Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, & the Left in 1930s Canada
Toronto, Buffalo, London; University of Toronto Press, 2009. viii + 268 pp.
Recipient of the Ann Saddlemyer scholarly book award at the 2010 conference of the CATR/ACRT, Candida Rifkind's Comrades and Critics expands the vital field of scholarship that is rewriting our knowledge and our analyses of left-wing Canadian modernism. In the 1930s, Canadian women writers and cultural workers including Dorothy Livesay, Ruby Ronan, Anne Marriott, Irene Baird, Toby Gordon Ryan, Mildred Goldberg, Elsie Park Gowan, Minnie Evans Bicknell, Mary Reynolds, and Jim (Jean) Watts made crucial contributions to English-Canadian communist and social democratic journalism, poetry, fiction, and theatre. Rifkind surveys this work in historical context and addresses its place in national cultural memory and its reception in English-Canadian literary history.
An introductory chapter on the "Socialist-Modernist Encounter" points to the "double duty of the English-Canadian literary left, to give creative expression to socialism and overturn the dominant literary tradition" (4), and goes on to frame the book's most original insights, which have to do with the gendered terms of the Socialist-Modernist encounter and its impact on the period's women artists and on their work. I would say, in my second-wave sort of way, that this book exposes the pervasive sexism of the most progressive discourses of English Canada in the 1930s. As Rifkind explains, the problem was not only that gender issues were explicitly subordinated to class and other struggles during the Comintern period, and then subordinated again in relation to the fight against fascism during the period of the Popular Front, although this did happen and it needs to be remembered. (My own view, and I know that I am not alone in this, is that one of the most important lessons of the twentieth-century revolutions is that we humans must not ever again leave our humanity behind in order to "storm the barricades" and expect to be able to pick it up again on the other side. But I digress.) The problem is more acute because the explicit sidelining of gender issues in the 1930s was exacerbated by the discursive and symbolic linkages between rugged masculinity, socialist progress, and modernist aesthetics, on one hand; and femininity, a decadent and despised bourgeoisie, and bad art, on the other:
Women on the political left often had to subordinate questions
of gender to those of class and ethnicity, and by the 1930s the
gains made by pre-war socialist feminists and the suffrage
movement of an earlier generation faltered (Newton 171).
Across the Canadian left by the end of the 1920s, women's
issues were being subordinated to class struggle and then, with
the rise of European fascism in the early 1930s, fighting
racisms and anti-Semitism at home and overseas. Women who
were both socialists and modernists in 1930s Canada had to
consequently find ways to accommodate themselves to the
downplaying of women's issues in leftist politics and the
contempt for any aesthetic perceived as feminine in modernist
literature. Each of the women I foreground in this book struggled
to do this in a different way; what unites them is an
attempt to disassociate their female identities from the feminine
metaphors and images typically used to criticize conservative
artistic tradition as well as liberal bourgeois politics. (11)
Add to this the fact that real economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of men, and the discouragements and detours performed by these women artists seem merely inevitable. …