Canada's Hidden Working-Class Literature

By Mathews, Robin | Canadian Dimension, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview
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Canada's Hidden Working-Class Literature


Mathews, Robin, Canadian Dimension


Canada's relentlessly colonial and capitalist history in the twentieth century has not blessed us with a strong tradition of working-class literature. But landmarks are there, of surprising power. I refer specifically to Eight Men Speak (1933), Waste Heritage (1939), This Time A Better Earth (1939), Bonheur d'occasion (The Tin Flute) (1945), and the biographical work The Scalpel, the Sword (1952). It isn't unfair to say they are neglected*a literature in hiding. They are hiding with works like Hubert Evans' Mist on the River (1954), Douglas Durkin's The Magpie (1923), Agnes Maule Machar's Roland Graeme Knight (1892), A.E. Smith's All My Life (1960) and some others that provide a basis for a revealing study of a Canadian literature of protest, the struggle for justice and anti-capitalist awakening. The landmarks have special power, literary and other. But they are in hiding, despite the notoriety of some of them, in any mainstream consideration of our literature and its working-class expression. Waste Heritage, for instance, perhaps the best Depression novel written at the time, and a monument to the British Columbia working-class struggle on the Left, is completely ignored in B.C. universities and colleges. Moveover, when Michael Ondaatje published his romantic fantasy of working-class life in Ontario, In the Skin of a Lion, in 1987, some critics hastened (falsely) to call it a working-class novel. But none of them put it into context with any of the works of the kind named here, the literature in hiding. Working-class literature has fundamental signifying qualities. It takes the people of the working class seriously, seeing them as fundamental to society. It works out their destiny in terms of their real culture. That is why Morley Callaghan's They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935) and Hugh MacLennan's The Watch that Ends the Night (1959) belong with In the Skin of a Lion and not with working-class literature. MacLennan's novel of the Depression is about a romanticized Norman Bethune figure who discovers truth in Christian belief and individual worth elevated beyond paltry working-class existence. Callaghan's Depression novel is about an unemployed middle-class boy with middle-class values trying to "find himself."

Dorothy Livesay's 1936 review of the Callaghan book probably says all that needs to be said about the type. "This is a familiar middle-class point of view, since day-to-day existence for people comfortably off is not a struggle. Their conflict is an internal one. And it is also true that the thousands of middle-class people today who come face to face with economic insecurity do not find poverty the most appalling aspect of their situation. They are lost souls, bewildered and shaken, longing for peace." Some things need to be noted about the landmark works looked at here. To begin, two of the best were written by women: Waste Heritage by Irene Baird, and Bonheur d'occasion by Gabrielle Roy. In addition, women are usually depicted from within their culture in such a way that they are powerfully feminist creations. In all the works, too, class is a definitive factor, sometimes as a rallying cry, sometimes simply as the brutal basis of the struggle presented. Most often, escape from the working class is not seen as a victory of personality or morality, but something else. Finally, except for the theatrical work, Eight Men Speak, which required agitprop form, the rest are essentially realistic works. That of course is a curse word in literary circles in our day. But what it means is that the highly gifted writers employ a style and a calculated form in order, artfully, to induce the reader to think the matter is real. Canadian fiction hasn't abandoned the form, though it has tried to depoliticize it. Atwood, Laurence, Munro, Findley, even Richler, are "realistic" writers. Only political realistic writing is scorned in our time.

Eight Men Speak is the only full-length agitprop play written in Canada in the Depression years.

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