Friday, June 3, 2016

The blossoming myths of Tom Thomson's death

Since the 1980s, speculation about Tom Thomson’s death has become a field of its own, fuelling websites, party games, Twitter accounts, rock songs, books, art exhibitions, and plays. Many of these materials, however, depend on the tenuously supported mythology about Thomson’s last days that blossomed during the late 1960s and 1970s.

While many of these works make for fascinating reading (as well as listening, looking, and playing), what is disappointing is that almost a century after Thomson’s death, most of these recent works rarely improve our knowledge by paring away rumours, hearsay, and errors from Thomson’s biography. Most serve to add more confusion to an already confused story.

As the one-hundredth anniversary of Tom Thomson’s death nears, storytelling about the events that took place during the summer of 1917 shows an unprecedented variety of approaches. Some of these efforts have been more serious, and more successful, than others. Some have aimed to use popular versions of the Thomson story as a backdrop for the playing out of other concerns. Some have sought to play upon, rather than resolve, the mysteries as popular entertainment.

Considered apart from the relative quality of these works, the growth of interest in Thomson’s death establishes without a doubt that the man’s presence — as symbol, as story, as model, and as lesson — has become cemented into Canada’s national consciousness. From children’s stories to songs, from poetry books to parlour games, from fiction to academic history, Thomson’s death has moved from something regarded as a fringe concern of conspiracy theorists to a historical reality deserving analysis.

For every step forward that these works have contributed to understanding the end of Thomson’s life, unfortunately, it seems that misinformation and poorly grounded speculation has pushed our understanding two steps back.

Having considered the plentitude of approaches to Thomson’s death told over the last century, we are left with the question at the heart of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson. How did Tom Thomson die?

See the follow-up to this post: "How did Tom Thomson die: beginning a genealogy of theories." ----
Image: Kim Dorland, 'Tom Thomson', 2010. Oil and acrylic on linen.

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