Rejoicing in MacLennan

Reviewed by Michael Peterman

Hugh MacLennan’s early novel Man Should Rejoice (c. 1937) has finally found a publisher in the Canadian Literature Collection, a series edited by Dean Irvine for the University of Ottawa Press. It is eighty years late in appearing, but it makes an important addition to MacLennan’s oeuvre, offering insightful new perspectives on the beginnings of his writing career. Carefully edited by Colin Hill, it will force interested readers to rethink past assessments of a writer seen by many as the quintessential, somewhat predictable, Canadian realist. It also tells, as Hill notes, “an enduring story that ought to haunt us today.”

Man Should Rejoice is an ambitious novel dramatizing a generation that, MacLennan writes, “lived hard and tried to change the world by thinking about it.” It is set in the early 1930s in the US and Europe, when economic conditions were very difficult for most people and numerous political options were available. For MacLennan’s American protagonist, David Culver, the still point in this troubled world is Nova Scotia, described deftly as “half outside the world”; it is a remote place where the natural rhythms of life are curative for Culver.

Culver is a sensitive and observant painter who is cast as the son of parents representing conflicting worlds—his father, Bernard Culver, is a powerful American industrialist while his mother, Arina, is a Russian bourgeois of a literary bent. David grows up with his mother while his father develops his massive business interests in Pittsburgh. Overall, David has little feeling for either parent. After his mother’s death, he works for his father even as he grows more sympathetic to the communistic inclinations of New York friends. That empathy leads to a strike at his father’s New Jersey plant during which he sides with the strikers. The result is a year in jail for David, facilitated by his father’s outrage at his complicity.

Nearly a broken man after that incarceration, he and his wife, Anne, return to her native Austria, where she was raised in a model socialist community called Lorbeerstein. There in 1936, while they are living in idyllic conditions, a sudden, country-wide rebellion leads to Anne’s violent death and David’s narrow escape. The novel’s preface locates him among the glacial rocks of oceanside Nova Scotia, where he is recovering alone and painting again.

The plot is heavily loaded with politics and political jargon to the point of seeming intellectually overwrought, despite its relevance to contemporary issues. Neither are the characters and their relationships particularly compelling. Centrally, David’s self-preoccupation as narrator often seems narcissistic, lacking the vision and energy of, say, James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who may have been one of MacLennan’s models. First written while MacLennan was at Princeton, Man Should Rejoice seeks to embrace the complexities of the modern world while investigating ways of dealing with its problems. Its “early modernist affinities” (in Colin Hill’s phrase) counter MacLennan’s reputation as “a traditional realist.” Important as well is Dorothy Duncan’s role in the rewriting of the novel. (MacLennan and Duncan were married in 1936.). Hill gives the reader much to think about in this welcome edition.

This review “Rejoicing in MacLennan” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Jun. 2020. Web.

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