- Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada
English-Canadian cultural and literary historians have long suffered an allergic reaction to the 1930s. While comforted by the realization that many leading figures in national culture — Earle Birney, Morley Callaghan, F.R. Scott, Emily Carr, Fred Varley — were prolific during the Great Depression, scholars have tended to sniff and sneeze that the period's other artistic products were merely political or propagandistic. But as Candida Rifkind points out, the unhealthy result of this critical quarantine has been to develop a scholarly understanding of the decade that is incomplete and one-dimensional.
In Comrades and Critics, Rifkind greatly complicates and deepens the history of 1930s culture by focusing attention on the mostly forgotten poems, fiction, and plays of women such as Dorothy Livesay, Anne Marriott, and Irene Baird. Many of the writers featured in the book were also active as staffers in the lively new cultural organs of the 1930s, such as the literary magazines Masses and New Frontier, the Progressive Arts Club, Workers Experimental Theater, and the National Film Board. Yet the contributions women made to these spheres of cultural production have been virtually ignored in standard accounts of the period. Caught in a kind of triple bind, the legacy of women writers on the left, Rifkind argues, has been systematically obscured by a tangle of biases twisting around issues of gender, ideology, and aesthetic style.
Informed by and engaged with the work of Ian McKay and Carole Gerson, the theories of Frederic Jameson and Pierre Bourdieu, and recent us cultural histories of the 1930s, Rifkind begins her account in a manner reminiscent of Raymond Williams, by reflecting on the discursive range of meanings that flow from keywords such as left, literary, and the thirties. Acknowledging how easily such words lend themselves to connotation and reductionism, she reminds readers, 'The literary is a contingent designation of value, the left is a dynamic community in process, and the 1930s is a sign of imaginary coherence' (5).
Although left politics were highly differentiated in the 1930s and women writers occupied vastly different points on the ideological spectrum, Rifkind builds on Ian McKay's example to focus on the 'broader,' if unconsciously collaborative, 'project' (6) of the cultural front. Challenging the positivist tendencies of 'CanLit' critics to equate modernism solely with aesthetic form and nation-building, Rifkind [End Page 376] argues that left writers infiltrated and enlarged the field of literary vision by simultaneously chronicling the 'injustices of modern life' (90), advocating social and political change, and connecting Canadian realities to the broader international context. Furthermore, she demonstrates that Marriott, Livesay, and others were conscious stylists who contributed to modernism's poetics of authenticity by adapting techniques of popular culture and modes of narrative that were explicitly documentary in style.
In conjunction with her concerns about form and ideology, Rifkind's thesis is driven by two other keywords: gender and feminism. The focus of this book is very much upon how the politics of gender figured large and differently in the individual experiences of women writers, influencing the artistic choices they made, as well as those that were available. In Canada, as elsewhere, the organized political left was generally inhospitable to, and often exploitative of, women in the 1930s. Women were valued as ideological soulmates but seldom given opportunities to lead. A similar condition afflicted the modernist literary elite. Dominated by men like F.R. Scott and E.J. Pratt, Canadian criticism was profoundly judgmental and institutionally anti-feminine, styling modernism as hard and intellectual (read male), and disparaging anti-modernism as sentimental (read female). Inevitably, women writers struggled to get a fair reading, in some cases subordinating a feminist perspective altogether in order to be published.
Many of Rifkind's arguments about ideology, genre, and gender coalesce in the book's final chapter, which offers a richly sophisticated reading of Irene Baird's documentary novel Waste Heritage (1939). In contrast to the stories about working- and middle-class women written by her contemporary...