informed, thoughtful, well-written, and provocative piece of writing on the subject of discussion.

Underhill is best remembered as a critic. And indeed, he saw himself as such. He once told his political friend J.S. Woodsworth, founder and first leader of the CCF party: “The only way I know how to make myself useful is to be constantly critical.” He certainly fulfilled that mission during his lifetime, making him one of Canada’s greatest public intellectuals.

The role of the public intellectual changed sometime between the 19th and the 20th century. In the early 19th century, the public intellectual saw his role (and it was a male-dominated one) as upholding the moral and ethical values of society. By the 20th century, he became the critic, challenging prevailing views, attitudes and values. Underhill excelled in the role of the critic, polemicist, intellectual gadfly and enfant terrible. He became the Canadian model of the critic, taking his cue from such renowned British critics as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells and the American critic H.L. Mencken.

However, there was more to the man than the critic. He was a man of ideas. I entitled him an “intellectual provocateur” in my biography of Underhill (Francis, 1986). As a historian, he gravitated towards intellectual history rather than political or constitutional history. On current political issues, he was interested more in political thought than in the “ins-and-outs” of political parties. In his best writings, he combined both, by showing how ideas of the past held relevance for the present and how present perspectives shaped one’s view of the past. He read voraciously, especially in British and American history and political thought, and applied those ideas for an understanding of Canadian political thought or for direction in the writing of Canadian history. In so doing, he advanced and enriched Canadian intellectual life. It was this combination of critic and ideas, along with being a skilled essay writer that made him the exemplary Canadian public intellectual.

Kenneth C. Dewar’s Frank Underhill and the Politics of Ideas is an intellectual biography. Dewar begins with an extensive discussion of Underhill’s student essays at the University of Toronto and Oxford, and rightly so, since these were formative years in shaping Underhill’s intellectual life. He had the best of education to prepare him well for the role of the public intellectual. At Toronto, he took the combined Classics and English and History program, the finest liberal arts program that the University offered. At Oxford, he enrolled in the elite Literae Humaniores, or “Greats” program, which combined a study of Greek and Roman history and philosophy with European history and philosophy. In both programs, the objective was to show the relevance of ideas of the past to current issues; they were also designed to encourage students to present their ideas publicly, and to prepare them to be active participants and leaders in society. Underhill excelled in both programs, being at the top of his class. The programs gave him a solid background in Western thought, and also honed his skills as an essay writer. These were formative years in his intellectual life. Dewar is good at analyzing and deconstructing Underhill’s student essays and showing their significance and relevance to his later beliefs, interests and activities.

However, once Dewar gets beyond Underhill’s student days, his biography is less an intellectual biography and more a conventional one. He discusses Underhill’s stint in the army during World War I, his postwar years in Saskatchewan, and his foray into Canadian history with hopes of writing a biography of George Brown, the leader of the Clear Grit party in the 1850s that would become the Liberal Party of Canada in the 1860s and 70s. He discusses his association with the Canadian Forum, his leadership in the LSR, and the controversies that he got embroiled in as a result of his leftist and anti-British imperial attitudes that brought him dangerously close to being fired from the University of Toronto. He recounts his conflicts with the CCF Party in the post-World War II era and his move back to support for the Liberal Party. Here Underhill’s activities take precedence over his ideas. Then as Dewar deals with Underhill’s twilight years, his study returns to being an intellectual biography again.

This shift in the nature of the biography is not so much Dewar’s doing as it is a result of his sources. In Underhill’s student days, he was immersed in Western thought, and his essays grappled with the ideas and relevance of the great Western philosophers from the Greeks to the nineteenth century. Once Underhill got involved in political controversy and in writing essays and book reviews on a monthly basis, he had less time for long-term reflection. When he did, the essays were very insightful. The best of them appear in Parts I and II of his edited collection, In Search of Canadian Liberalism. But much of his writing in the 1930s and 40s dealt with current issues and were “time-bound.” When he came to putting together his collection of essays, he had wanted to include more of his writings from the 1930s, but his editor pointed out that they were outdated with their reverence to specific individuals and events of the time. Then when he retired from the University of Toronto, he began to reflect back on his own life and what it told him about the changes that had occurred in his lifetime.

Underhill had now become the elder intellectual statesman, and his writings were often autobiographical. They focused on the role of the intellectual in Canada, often criticizing the lack of an intellectual tradition or intellectuals who pursued the wrong course. He could be as critical of himself as he could others that made his reflections insightful. The best of these self-reflective articles appear in Part III of his edited collection. But some of the best speeches he gave of an autobiographical nature, such as his address at his 80th birthday celebration, unfortunately, have not appeared in print.

Underhill was aware of these shifts in his intellectual journal. He noted in his 80th birthday speech that he was at his intellectual best―“at the apex of [his] intellectual efficiency,” as he put it―while a student at Oxford. “I had never been so good before and I’ve never been so good since.” He would make light-hearted apologies in the interwar years and in his later reflective years for getting too much involved in the daily and monthly political events. Later in life, he criticized those intellectuals who, like himself, got too caught up in politics to have time to reflect from a broader perspective. Still, he never recanted. He believed that the role of the public intellectual was to learn from experience and to consistently challenge the power sources of society. He saw himself as the model of the ideal public intellectual, and rightly so. He was.

The one disappointment in Dewar’s otherwise stimulating biography is his Epilogue. It focuses on Dewar’s own views of Canadian politics in the post-Underhill era. He points out three lessons that Canadians might take from Underhill’s life and beliefs. These lessons, however, are so generic that they have little direct relevance to Underhill’s thought and action. It is regrettable that Dewar did not highlight some of the insights into Underhill’s ideas and essay style that he offers in two articles in the short-lived journal Underhill Review: “Frank Underhill: The Historian as Essayist”; and “Frank Underhill: Intellectual in Search of a Role.” These insights would have provided a fitting Conclusion.


Francis, R. Douglas. (1986). Frank H. Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Underhill, Frank. W. (1960). In Search of Canadian Liberalism. Reprinted with a new introduction by Kenneth C. Dewar: Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Professor Kenneth Dewar grew up in Edmonton and earned his BA (Honours) at University of Alberta, and his MA and PhD at the University of Toronto. He taught at the University of Victoria, Wilfrid Laurier and Carleton before his move to Nova Scotia and Mount Saint Vincent University, in 1982. He retired in June 2011 and was awarded Professor Emeritus status in the Department of History.

R. Douglas Francis is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Calgary. He is the author of Images of the West: Reponses to Canadian Prairies 1690-1960 andThe Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History, and co-author with Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith of Origins: Canadian History to Confederations and Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation.