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Reviewed by:
  • Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada
  • J. A. Weingarten
Candida Rifkind. Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. 256 pages. $50.00.

Candida Rifkind’s claim is difficult to refute: Canadian modernism “is unintelligible without some reference to socialism” (13). Studies of leftist politics in Canadian literature have generally emphasized the usual (and usually male) suspects: F. R. Scott, Irving Layton, Leo Kennedy, and the host of other male authors that fill Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski’s The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada. Dorothy Livesay is the only obvious exception to this androcentric historical approach. With such discourses in mind, Rifkind convincingly argues for the importance of female leftist authors during the 1930s and articulates the complex cultural, literary, and ideological struggles such writers faced. She situates many [End Page 141] of these ideas and contexts in her introductory chapter and subsequently outlines the general effects of modernism’s misogyny and the Depression on this decade’s female socialists. The sheer thoroughness of her study and its well-argued position overshadow a few concerns about Rifkind’s methodology; her elucidation of “documentary modernism” is sometimes slow-paced, and this issue might prompt minor criticisms from some readers.

Rifkind’s introduction paints a vivid picture of the Depression and uses Ian McKay’s “map of the formations of Canadian socialism” (22) to frame this epoch politically. She also explicates the interdependence of modernism and socialism through a discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural production and of “documentary modernism” (a key term in Rifkind’s study) in various mediums: poetry, theatre, and novels. For the most part, Rifkind’s chapters proceed according to this basic outline of genres. She begins with Dorothy Livesay and stresses her documentary interests as well as her affiliation with two socialist periodicals, Young Work and Masses. Rifkind identifies Livesay’s political poetry as part of a growing “counterpublic” in Canadian literature; here she borrows from Michael Warner’s popular discourse on “oppositional discursive exchanges” (45). This chapter oscillates between in-depth treatments of historical context and analyses of various poets (Livesay and Mona Weiss, for example) and of some short stories (such as Ruby Ronan’s “One-Day Service”).

Most of Rifkind’s chapters follow such a structure: an extended historical context leads into her literary analysis. Her second chapter focuses on Anne Marriott’s The Wind Our Enemy as a paradigm of late 1930s socialist modernism. After thoroughly contextualizing the “Popular Front” in Canada’s 1930s, Rifkind argues for Marriott as an “experimental” poet and as a writer engaged in “political protest” (116); she praises the poem as “an entry into English-Canadian socialist modernism” (117). Her third chapter gives shape to socialist theatre groups, specifically the Toronto Workers’ Experimental Theatre, and concludes that these “theatres of innovation […] forged a space at once historical, social, and artistic in which experiences of the nation were reimagined” (160–61). Her final chapter turns to Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage and this novel’s achievement as documentary modernism: it “draws on satire and allegory,” but it is also “proletarian fiction” (175). She praises Baird’s novel as one that “opens up […] a point of entry into overlapping economic, social, and literary problems” (202).

Rifkind’s historical and literary analyses are meticulous. Moreover, her inclusion of numerous anecdotes drawn from archival research makes Comrades and Critics engaging, to say the least. Her treatments of Livesay, the binding and strongest thread of this study (she appears in every [End Page 142] chapter), are most adept. This deftness partly stems from Rifkind’s useful new approaches to this poet, but the biographical asides also offer enjoyable context. Rifkind’s discussions about J. F. B. Livesay’s influence on the careers of both his daughter and his “protégé” (103), Anne Marriott, are most worthy of mention. The thorough exploration of such stories and of their historical circumstance demonstrates the scholar’s exceptional rendering of a particular moment and of particular relationships in Canadian socialist literary history. Some of these asides also mark Rifkind’s commendable anticipation of her reader’s questions...


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