Between the Avant-Garde and Kitsch: Experimental Prose in American and Canadian Literary Periodicals of the 1930s

By Irr, Caren | Journal of Canadian Studies, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Between the Avant-Garde and Kitsch: Experimental Prose in American and Canadian Literary Periodicals of the 1930s


Irr, Caren, Journal of Canadian Studies


During the 1930s, in both Canada and the United States, the pressures of mass culture and of an increasingly isolated literary avant-garde constrained the options available to leftist writers. The essay argues that socialist writers in both countries offered similar critiques of that situation. The body of the essay compares the different solutions American and Canadian writers proposed -- in the organization of literary periodicals and in literary form. I argue that because the US left centred on the Communist Party during the thirties, its literary wing pursued a vanguardist model of organizing and emphasized literary objectivism. By contrast, the presence of an increasingly strong social-democratic party in Canada meant the literary left chose to emphasize coalition-building and literary realism. The essay concludes by arguing that these differences amount to two distinct intellectual patterns which are still recognizable today.

Que ce soit au Canada ou aux Etats-Unis, le poids d'une culture de masse et d'un mouvement litteraire avant-guarde de plus en plus marginalise limiterent les options possibles des ecrivains de gauche pendant les annees trente. Dans cet article, nous analyserons tout d'abord l'hypothese que les ecrivains socialistes canadiens et americains critiquerent de facon similaire cette situation. Nous comparerons ensuite les differentes solutions proposees par ces 2 groupes d'auteurs en analysant l'organisation des revues litteraires et la forme litteraire elle-meme. Nous pensons que puisque la gauche americaine se regroupa autour du parti communiste pendant les annees trente les groupes litteraires en son sein adopterent un modele vanguardiste d'organisation et favoriserent un objectivisme litteraire. Au contraire, la presence au Canada d'un parti socialiste de plus en plus important poussa la gauche litteraire vers un realisme litteraire et une organisation reposant sur le principe des alliances. Nous terminerons cet article par une discussion sur l'idee que ces differences aboutirent a 2 schemas intellectuels bien distincts et que nous reconnaissons toujours aujourd'hui.

Although students of North American culture have often characterized the 1930s as a contest between admirable aesthetic modernisms and an embarassing socialist realism, today descriptions are less polarized.(f.1) Recently, historians, literary critics, musicologists and art historians have stressed how social realist and modernist projects complement each other. They identify the 1930s as an invigorating decade both politically and aesthetically, suggesting that a new cultural formation developed during the thirties -- a North American socialist culture with distinct and intelligent artistic and social practices.

The relationship between art and social practices is, of course, a complex one. On the one hand, artistic practices articulated and supported the politics of the 1930s left -- politics that were as visionary in their anti-racism, anti-imperialism, multiculturalism and relative freedom from sexism as they were confused in their blanket support of Stalinism. In turn, a sense of commitment to counter-cultural politics provided the basis for a network of leftist clubs, summer camps, neighbourhoods, parties and cultural events; in a sense, artistic practices enabled a unique form of social life to develop. On the other hand, memoirs of the 1930s often suggest the reverse -- that the distinctively socialist forms of cultural production (proletarian novels, documentaries, exposes, mass chants, agit-prop drama, spirituals on political themes, and so-called collective writing, to name only a few) were inspired by the vigorous social life on the left. Wherever one attributes cause and effect, it is clear that both artistic and social practices contributed to the formation of a distinctive leftist culture.

Now that a picture of 1930s culture is coming into better focus in scholarly work, it is worth considering the relationship of that culture to other cultural formations -- in particular, to national and mass cultures.

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