Method and Material
- Ian McKay (Author)
Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People's Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920. Between the Lines (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gregory Betts (Author)
The Wrong World: Selected Stories & Essays of Bertram Brooker. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bart Vautour
Every so often a text comes along that changes how things are done. Ian McKay’s second volume of an expected three-volume history of the left in Canada is one such text. The weighty tome (over 600 pages) takes on what McKay calls the Canadian left’s first formation, which took place in the period prior to the more familiar and oft-debated interwar period. His thesis rests, in large part, on the confluence of the overwhelming surge of capitalist modernity—a period of rapid industrialisation in Canada (with all its transnational implications)—with the rising discourse of “social transformation founded upon the insights of evolutionary theory.”
Like many books that are able to come up with some really key, wide-ranging insights, Reasoning Otherwise is both interdisciplinary and accompanied by an innovative and original methodology. McKay employs what he calls “reconnaissance,” a methodology he began theorizing in the pages of The Canadian Historical Review and Labour/Le Travail. He uses reconnaissance to get at the “general rules and assumptions, the grammar and syntax, underlying those statements” which are “left behind by the people of a given political formation.” McKay puts this reconnaissance to work in order to explore “questions” of class, religion, gender and sexuality, race, war, and the aftermath of the general strikes of 1919. Particularly relevant for the study of the literature of this period is McKay’s discussion, in his chapter on “The Religion Question,” of the left’s negotiations of modernity and spiritualism and how those negotiations were connected to evolutionary discourse.
In Reasoning Otherwise, McKay continues the rethinking of the history of the left in Canada he began in Rebels, Reds, Radicals. He maintains the notion that anybody who shares four key insights can be called a leftist—these are insights into “capitalism’s injustice, the possibility of equitable democratic alternatives, the need for social revolution, and the development of the preconditions of this social transformation in the actual world around us.” These insights are good markers for getting away from sectarianism in the production of historiography of the left in Canada and they seem useful for the study of leftist literature in Canada—they are certainly a good alternative to simply calling something “political”—but I wonder if I shouldn’t have reservations about the viability of the fourth “insight” when it comes to artistic production.
While one of the blurbs on the back cover suggests that McKay’s book “will become the definitive text for the foreseeable future,” what is so promising about his method is that it does not aim to shut down continuing discussion. Rather, McKay’s “mission of reconnaissance” acts as incitement for other scholars and students to delve deeper into the complicated construction of the left within this period.
If Ian McKay has approached the history of the left through reconnaissance, scholars of literary modernism in Canada can perform a reconnaissance of a slightly different kind with the material Gregory Betts has given us in his important collection, The Wrong World: Selected Stories & Essays of Bertram Brooker. Betts’s edition is the third instalment in the Canadian Literature Collection, which publishes scholarly editions of out-of-print or unpublished Canadian texts from the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.
This collection of Brooker’s writing brings together a selection of short stories, one novella, as well as essays and polemics, many of which have never been published. Perhaps better known as a modernist painter, Betts’s introduction convincingly makes the case for the importance of Brooker’s prose to the emergence of literary and interdisciplinary modernism in Canada. The critical introduction is informative, to be sure, but not so much as to turn a reader away from actually reading the stories and essays. The short stories range from earnest realism to avant-garde experiment, while the essays take on subjects ranging from the censorship of art in Toronto to “cosmic patriotism.”
It is perhaps a bit odd that within a single-author collection of texts spanning a significant amount of time, the dates of first publication or approximate dates of composition are not made immediately accessible for each selection when the editorial procedure follows chronological arrangement. This may seem overly picky but when literary scholars look to reconstruct the emergence of modernist expression in Canada and include Brooker as one of the first to articulate literary modernism, as this collection does, knowing the specific time frame of composition and publication becomes germane because the emergence of literary modernism in Canada was deeply interactive, reactive, and responsive.
Despite a few slippages in the construction of the textual emendations and revisions, Betts has done a great service to the study of modernism in Canada by recovering and arranging these texts. This collection has great pedagogical potential and can contribute much to a rethinking of how modernism is taught in Canada. Part of the text’s usefulness for teaching is its accompanying website (www.press.uottawa.ca) which contains supplementary material such as biographical information, essays and short stories that are not included in the collection, and study questions for the texts that are included. The strength of this collection lies in the fact that it is geared to help both literary scholars do the work of reconnaissance that Ian McKay advocates and that is so important for the study of modernism in Canada while it also facilitates the ability of a new generation of students to do that same work.
- Apocalyptic Consumption by Beverley Haun
Books reviewed: The Parachute by Patricia Claxon and Sinclair Dumontais, How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad, and The Sound of All Flesh by Barry Webster
- (Inter)National Art by Richard Brock
Books reviewed: Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King
- Community Chest by Barbara Sibbald
Books reviewed: Pittsburgh Stories - Selected Stories: 2 by Clark Blaise and Tending the Remnant Damage by Sheila Peters
- More than Nostalgia by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Tales from Hidden Basin by Dick Hammond, Wild Liard Waters: Canoeing Canada's Historic Liard River by Ferdi Wenger, and Rails and Rooms: A Timeless Canadian Journey by Dave Preston
- Man of the Far Right by Michael H. Keefer
Books reviewed: What's Right: The New Conservatism and What It Means for Canada by David Frum
MLA: Vautour, Bart. Method and Material. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 167 - 169)
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