This collection presents fiction, essays, and manifestos by a singularly important figure in modern English-Canadian arts and literature. Brooker was an advertising executive who published pioneering books on the rhetorical and graphic languages of modern marketing, to great success; he was a self-taught abstractionist painter who communed and exhibited with the Group of Seven and was the first to show and [End Page 316] promote non-figurative paintings to a Canadian public; he was a cultural critic who railed against monoliths of conservative taste and promoted formal innovation and taboo subjects such as sexuality in art and literature; he was a writer who won the first Governor General's Literary Award for his utopian novel of ideas set in a developing prairie town, Think of the Earth (1936); he was a dramatist who helped fan into flames the life of an alternative little-theatre movement in Canada; he was a dedicated businessman who believed that commerce must be embraced, but also absorbed into and transfigured by art; sympathetic to interests of both the left and the right in his time, but akin to neither, he was a journalist who prophesied fantastic social change amidst the dramatic ruptures of the twentieth century, and a mystic with indeterminate visions of its utopian future. This collection offers from Brooker seven short stories, a selection from a published novel, the whole of an unpublished novella (or unfinished novel), and nine examples of Brooker's energetic 'essays and polemics,' all of which Betts supports with an Introduction, a Textual Chronology combined with a specification of Editorial Procedures, and for each text, careful and helpful Explanatory Notes and Textual Emendations and Revisions.
Brooker's greatest legacy, in which he both condenses his many dreams, commitments, and contradictions and also achieves his most complex if curiously populist writing, remains in my admittedly partial view Think of the Earth. In Betts's collection the focus is rather on the context of Brooker's many writing activities, and the incredible diversity of style, content, and populist inventiveness with which he sought to provoke changed sensibilities in his stalwart Canadian audience, and to express new realities proper to modern life in Canada. Indeed, Betts has created not only an invaluable archive of what it means to be 'modern' in Canada - the writings read like a cross-section of compacted layers social, material, and spiritual crisis in urban and rural Canada - but also, in Betts's masterful Introduction, a portrait of a Canadian modernist in which so many class, racial, and sexual registers intersect that he offers a unique, avant-garde key to understanding modernism itself as an expression of cosmopolitan and global, permeated and transformed by national and local, anxieties and wishes for what constitutes human identity and society. Hence Betts offers not merely an introduction to his author, but to the wider context of aesthetic, political, and spiritual fault lines of modern culture in English Canada. The essays are especially illuminating. A reader might find the prose fiction to oscillate uncertainly between the clumsy and the compelling, between the banal and the peculiar. Its value cannot be separated from the reason for this oscillation, as a peculiarity itself conditioned by the historical nature of a Canadian avant-gardism refusing the role of a subcultural niche in preference to a greater competition to realize the cognitive mapping of [End Page 317] a 'new' nation. If Think of the Earth is Brooker's best literary work, this collection is one of the best windows we have (certainly the most engaging) on the Canadian cultural moment to which Brooker and his creative genius, which ranged far beyond that novel, were wedded.
Glenn Willmott, Department of English, Queen's University