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Thursday, 26 September 2013

review of "Progressive Heritage" (leftwing CanLit) by Ron Dart

Progressive Heritage


                                                                 Progressive Heritage:
                                    The Evolution of a Politically Radical Literary Tradition in Canada

                                                                             James Doyle

Those who have the good fortune of studying Canadian literature are often exposed to the standard bourgeois classics of Canadian poetry, novels and drama—these bourgeois classics are what we call the Canadian canon of must read literature. There are also leading literary critics such as Northrop Frye who are embodiments, in a thoughtful and nuanced way, of such a canon. There is, though, a para-canonical literature in Canada of the Marxist left that is often ignored in the teaching of the standard approach to Canadian literature.  The obvious strength and appeal of Progressive Heritage is the way this left of centre literary heritage is, unpacked and unravelled, in a chronological and thematic manner.

Progressive Heritage is divided into 11 compact and insightful chapters: 1) Introduction, 2) The Progressive Heritage: Beginnings to 1900, 3) Antecedents and Alternatives to Bolshevism, 4) The 1920s: Communists and Fellow Travellers, 5) The 1930s: Socialist and Other Realisms, 6) The 1930s: Progressive Drama, Poetry, and Non-Fiction, 7) The 1940s: War and Post-War, 8) The 1950s: Post-War to Cold War, 9) After Stalinism: Decline and Achievement, 10) The New Left and 11) Conclusion. Doyle does not, rightly so, restrict himself to those on the left who are dogmatic Marxists (of various types and tendencies). There were, of course, the standard flag bearers of historic and literary left of centre read of Canada such as Margaret Fairley and Stanley Ryerson—Fairley and Ryerson are repeatedly held high and often quoted just as the poetry of Joe Wallace and novels of Dyson Carter are duly noted and commented upon. There were also writers such as Dorise Nielsen (who Canadians should know much more about----a female Bethune in China), Dorothy Livesay, Milton Acorn and George Ryga who wrote for communist-socialist publications and belonged to the party when young but were not leftist ideologues. Doyle tracks and traces the many writers in Canada who were not communists but who were fellow travellers with an anti-capitalist, pro-labour, suspicious of war and wrote wisely and well about the plight of the Canadian people who were often victims of the power elite of big business, politics and militarism.

Progressive Heritage is a veritable counter canon that brings to light many writers and artists within English and French speaking Canada that are often consciously ignored or simply unknown. Doyle has obviously done his spade work well and he has brought forth from the Canadian mother lode much literary gold. There is a fine bibliography at the end of the book for those wanting to read yet further and deeper, but the many books, poems, literary magazines and dramas (some known, others quite unknown) could easily make for a life time reading and many a course to be taught both within the Canadian counter-canon tradition and broader leftist literature.

The fact Doyle mentioned many Marxist fellow travellers and others with a basic concern for economic justice does mean more attention could have been paid to the literary contributions of those from the historic CCF-NDP traditions and the tensions between the CCF-NDP and the varieties of the nationalist New Left in Canada---the book would have been stronger for such probes.

Doyle goes after Frye a variety of times in Progressive Heritage for often caricaturing or dismissing the radical literary left in Canada—Margaret Atwood is also found wanting. Canadian worthies such as William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis Riel, Tim Buck and Norman Bethune are, as expected, lauded. Earle Birney has his fingers rapped as does Morley Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan (as incarnating the bourgeois way). Doyle has certainly brought to the fore a more generous and comprehensive way of reading the Canadian leftist literary tradition that is both Marxist and non-Marxist, although the emphasis is on the Marxist heritage. The final chapter, “The New Left”, is a must read overview of some of the leading leftist nationalists such as Robin Mathews (who is a political activist, poet, literary critic and dramatist—sadly so, much neglected and ignored).  Many in the New Left were stirred into wakefulness by George Grant’s Red Tory classic, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965)---Doyle could have connected the dots between classical Canadian conservatism and the New Left with Grant as a significant bridge between the two traditions.

I was rather pleased that Doyle included a discussion of Stephen Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich if for no other reason than that Leacock was a definite conservative, but his form of Red Tory conservatism had many an affinity with the leftward thinking of Scott, Forsey and King Gordon. It would have been valuable if Doyle had threaded together how the leftist tradition in Canada has many an affinity and antecedent in the Canadian Tory touch---Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich is a superb entrée into such an ethos and Tory literary tradition as is Grant’s Lament for a Nation---Lament is as much political missive as it is literature.

Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a Politically Radical Literary Tradition in Canada should be prime reading and on the main book shelf of anyone interested in a more comprehensive understanding of Canadian literary life. Such a book will expand the canon of Canadian Literature to a fuller and more generous place and space- such was Doyle’s plea and it should not go unheeded or unheard.

Ron Dart                                                                                                      


The Evolution of a Politically Radical Literary Tradition in Canada
James Doyle

$65.00 Hardcover, 330 pp.
ISBN13: 978-0-88920-402-7
Release Date: April 2002
Hardcover edition is out of print.  
Order online and receive a 25% discount
$42.95 Paper, 330 pp.
ISBN13: 978-0-88920-397-6
Release Date: April 2002


Book Description

Most critics and literary historians have ignored Marxist-inspired creative literature in Canada, or dismissed it as an ephemeral phenomenon of the 1930s. Research reveals, however, that from the 1920s onward Canadian creative writers influenced by Marxist ideas have produced a quantitatively substantial and artistically significant body of poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fiction.
This book traces historically and evaluates critically this tradition, with particular emphasis on writers who were associated with, or sympathetic to, the Communist Party of Canada. After two chapters surveying the work of anti-capitalist writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the book concentrates on the development of Marxist-inspired writing from the 1920s to the end of the twentieth century.
Besides devoting attention to both social and theoretical backgrounds, this study provides critical commentary on work by prominent writers who spent part of their literary careers as Communist Party members, including Dorothy Livesay, Patrick Anderson, Milton Acorn, and George Ryga, as well as less well known but more fervent Communists such as Margaret Fairley, Dyson Carter, Joe Wallace, Stanley Ryerson, and Jean-Jules Richard. Although primarily concerned with the older generation of Marxists who flourished between the 1920s and the 1970s, the book also includes a chapter on the post-1970s “New Left.”

About James Doyle

James Doyle is professor emeritus of English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Author of five other books, including The Fin de Siècle Spirit (1995) and Stephen Leacock: The Sage of Orillia (1992), he has contributed many times to scholarly journals, particularly on Canadian-US literary relations and political radicalism in Canadian literature.


“The book is... eye-opening. Progressive Heritage presents a broad-ranging coverage of literary radicalism that establishes the field as undeniably present in Canadian writing....Progressive Heritage is thus a long overdue book.”
American Review of Canadian Studies
“[A]n unprecedented recovery of books, poems, and plays written in a communist or anti-capitalist bent. As a reader’s guide, Progressive Heritage is superb at contextualizing literary works....Young scholars will be interested in this work because it has its finger on the pulse of what was and still is one of the most taboo subjects in Canadian culture: the silencing and devaluing of voices speaking out against capitalist and corporate hegemony....[S]cholars will welcome Doyle’s counter history and draw up a list of books and poems we should know more about....WIth a sincere and engaged writing style, Doyle renders this version of a radical tradition accessible to the uninitiated and unconverted.”
— Roxanne Rimstead, Canadian Literature

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