Jody Mason, Writing Unemployment: Worklessness, Mobility, and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Canadian Literatures.
Writing Unemployment is a fascinating blend of cultural materialism, literary studies, and labour history. Jody Mason reads the work of left-affiliated writers in Canada as the literal representation of a politically organized and popularly sustained movement for social change that actually threatened inter- and postwar liberal hegemony, a movement that would not be ignored and could not be repressed. Establishing how this challenge was subsequently absorbed and contained by the state is the extremely important contribution Mason makes to the historiography of the Canadian left.
Janine Brodie has described citizenship as historically and contingently constructed. Jody Mason's work illustrates just this point, through her detailed examination of writing on unemployment and mobility in (and on) the 1930s, a critical juncture for discourses of citizenship in Canada. Mason's interest, however, is not primarily with the Depression decade itself, but with its significance in shaping the story of Canada as a liberal-democratic nation, and its part in supporting liberal hegemony. Mason notes, "the relation between Depression-era leftist periodical culture and the postwar welfare state is an understudied one." (46) And so, Writing Unemployment traces the connections between the cultural work of leftist writers in the 1930s and the welfare state that developed in Canada following World War II. Subtitled Worklessness, Mobility, and Citizenship in Twentieth Century Canadian Literatures, Mason's book illustrates the impact of this critical literary work in the ongoing "discursive framing" (4) of citizenship, unemployment and mobility in postwar Canada. Her focus is on what left literary texts did, how these texts were shaped by the material conditions of their production, and how they shaped discourses of citizenship, nation, unemployment, mobility, belonging, and entitlement.
Mason commends the extensive work of labour and political historians, sociologists, and political economists on citizenship and unemployment, and incorporates this work into her own extensive and intricate argument. She emphasizes the value of non-sectarian and innovative approaches to historical practice, and challenges categorical divisions between state and civil society. Mason draws on Ian McKay's liberal order framework, and uses his distinction of four left formations in her own research. Mason reads literary texts as narrations of national identity, of the relationship between workers and the state, and the rights of citizenship. Mason's objective is to show how left writers' cultural work was absorbed and repurposed in the postwar welfare state. At the heart of Mason's analysis is Gramsci's concept of passive revolution, which she describes as a "useful" (47) concept for understanding liberal hegemony in postwar Canada. Mason fully endorses the value of Gramsci's concept of passive revolution for understanding the processes underwriting liberal hegemony, but argues we need more focus on the civil sources of liberal hegemony. Her work combines the analytic precision and archival breadth that are necessary to recover those sources and that history in detail.
Mason draws on Ian McKay's argument for scholarly work as reconnaissance. The cultural politics of left writers in the 1930s offer some strategies that may be usefully revived. Noting Abigail Bakan's characterization of citizenship as practice, Mason presents the work that writers on the left did as a form of participatory politics, part of a broad social effort to establish a more inclusive sense --and form--of citizenship in the midst of the crisis of unemployment. Thus literary work was a critical element shaping the debate on what worklessness and mobility meant for individuals and for Canada as a nation. Stories of the unemployed were important to making the case for the more active role and greater social responsibility of the Canadian state. Literary work on the left helped shape a new social consensus about the state's responsibility to protect its citizens against unemployment, a social consensus the government had to actively manage (by recognizing it) and contain (by absorbing it discursively) in the postwar period.
Mason argues that "cultural producers anticipated, called forth, and engaged the welfare state as it rose and declined in the latter half of the twentieth century." (8) Examining old stories of domination and resistance in new ways brings to light aspects of this history generally obscured by tradition and established schools. Yet far from jettisoning or moving beyond any of the critical categories that have shaped historical and political scholarship, Mason's diagonal integration of cultural text and political context shows that Canada's coherence as a nation was not an evolution or an unfolding, but a distinct (and uncertain) historical achievement. Things could be otherwise.
In her introduction, Mason touches (too) briefly on key concepts that structure her discussion in the subsequent chapters. Her first chapter discusses vagabondia poetry, the pioneer-settler figure, literary nationalism and the writing of Frederick Philip Grove. Chapter 2 focuses on representations of unemployment and on left periodical culture in the 1930s and their common demand for state support of the unemployed; Chapter 3 analyses the Depression novels of Irene Baird and Claudius Gregory; Chapter 4 the publication history of Hugh Garner's novel, Cabbagetown and the "postwar compact between state and labour." (130) Mason's final chapter connects these various histories in a discussion of the emergence of the New Left and a renewed interest in Depression narratives in the 1970s.
I am most familiar with the ground Mason covers in her second chapter on the periodical literature produced in a "diverse" (45) field of left affiliation in 1930s Canada, primarily the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Communist Party of Canada. The conflict and rivalry between them has shaped much of the research done on each, but Mason focuses on what they shared, and foregrounds those texts and instances in which the interests espoused by differently affiliated writers connected and (more or less) actively interacted in support of rebranding unemployment as a structural factor of Canada's agricultural and resource-based economy, a crisis of capitalism requiring state investment in, and support for, social rights. Mason's reading of central themes and strategies in these periodicals is detailed, and her analysis of this work as literary texts is extremely valuable, given the tendency to privilege political readings and assessments of it, and so to downplay or overlook its accomplishment as literary work.
The theoretical and methodological breadth of her argument is impressive, but thinly elaborated. Mason introduces concepts and terms without always giving the reader sufficient explanation of their relevance. However, the book repays close reading and re-reading. The intricacy of Writing Unemployment is the book's strength and will ensure its endurance. Writing Unemployment is a rich, powerful, and useful book.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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