3. The Shifting Identities of Mitchell and Gibbon
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33 CHAPTER THREE The Shifting Identities of Mitchell and Gibbon Carla Sassi The critical fate of James Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon has been indelibly entwined with the controversial process of canon-formation of Scottish Literature in the twentieth century, especially in relation to the so-called ‘Scottish Literary Renaissance’, a term originally devised by Hugh MacDiarmid to define a vanguard of writers who embraced an inter/nationalist, anti-imperialist agenda while pursuing a modernisation of Scottish letters.1 As with many radical visions, in the course of time and through uncritical representations, even the notion of a Literary Renaissance turned into a critical cage: if originally it had the merit of theorising and coalescing interest around a new and important culturalpolitical trend, it gradually contributed to the overshadowing of other, by no means less relevant, literary expressions, as well as to a limited and monochromatic investigation of its canonised writers. Mitchell, canonised as Grassic Gibbon, his Scottish literary pseudonym, has for a long time been considered one of the most iconic representatives of the Renaissance, part of that male trinity, alongside MacDiarmid and Neil M. Gunn, who dominated, until recently, its critical accounts.2 Yet a re-reading of Mitchell’s work reveals today a complex project, still very much in development when the author died, that seems quite distinct from MacDiarmid’s complex inter/nationalist vision, and even more so from Gunn’s more conventional longing for a cohesive national tradition. One of Mitchell’s central concerns lies with the notion of ‘identity’ in its widest sense. His is not so much a quest for a specific authentic identity – political, national, literary or even gender – but rather a dialectical quest between and across conventionally defined identities. This chapter reassesses Mitchell’s complex staging and negotiation of multiple identities and subjective positionings, both in his writings and in his life as a bio-fictional strategy, as conducive to a radical questioning of identity and subjectivity.3 34 Nomadic patterns In his short life, Mitchell moved across very different worlds and lifeexperiences : from his early life in a peasant community in northeast Scotland to the working-class protests in Aberdeen as a journalist; from the Middle East as a soldier serving the British Empire, to different locations in England as a Royal Air Force clerk; and, eventually, to his first self-elected home in Welwyn Garden City, in a comfortable middleclass environment, where he could at last devote himself to full time writing, thus fulfilling his younger self’s dream. If Mitchell’s choice of Welwyn Garden City as his creative and existential home – at a distance from his other home, with which he had a close and yet problematic relation – was indeed an elective one, it is also true that, like millions of other people in the early decades of the twentieth century, he had comparatively little opportunity to actively choose his line of life, which was largely determined by the impact of traumatic global events. Britain’s imperial policies in the Middle East, along with the First World War and the Depression, made him a witness of mass death, suffering and uprooting and exposed him, both at home and abroad, to jarring socioeconomic and cultural juxtapositions, while the ideological and cultural frameworks of his time barely afforded him the tools to make sense of such a radically new, dissonant global picture. Mitchell’s (self-)displacement, intimately connected to the array of epochal changes that mark modernity, deeply affected his perception of his native region and country as much as his worldview, engendering that permanent fissure in the surface of reality which is at the heart of his work, as in much Modernist experimentalism. Such fissure can be detected, for example, in Gibbon’s masterpiece A Scots Quair (1932–34): both Chris’s anachronistic aloofness from the historical communities she becomes part of, and Ewan’s launching into socialist utopia at the end of the trilogy, into a space and time that remain beyond the narrative world and unconquered by it, epitomise the Modernist fracture between referent and reality – a philosophical uprootedness that determines, as much as it is determined by, physical displacement. Nomadic patterns, across time and space, are indeed one of the most defining features of Mitchell’s oeuvre, thematically as much as structurally . Nomad figures recur in his fiction and in his scholarly/para-fictional writings. Real explorers (from Hanno in his first published work – 1928 – to the protagonists of Nine against the Unknown, 1934) or...


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