The North American Popular Front

Reviewed by Jody Mason

First published in 1938, two years after the commencement of the Spanish Civil War, Meet Me on the Barricades follows the fantastical interior life of a New York City oboist whose romantic idealism is set aflame by the bloody conflict between fascist and republican forces in Spain.

Harrison’s novel is the third to appear in the Canada and the Spanish Civil War sub-series of the Canadian Literature Collection (CLC) from the University of Ottawa Press, edited by Dean Irvine. The complex textual histories of previous titles published in the CLC series are not always complemented by print and/or digital apparatuses that enumerate all variants. However, unlike so many of the modern Canadian literary texts that have appeared or might appear in the CLC, the textual history of Meet Me on the Barricades is not particularly complicated: the novel went through a single print run, and the first edition was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York. In the introduction, editors Bart Vautour and Emily Robins Sharpe discuss the major variants in the three extant typescript drafts of the novel (housed at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library). Other “significant variants” will eventually appear on the website for the Canada and the Spanish Civil War project (which Vautour and Robins Sharpe direct). The explanatory notes, which appear in the print edition, are excellent.

If Harrison had been a novelist living, writing, and publishing in Canada during the 1930s, the publication history of Meet Me on the Barricades would be unusual. Due to the financial difficulties that the large Canadian agency publishers experienced during the Depression, it was common practice for them to make publication contingent on a co-publication agreement with a US firm. Such arrangements often engendered complicated textual histories that speak of the long historical enmeshment of Canadian literary cultures with those of Britain and, later, the US. Yet if Harrison spent his childhood and adolescence in the Montreal Jewish community and fought with a Canadian regiment in the First World War, he moved to New York City in the 1920s and spent the rest of his life there, eventually becoming an author, activist, editor, and well-known figure of the US-American cultural and political left.

Vautour and Robins Sharpe point out that Harrison’s border crossing renders his work a good instance of the North American “leftist imaginary” of the 1930s, particularly as this imaginary was shaped by the poetics and politics of the Popular Front (1935-1939). While such a continental “imaginary” has been analyzed in studies such as Caren Irr’s The Suburb of Dissent, there is much comparative work to be done in order to assess the complex networks of cultural and political exchange that characterized this period and to acknowledge adequately the role of writers with Canadian affiliations in these networks. Vautour and Robins Sharpe’s edition provides new starting points for such research. I wonder, for example, if Harrison’s novel was reviewed exclusively in the US, as the editors imply, or if it experienced a unique reception in Canadian media, leftist and otherwise? When he wrote Meet Me on the Barricades, was Harrison aware of “Friends, Romans, Hungrymen,” the similarly Joycean, oneiric romp that a fellow Montreal Jew, A. M. Klein, published in the inaugural issue (1936) of the Toronto-based Popular Front magazine New Frontier?

This review “The North American Popular Front” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 155-156.

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