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The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman (review)

From: University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 78, Number 1, Winter 2009
pp. 443-444 | 10.1353/utq.0.0467

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Ruth Panofsky’s The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman combines two unlike critical strategies to compelling effect. The titular strategy examines Wiseman’s commitment to an ideal of ‘truth and excellence’ that scorns the concerns of marketing departments. Yet Panofsky avoids glorifying Wiseman’s sense of vocation to the point of mimicking the masculine cult of romantic genius, which obscures the details of production and consumption in the material world. Instead, Panofsky balances her depictions of Wiseman’s visionary stance with excerpts from the novelist’s letters to publishers, critics, and peers. The result is a fascinating portrait of literary labour from the perspective of both a pioneering modernist and key Canadian publishers.

The strategy announced in Panofsky’s subtitle is more daring. Panofsky chooses to invert the conventional trajectory of literary biographies and charts Wiseman’s descent from fame to comparative obscurity. Wiseman’s first novel, The Sacrifice, won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1956 and was issued internationally by leading publishers, but her subsequent prose works, Crackpot (1974) and Old Woman at Play (1978), required years of struggle to find a home in Canada. Her poetry, plays, and essays reached an even smaller percentage of that market.

Panofsky interprets Wiseman’s diminishing literary profile as a by-product of her challenge to patriarchal standards. The Sacrifice, Panofsky argues, won popular support because it adapts the myth of Abraham and Isaac to life in a prairie community of Jewish immigrants. Instead of sacrificing a ram, the prairie patriarch resolves the paradoxes of his condition by cutting the throat of a sexually brazen woman. The first novel thereby serves patriarchy by cultivating empathy for the righteous murderer. Crackpot, in contrast, affirms life from the perspective of an obese prostitute who must navigate the incest taboo when she encounters her lost son. In many ways, Crackpot inverts the tone, perspective, and moral of The Sacrifice. Old Woman at Play, a memoir of Wiseman’s mother and a meditation on the craft of doll-making, is less challenging ethically. However, Panofsky maintains that the ‘discursive and female-centred’ dimensions of the later books, as well as their ‘compassion for unlikely female characters,’ marginalized them in a male-dominated book trade.

This point is convincing in the context of the 1960s and 1970s. The publishers’ letters, for example, make it clear that they were waiting for another version of The Sacrifice. However, the same point becomes strained when Panofsky extends it to the contemporary book trade, where women buy the majority of books and a non-linear narrative is hardly an impediment to recognition. The case of Crackpot, in particular, causes Panofsky’s methodology to backfire in places. While Crackpot earns high praise from some academics, the fact that it has never found an international publisher forces Panofsky to resurrect the myth of the neglected genius. Unfortunately, Panofsky cannot offer formal proofs of Wiseman’s genius because she forgoes this strategy at the outset of her book. Focusing instead on the minutiae of publishing, Panofsky inadvertently demonstrates that publishers accepted Wiseman’s later works precisely because they were hunting for genius.

While Panofsky’s thesis about patriarchal standards in publishing holds, Wiseman does not exactly have the door of the boys’ club slammed in her face. Her writing inspires a flurry of supportive activity from CanLit boosters such as Malcolm Ross, James Reaney, Robert Weaver, and Kildare Dobbs. Indeed, Wiseman believed that Canadian women authors of her generation were at an advantage in comparison with their international peers because of the still-forming canon of CanLit. It is a credit to Panofsky’s method that she captures these ambiguities. Her archival research amply conveys Wiseman’s frustration late in her career as well as ‘her willingness to dismiss the extraordinary support she received from editors and publishers over the years.’

Perhaps the most interesting passages in The Force of Vocation emerge when Panofsky moves away from the relationship between publisher and writer and focuses on relationships between writers, in particular between Wiseman and Margaret Laurence. Panofsky and John Lennox documented this creative bond in Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, but The Force of...