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In the Margins: Regimental History and a Veteran's Narrative of the First World War

From: Book History
Volume 11, 2008
pp. 199-219 | 10.1353/bh.0.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"Reading," according to Roger Chartier, "by definition, is rebellious and vagabond. Readers use infinite numbers of subterfuges to procure prohibited books, to read between the lines, and to subvert the lessons imposed on them." The book "always aims at installing an order," but it is never "all-powerful"; instead, "liberty knows how to distort and reformulate the significations that were supposed to defeat it." Reading may seem to be a "passive and submissive" act, but in fact it is "in its own way, inventive and creative." This inventive process can play itself out in an almost infinite variety of ways: Chartier writes that "The dialectic between imposition and appropriation, between constraints transgressed and freedoms bridled, is not the same in all places or all times or for all people. Recognizing its diverse modalities and multiple variations is the first aim of a history of reading."1

Chartier's observations have been upheld by many other historians of print culture. Janice Radway, for example, found that the readers of romance novels in the early 1980s were anything but "passive, purely receptive individuals who [could] only consume the meanings embodied within cultural texts." Instead of accepting patriarchal values, these women were often inspired by the adventures of the heroines they read about to be less submissive in their own lives.2 Jonathan Rose concluded from his study of nineteenth-century British working class readers that even the most propagandistic literature often failed to have its intended effect, and that conservative works could in fact quite readily inspire a radical response even among their admirers. As Rose discovered, the works of Tories like John Ruskin and Sir Walter Scott were favorites among Labour members of parliament. Rose therefore cautions against the "receptive fallacy"—that is, the assumption that "whatever the author put into a text . . . is the message that the common reader receives."3

There can be no doubt that these conclusions and others like them are valid. However, it is far from certain that books written to forestall dissent never achieved their aims. Few scholars of print culture have actively sought out evidence that some authors did indeed successfully impose their vision on readers, and the lack of attention to such cases may be contributing to blind spots and imbalances in the developing field of book history. One example of a working class reader who willingly accepted the message of a conservative text is provided by Dick McQuade, a Canadian railway worker and veteran of the First World War. At some time after the publication of his regiment's official history in 1926, McQuade read the book with great care, adding pencil notes on his own war experiences in the margins.4

Like most regimental histories of the time, Captain S. G. Bennett's The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1914–1919 did not deny the often terrifying nature of the war experience. But Bennett, in common with the other authors of such books, insisted that courageous endurance, not insubordination or despair, was the typical response among soldiers. McQuade's marginal writings seem to confirm that this was indeed the case: they often refer to the "tough" conditions in the trenches, but, like Bennett, McQuade emphasized that he and his comrades had successfully overcome such obstacles. The front was "One awful Place. Just lived like Rats[.] Wet and cold for days," he complained, but courage and perseverance were a constant theme. "I used Bayonet to good advantage here," McQuade wrote of the Somme, adding, "We sure gave it to Jerry here lots of fun." The battle to take Vimy Ridge was "pretty Tough[.] But we made it . . . we cleaned Jerry up." Sometimes McQuade wrote that he had been "Glad to get out of this place," but elsewhere he proudly recounted that he and his comrades "gave them Hell here." In a final note, written on the concluding page of the book, McQuade recorded his return to his wife and family in Ottawa with a combination of pride and relief: "I arrived home March 8th 1919 after 3 hard years in France. Glad to get home in one piece[.] Out of 900 men [in the regiment] leaving Canada [in 1915] = 37 came back alive...