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The Gentle Anarchist:
A Life of George Woodcock


272 pages,
ISBN: 1550546066


Post Your Opinion
Anarchism in Defence of Literature
by Leslie Mundwiler

In 1955 George Woodcock was offered a university teaching job which was clearly meant to lead to a permanent position. The offer came from the English department of the University of Washington. American immigration officials in Vancouver asked him to supply a copy of his book Anarchy or Chaos (1944), and apparently on the basis of this manifesto denied him a visa. After a period of futile protests, this change of fortune had to be accepted. He was here to stay.
We can only be thankful that, because of a predictable American stubbornness about aliens and Leftists, Woodcock was not lost to the further shaping of Canadian literature at that moment. When he became the editor of Canadian Literature a few years later, he brought a combination of contacts, experience, and philosophy that was probably not to be found in any other Canadian writer of the time. From its inception CL became the periodical of record for the efflorescence of our literature over the following two decades.
Douglas Fetherling's biography provides considerable detail, painstakingly researched, about the rather vast network of Woodcock's literary and publishing contacts and about his editorial work, notably with his own war-time periodical NOW and with the anarchist Freedom Press. To the editing of CL, Woodcock, who had no university degree, did not bring any particular academic program or narrowly professional interest. Miraculously-it may have seemed-he stood outside all of the lines that Canadian writers and teachers of literature had managed to draw around themselves. In essence, his outlook was stated in the commendation given to another editor in the festschrift Skelton at 60:
"The Malahat Review under Skelton's direction was an example of editorial eclecticism at its best. It promoted no literary school in preference to another, and writers were considered not according to their political or prosodic theories, but according to the sheer quality of their writing."
Woodcock's intellect did, in great measure, belong to the '30s, when almost any self-respecting intellectual had to have an "ism". The all-literature-is-ideology notion (now cant, as in Terry Eagleton) was a fresh idea then and seemed to fit. What led Woodcock beyond this, and gave him the principled means for entering into a new perspective, was his dedication to literature itself. In Woodcock, early on, literature was given an ultimate value: which explains his personal frustration with his talents (the first three novels up in flames, the long drought in his poetry) and the boldness (relative to his time) with which he faced down "real life" (through anarchism, pacifism, utopia, escape) and "real knowledge" (science, propaganda). Aged twenty-seven, he wrote in the first issue of NOW (cited by Fetherling): "It is time literary scientists and scientific litterateurs with no knowledge of poetry ceased proclaiming what poets should do and what should be done with poets."
Like Hazlitt, he lacked a complete schooling in the scholastic assumptions of his time. Therefore, he was the freer to look beyond them. No university was there to dissuade him from holding fast to what he valued most; and a weakness for literary means, which even in a figure such as Orwell required explanation from time to time, became the basis of a shift in vision toward what we now understand as the postmodern. Although Woodcock probably would have been uncomfortable with the label.
Other interesting comparisons with Hazlitt are possible. For example, as with Hazlitt, Woodcock's fluency in an essay can mislead the reader who isn't sounding the depth of each sentence as he goes. His writing is not all-of-a-level journalism, but draws upon the traditions of the art of essay. In Strange Bedfellows: The State & the Arts in Canada (1985), this sentence occurs in the middle of a paragraph: "Art and mere entertainment can easily become one in the minds of politicians and bureaucrats who have no artistic interests or commitments." This concisely brings together a philosophy of art, experiences, and recent history, and the vector sum of current tendencies politically considered. The reader has to be alert to the richness in Woodcock's essay-writing. Fetherling's biography emphasizes the anarchism, the publishing history, and the philanthropy, and doesn't provide a perspective on the development of artistic achievement of the essayist.
The concise biography is itself a genre within the domain of the essay. Its greatest artists, such as Leslie Stephen and Gustave Lanson, achieved their control in the form by seeing each life within a careful selection of perspectives in which events and oeuvre gained their surest significance. Fetherling's book sometimes runs to the pell-mell presentation of fact without perspective, as if he were writing one of those sinew-straining tomes which seem to have become the publishers' norm for literary biography. He admits that he was tempted to do this sort of all-in account.
With Woodcock he confronted some of the difficulties Lanson faced in doing the critical biography of Voltaire: a long and eventful life and a multitude of personal relations to be recounted; a tremendous volume of public and private writing to be reviewed, pondered, and-for its literary value especially-appraised. An astonishing result of Lanson's work was to stand the eighteenth-century valuation of Voltaire on its head (the theatre dropped from a great height, the letters and the facÚties assuming more importance even than the formal fiction). A literary assessment of Woodcock's essays would involve a pretty thorough survey of lineages and forms, and the conclusion might well be that Anarchism and The Crystal Spirit aren't the top of his output, as Fetherling suggests. The poetry, because there's less of it and it's of much less importance, would not be so challenging to the biographer. Dryden's word seems to apply: "The corruption of a poet is the generation of a critic." But the plays, mainly radio plays, might well have considerable literary interest. Woodcock himself was rather proud of some of his achievements in this kind-and also rather surprised that, here alone, he failed to publish the best.
Fetherling does provide a reasonably full account of Woodcock's early activities in British anarchist circles. There is enough to help us understand the conclusion to Woodcock's 1990 preface to the reissue of The Writer & Politics (1948): "How can I speak for the freedom of others without asserting and sustaining my own first of all?" The principle implicit in this made him a critic of all the institutional determinants and bearings of writing throughout the unfolding of his literary career. This wariness about challenges to the writer's freedom and about the great variety of institutional obfuscations of literature was another reason for Woodcock's exceptional results as an editor. The combination of a high standard for writing and a political sense of the institutional setting meant also that he was not susceptible to what Dorothy Parker called literary Rotarianism.
Tracing his "applied anarchism" through Fetherling's book, the reader might expect a connected account of Woodcock's relations with three preponderant institutional influences on Canadian literature: the CBC, the Canada Council and other arts-funding agencies, and the universities.
The story of Woodcock's relations with the CBC hangs together fairly well. We get some sense of the vitality of the organization which hired the likes of Robert Weaver and Lister Sinclair in the 1940s and which helped to keep George and his wife Inge alive in their first years in Canada. Although his contract work continued at a good clip into the 1960s, with appearances in the 1970s, and with a five-hour radio presentation about Orwell in 1984, Woodcock was well aware of the CBC's changes in direction over these years, especially under the influence of television and with the idea of creating and providing for a mass audience. To his way of thinking (as Fetherling makes us understand), this was all a tremendous backwardness and absurdity. The potential diversity of local programming, with creative work in the forefront, was pushed aside by essentially statist considerations, rationalized when necessary by market blather. Woodcock's views are set out very precisely in Strange Bedfellows and other late writings on the subject.
Fetherling also describes Woodcock's shift in opinion where the Canada Council was concerned. The arm's-length relationship with the government of the day was never wholly unquestioned, but for its first, glorious period the Council seemed to perform as well as it might have been expected to. Then, as Woodcock documents in Strange Bedfellows, came the statist pressures of the Trudeau years. The decline in the vitality of the country's arts milieux in the late '70s was not strictly to be put at the door of the Council. As Woodcock writes in Strange Bedfellows, "The fact is that patronage in itself never creates an upsurge in the arts or inspires any artists in the sense of stimulating them to achievements beyond their evident powers." But at the same period of reflection, as Fetherling notes, Woodcock felt that the Council had at last fallen prey to bureaucratic and political "jackals". Artists' incomes were, in the main, about where they were when the Massey Commission convened, but further up the line a whole lot of people were now making money out of "the arts".
Though Strange Bedfellows, as a summing up of Woodcock's criticism of the institutional impacts on the arts, covers a great deal of ground in a wonderfully lucid fashion, it is oddly reticent about the influence of the universities. Perhaps he felt that the specific examples he might instance would be mistaken for personal, rather than institutional, cases. Fetherling's book maintains this same sort of reserve. At a key moment in the account, for example, he states: "In fact, the early issues of CL were met with repeated attacks in scholarly circles and even in the local newspaper press." And that's all. The scholarly distrust of such an enterprise-so soon to arrive at the forefront of criticism of Canadian literature-was probably to be expected, but it would be enlightening to find out something about its character.
Apart from this decision not to make much of academic attacks on Woodcock's work, Fetherling presents detail about his university involvements, especially those with the University of British Columbia. The CBC's interest in his work preceded UBC's, but at last Earle Birney, and what must have been a feisty English department, got a contract position for Woodcock. The university would not act to obtain a regular teaching position until after his failure to get a visa for the University of Washington. Then again Birney and company led the charge to install Woodcock as editor of CL and, later, to reduce his teaching load (to nothing, finally!) so that he could continue in that work. Will such collective action within the institution ever again be possible? (Don't count on it.) Fetherling's story about the ludicrous difficulties that Woodcock went through in selling his papers to a university archive suggests what a further decline there has been in "higher learning".
This is ein Grundriss: Every writer on Woodcock from now on will be beholden to Fetherling for making the first, most difficult effort to comprehend an oeuvre so extensive. Students and readers will find the book list at the end useful. Eight pages of primary stuff in small print. What will the full bibliography look like? This is not an authorized biography, but Woodcock encouraged Fetherling to undertake it-and the intuition seems to have been right.

Leslie Mundwiler is a Winnipeg bookseller.

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