Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By Carole Gerson
Canada’s best-known female literary writers from the 1930s are all closely associated with British Columbia: activist wordsmith Dorothy Livesay, then a member of the Communist Party, who first moved to Vancouver in 1936; Anne Marriott, who was living in Victoria when she wrote her signature long poem, The Wind Our Enemy (1939), about the drought on the Prairies; and Irene Baird, whose gritty urban novel Waste Heritage (1939) was based on the occupation of the Vancouver post office by the unemployed in 1938. Hence, it is not surprising that all three figure prominently in Candida Rifkind’s study, which effectively employs the analytical paradigms developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to map out the English-Canadian literary field during the decade of the Great Depression.
The major writings of these three women have already received considerable critical attention; what Rifkind adds is a focus on gender. Thus, she reads their writings and activities not only in terms of their political and socio-economic significance regarding various phases and ideological shifts of left-wing thought but also in relation to gender issues connected with the aesthetics of literary modernism. This is no mean feat, given that gender was not a significant concern of Canada’s Communists and Marxists, whose class-based analysis sidelined issues that specifically affected women, while the country’s modernist literary patriarchs viewed most female authors with disdain. Yet, I was disappointed to find that, despite the book’s subtitle, the fresh attention brought to these three was not enhanced with much detail about other left-wing female writers of the era.
This problem arises, I think, from Rifkind’s critical methodology. Each section of her book opens with a detailed mapping of the significant players – thinkers, writers, editors, publishers, and theatre people – pertaining to its particular focus and culminates with one of her three key women. Beginning with the “third period modernism” of intellectual identification with the proletariat (Livesay), Rifkind then considers the popular front modernism connected with the Spanish Civil War (Marriott), the political uses of theatre (Livesay), and documentary modernism (Baird). These discussions are very well researched and informative, drawing on many ephemeral and archival sources. But because these fields of cultural activity were so strongly male-dominated, the bulk of the discussion is devoted to the men who were in charge, with the women entering as secondary figures. Discussion of the play Eight Men Speak brings some attention to Toby Gordon Ryan, but we learn very little about other female theatre activists such as Mildred Goldberg, Elsie Park Gowan, Minnie Evans Bicknell, and Mary Reynolds; New Frontier writers Jean Burton, Margaret Gould, and Margery Cleveland; and the intriguing Jean (Jim) Watts, who occupies more space in the notes than in the text. Rifkind’s general discussion of gender issues is astute (e.g., her analysis of the appeal of social work as a career for left-wing middle-class women). While this book offers much new cultural history and critical insight, I was left with the feeling that it inadvertently perpetuates the marginalization of women that it deplores.