Academic journal article The Space Between

John Sommerfield and Mass-Observation

Academic journal article The Space Between

John Sommerfield and Mass-Observation

Article excerpt

When the name of John Sommerfield (1908-1991) appears in a work of literary criticism it is usually either in connection with a specific reference to May Day, his experimental proletarian novel of 1936, or as part of a list containing some or all of the following names: Arthur Calder-Marshall, Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword, Montagu Slater, Randall Swingler and Amabel Williams-Ellis. As part of this semi-autonomous literary wing of the Communist Party, Sommerfield played his full role in turn on the Left Review collective in the 1930s, in various writers' groups such as the Ralph Fox Group of the 1930s and the Realist Writers' Group launched in early 1940, and on the editorial commission of Oar Time in the late 1940s, before leaving the Party in 1956. However, significantly for the argument that follows concerning Sommerfield's capacity to record the intersubjective quality of social existence, he was as much known for his pub going and camaraderie as his politics, with Dylan Thomas once saying "if all the party members were like John Sommerfield, I'd join on the spot" (Croft 66). Doris Lessing came to know him in the early 1950s, after he approached her to join the current incarnation of the Communist Party Writers' Group, and she describes him fondly in her memoirs: "He was a tall, lean man, pipe- smoking, who would allow to fall from unsmiling lips surreal diagnoses of the world he lived in, while his eyes insisted he was deeply serious. A comic" (Lessing 81). This mixture of solid literary-political endeavour and likeability has led to confusion about Sommerfield's class position with critics such as Valentine Cunningham (306-08) and Ian Hayward (48) treating him as a working-class writer. However, the one biographical essay that has been published, Andy Croft's "Returned Volunteer: The Novels of John Sommerfield," informs us that Sommerfield was the son of a self-educated journalist and attended University College School in Hampstead alongside contemporaries such as Stephen Spender and Maurice Cornforth, who later introduced him to the Communist Party in the early 1930s.

The mistaken identification of Sommerfield as primarily a working- class writer of the 1930s has diverted attention away from a significant writing career spanning over half a century, which included another five published novels - They Die Young (1930; published as The Death of Christopher in the USA), The Adversaries (1952), The Inheritance (1956), North West Five (i960) and The Imprinted (1977) - and at least two more in manuscript;1 a successful guide to amateur stage-managing, Behind the Scenes (1934); his memoir of fighting alongside his friend John Cornford in the defence of republican Madrid against Franco's forces in late 1936, Volunteer in Spain (1937); a propagandist novella about a rent strike, Trouble in Portel' Street (1938); a number of short stories written before and during the Second World War, collected as The Survivors (1947); the screenplays to a number of documentary films including Waverley Steps (1947); and numerous reports on Bolton pubs for the social research organisation Mass-Observation (MO), culminating in his role as principal author of their book-length study The Pub and the People (1943)- In particular, his first and last published novels, which are both semi-autobiographical, demonstrate the obvious inadequacies of the terms characterizing the dominant critical strands of his reception and reveal the outlines of a career trajectory in which May Day was not the sole highlight but one of a number of significant achievements in successfully rendering intersubjective experience. They Die Young is a self-consciously modern novel that utilises a range of explicitly modernist devices to tell the story of its protagonist, Christopher, who works variously in the theatre and in Wall Street before going to sea. Sommerfield's class origins are revealed in a scene where he writes himself into the text as a young man stroking a cat in a café in Montevideo:

Nice cat isn't he, essayed Christopher. …

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