Too Close to Home: Middlebrow Anti-Modernism and the Sentimental Poetry of Edna Jaques

Rifkind, Candida

When poems are cut out of newspapers and pinned above sinks, and committed to memory by busy women in house dresses as they peel potatoes or wash dishes; when men in overalls, following the plow on a hot dry day, stop at the headlands to rest their team and, sitting on the plow handles, read over and over from a little scrap of newspaper what this same poet has written; when people on street cars coming to work, or at noon hour eating their lunch, refresh their souls by donning the same and pass the poem around, thus beginning a discussion on things present and things to come; when people sit down to write a letter of sympathy to a bereaved friend and not knowing how to express the grief they feel, search their scrap-book for a little poem that says it all in words as light and soft as thistledown that cannot possibly bruise a sore heart-has not such a poet achieved fame?

Edna Jaques is such a poet, a scrap-book poet, a loose-leaf poet, writing every day the things she sees and feels.

Nellie McClung (1934)

In 1952, a survey by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion ranked Saskatchewan poet Edna Jaques one of Canada’s most popular women (Tyrwhitt 1952, 14). One year later, Northrop Frye claimed she was the best bad poet in Canada (1953, 262). Fifty years on, Jaques has largely disappeared from the nation’s cultural memory, yet for at least three decades of the mid-twentieth century she was, as Nellie McClung suggests, probably the best-known Canadian poet for the majority of the national reading public. Edna Jaques was born in Collingwood, Ontario, in 1891 and moved with her family to homestead in what is now Briercrest, Saskatchewan, in 1902. By the age of 14, she was “writing something every day” and had already published three poems in the Moose Jaw Times (Jaques 1977, 60). Although she left school after grade eight, Jaques came from a family of readers who endured the poverty of prairie homestead life, including a shortage of paper and pencils, and found consolation in reading the classics of English literature and history they bought through the Baton’s catalogue 0aques 1977, 63). As a teenager, Jaques started to write two poems a month for the Saskatchewan Farmer, a task she continued for 30 years at the same rate of $1.50 per poem, and for seven months she even produced a poem a day for the Winnipeg Free Press (Jaques 1977, 120). She married William Ernest Jamieson in 1921 and they had one daughter, but their marriage fell apart after a miserable attempt at homesteading. By the late 1920s, Jaques was a single mother, and over the remainder of her working life she moved across the country to take on a series of clerical, retail, wartime, and domestic jobs.

Jaques’s first volume of poetry was published in 1932, and she produced 12 more booklets of poetry and an autobiography, Uphill All the Way (1977). Before her death in 1978, she claimed to have written around 3,000 poems, of which only a third had been collected in book form (although many appeared in daily and weekly newspapers), and that she had sold over a quarter of a million copies of her books (1977, 81).1 At the height of her popularity in the early 1950s, she earned $1,000 a year from her poetry (Tyrwhitt 1952, 43; Gerson 1992, 66). Although she regularly held full-time jobs, Jaques’s writing and her public appearances produced a significant supplemental income. Her first speaking engagement for the Moose Jaw branch of the Women’s Canadian Club in the early 1930s paid $25, a small fortune she recognized as “the turning point” away from her former life of obscure privation (1977, 171). Throughout the Depression, partly through the donation of a Canadian Pacific Railroad pass and partly through the fundraising of the Canadian Clubs, Jaques toured the country giving paid inspirational talks and reading from her poems. Her popularity endured for another 50 years, and in her autobiography she happily reported that The Best of Edna Jaques had sold a record-breaking 8,000 copies (1977, 242).

Jaques forged her loyal audience during the Depression when she used her poetry, the lecture circuit, and radio to represent rural experiences of poverty, friendship, faith, and hope. A lengthy 1952 Madean’s profile begins with the acknowledgement that “critics sometimes make fun of the homespun verses of Edna Jaques, Canada’s best-selling poet, but her sweet songs bring help and joy to housewives and sailors and bring her a comfortable livelihood” (Tyrwhitt 1952, 14). Despite what the critics might say, Jaques “proved that it’s possible for a Canadian to earn a comfortable living from verse alone” because her poems offer consolation, inspiration, and moral guidance to a variety of Canadian readers confronted by the dislocations, losses, and sufferings of modern life (14). The Madean’s profile concludes by pointing out Jaques’s core of support among prairie women forever marked by their experiences of the dustbowl: “for the drought-sick women of the prairies Edna’s speeches provided welcome relief. By communicating her sympathy and confidence in terms they could understand she won a western audience that has been faithful ever since” (42).

Although Jaques’s popularity endured for decades, her idiom was formed in the cultural crucible of the Depression and its contradictory experiences of deprivation and generosity, suffering and hope. In her poems, Jaques uses compassion and religious faith to lament and occasionally critique modern conditions, yet her social commentary proposes highly conservative and nostalgic versions of reform. Her aesthetic and ideology are quite different from the various socialist commitments of her literary contemporaries (Dorothy Livesay, Leo Kennedy, RR. Scott, A.M. Klein, Miriam Waddington, P.K. Page, and others), who are now identified with this period in Canadian literary history as the modernist-leftist bloc of a generally liberal canon. From the moment her poems were published, Jaques’s prolific output and her market success frustrated high cultural attempts to develop a modernist English-Canadian literature. To many consecrated writers and critics of the period, Jaques was the literary left’s bourgeois enemy as well as high modernism’s old-fashioned foil. Her poetry has continued to be parodied and marginalized within English-Canadian literary aesthetics, and she has been shelved as a particularly feminine, middlebrow, and backward-looking embarrassment.

Following Lynda Jessup, Ian McKay, and others who have studied the dialectic of modernism and anti-modernism in Canadian cultural production during the first half of the twentieth century, I want to focus on Jaques’s poetry, its popular consumption, and its academic reception in order to intervene in Canadian modernist literary studies by thinking about the ways its boundaries have been policed.2 Robin Kelley’s outline of how cultural studies might be integrated into historical studies of popular culture is key to my reading of Jaques:

“Folk” and “modern” are both mutually dependent concepts embedded in unstable historically and socially constituted systems of classification. In other words, “folk” has no meaning without “modern.” Unless we deconstruct the terms “folk” and “authentic” … and see “modern” and “traditional” as mutually constitutive and constituting, we will miss the dynamic process by which culture is created as well as its relationship to constantly shifting experiences, changes in technologies, and commodification. (1992, 1402)

Moreover, any notion of “authentic” folk or “ordinary” popular poetry applied to Jaques’s position in the national literary field during the modernist era must also account for her complicity with processes of mass production and consumption. As much as the content of Jaques’s homely verse eschews the encroachment of machine technology, mass culture, and modern warfare into Canadian life, the forms in which her poems circulated are part of the complex dynamics of commodity culture in the middle of the twentieth century.

In his study of popular literature in early twentieth-century Canada, Clarence Karr observes that the “golden age” of hardcover fiction, between the 189Os and the 1920s, produced both authors and readers seeking to merge entertainment with enlightenment, consolation, and hope about a rapidly changing era (2000, 219). In the mid-twentieth century, Jaques continued to fulfil this desire, but she did so in poetry rather than prose, and it is perhaps her choice of genre as much as her subject matter that led to her dismissal as overly sentimental. The notion of the sentimental has suffered a downward shift in value since its first positive uses in the mid-eighteenth century, when it referred to an Enlightenment celebration of a moral life based on humane feeling. Struggles over its meaning in the nineteenth century were seemingly settled by modernist critics who used the term pejoratively to judge literature deemed excessively emotional, private, rustic, and feminine (Clark 1991, 21). While Jaques’s verse may fit these descriptions, its mass reproduction and newspaper dissemination contradict her largely self-fashioned image as a mere scrapbook scribbler. Jaques herself summarizes this contradiction between sentimental themes and commercial success in the penultimate chapter of Uphill All the Way: “How I love to see my books sitting on a counter at Baton’s or Simpson’s or Coles, smiling at me like a happy kid, as if to say, ‘Hi mum’; a warm glow comes and silently I thank God for their acceptance into the world of books” (1977, 242). The market success of her poetry and its prominent display in department stores are commercial events described as familial and religious ones in precisely the sort of sentimental, feminine, and domestic imagery responsible for sidelining Jaques in dominant literary history.

While Jaques herself may be forgotten, Carole Gerson argues that she lives on in another form. Gerson maintains that Jaques is the model for Sarah Binks, the “Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan” created by Paul Hiebert to parody the genteel verse of a Canadian female “poetess” from the prairies. Hiebert’s 1947 collection, Sarah Binks, not only won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour but re-entered the Canadian literary field as a 1995 New Canadian Library reprint and a 2003 CBC Radio Canada Reads selection. In a 1977 interview with Reynold Siemans, Hiebert (a professor of chemistry at the University of Manitoba from 1924 to 1953) explains the genesis of his parody as an extended inside joke about the literary pretensions of faculty wives who attempt in the most vacuous ways to keep up with the latest bestsellers:

Sarah Binks simply arose as a kind of vehicle for publishing the poems which my brother and I had written when we were kids. Some of these poems were written by my brother and revised by me. A great many of them, of course, I wrote myself; but I gathered the whole works together and I attributed them to some country bumpkin by the name of Henry Hayfoot. But that didn’t get me anywhere; and then it suddenly occurred to me that if these had been written by a girl they would be a bit more fascinating. And in the course of time, in the universities, when they used to hold social gatherings or conversaziones, as they called them, the women of the faculty, in order to keep up their intellectual end, would discuss the latest literary sensation or the latest book. And I, as a scientist, ostensibly knew no literature. So I used to quote them these poems and say: “Have you heard this?” And they would remark: “That’s a very nice thing; who wrote that?” Well, I just invented this girl, Sarah Binks of Saskatchewan, and I’d say: “This was written by that Saskatchewan poetess, a newcomer in the literary field of Western Canada, and she’s attracting quite a bit of attention.” And they would say: “Oh, that’s very interesting indeed.” (Siemans 1977, 66)

Hiebert’s analogy between the verse written by boys and that written by an adult woman for the enjoyment of pretentious female cultural consumers is obviously sexist, but it also betrays profound regional and class biases. The character of Sarah, Hiebert satirically notes, read “everything she could get her hands on, whether it was an Baton’s catalogue, a book on geology or a schoolbook, and that accounts for her sophistication” (Siemans 1977, 68). Her verse absorbs this eclectic array, but its old-fashioned form is indebted to the British Romantic poetry she would have memorized in school. Her childhood education and her adult autodidacticism combine in Hiebert’s parodie poems, which, for instance, construct rhymes out of the fictional author’s ignorance of correct pronunciation. She is a prairie innocent, “speaking for the prairie West” so that “to really appreciate Sarah you have to know something of that background, you have to know something about country fairs” (Siemans 1977, 74).

Her location is as much a factor in the gaucherie Hiebert parodies as her allegiance to the schoolroom poems mobilized by an educational system seeking to cultivate good literary taste through signs of class ascendance. As Gerson concludes in her analysis of this interview, Binks’s enduring popularity in the Canadian academy is part of a larger process in which “power is maintained by subordinating the other (defined by gender or by language) in humorous writing purporting to represent the other, but penned by a member of the power establishment” (1992, 66). The target of Hiebert’s parody may be the “poetess” author, but it is equally the self-improving wives of university professors. Thus, as Janice Radway explains in her study of American middlebrow culture from the same period, “by attending carefully to the ways in which critiques of middlebrow culture have been persistently gendered, feminist analysis can demonstrate that the debate about the significance of the pretentious culture consumer served as a key ideological battlefield in the twentieth-century struggle over women’s social position” (1994, 872).

While Binks retains currency as a stereotype, Jaques has receded from cultural memory. In this displacement of poet by parody lie a series of gendered, regional, and ideological assumptions about poetic value and literary authority at work since the modernist period in Canada. They have formed the ground of an aesthetic, but also political and economic, battle over the gendered politics of artistic production and consumption. Roxanne Rimstead has analyzed Uphill All the Way to show how Jaques maps her life story on an upward class trajectory and “romanticizes her connection with the common folk” (2001, 174). Gerson and Rimstead disagree about Jaques’s performance of her class location, however. For Gerson, Jaques was “a genuinely populist poet” whose publication in daily and weekly newspapers across Canada, and not in mid-century literary magazines, has left her all but forgotten by the cultural establishment (1992, 67). Gerson situates Jaques as a folk poet writing in a particularly female tradition and raises important questions about the gendered, regional, and class dimensions of the academy and its construction of literary value. Rimstead, in contrast, challenges Jaques’s own assertions of her folk status as well as Gerson’s “insistence on the oppositional feminist and rural quality of Jaques’s work” to question whether “Jaques’s verse for ordinary women constitutes a working-class voice” (2001, 185). Instead, Rimstead contends that Jaques was firmly located within the middle class and that her autobiography is, paradoxically, as “complicit in bourgeois cultural hegemony” and the “organized forgetting” of working-class experience as it is opposed to “patriarchal hegemony in the way it remembers a gendered experience of poverty by a single mother and the details of women’s domestic sphere of labour” (2001, 189).

These divergent readings of Jaques’s class status and its relation to her reading audience as well as the academy suggest the degree to which Jaques self-fashioned her image as a female folk poet, tapping into a widespread anti-modernist response to the perceived disintegration in social relations visible in daily experiences of the Depression and the second World War.’Whether or not she was a member of the working classes, she constructed herself as an anti-modernist whose success depended on an identification between herself and her readers: “‘Who wants to be an unread genius?'” she once asked, ‘”My poetry is about the things people know and enjoy. I speak their language. I think those other Canadian poets try to be too highfalutin'” (Tyrwhitt 1952, 44). Keeping in mind Jaques’s unstable class position-a trajectory from homesteading poverty to middle-class comfort, complicated by her literary shift back to a speaking position of poverty-I want to suggest that she exemplifies a Depression-era female literary culture that drew on traditions established by earlier popular women writers. Jaques was heir to both Nellie McClung’s form of instructive literature and L.M. Montgomery’s legacy of the prolific female professional writer. Like these two women, Jaques was anxious about modern life, and so she used her popularity to disseminate an aesthetic ideology characterized by sentimental middlebrow anti-modernism.

Sentimental Reflections

The poem “It’s Nice to be Remembered” is from Back Door Neighbors, a collection Jaques wrote during the Depression and the second World War that exemplifies her poetic idiom and form (1946, 53). Typical of her verse, this short lyric combines colloquial and archaic vocabulary to localize most of its diction for the imagined audience and yet evoke the language of the English Romantics. Formally, it is also typical in its regular rhymes, rhythms, and stanzas. The title is repeated anaphorically at the beginning of each stanza to develop a series of domestic and natural images that express the pleasure of receiving a Christmas card from a far-flung friend. The final stanza concludes by quoting one such card:

It’s nice to be remembered

As the years are creeping up

To drink the wine of memory

From friendship’s golden cup.

And hear again the lovely words

“We wish you joy today

May New Year’s bring you happiness

As you go on your way.” (25-32)”

This poem is a particularly useful example of how Jaques’s verse might appeal to a popular audience constructed as the folk, but repel critics eager for difficulty and profundity. “It’s Nice to be Remembered” brings together Christmas and greeting cards, two phenomena overdetermined by mass-produced sentimentalism even at the time of Jaques’s writing.5 Indeed, the greeting card is an apt figure in this poem as it is through this form that Jaques obtained her initial success. Her first two collections, Drifting Soil and Wide Horizons, were both published as booklets by the Moose Jaw Times in 1932, one of the worst years of the Depression. A first print run of 10,000 sold out in two months, as did the second run of 10,000. Jaques attributed this astonishing success to her canny entrepreneurship: “I think the secret of their success was their size. They were small enough to fit into an ordinary envelope and hundreds of women bought them as little gifts for their friends, instead of greeting cards” (1977, 80). Sold at 25¢ each, the booklets earned Jaques a profit of 2O¢, which she describes as “the first easy money I had ever earned in my life” (1977, 80). Her success in the marketplace arose from exactly the values expressed in her verse: friendship between women, generosity even in times of adversity, and the pleasures of small remembrances.

Her Depression-era books were consumed as substitutes for greeting cards, but Jaques’s verse also participates in the rhetoric of that mass-produced form. Few literary critics fail to be embarrassed by the affective language of greeting cards, but Frank D’Angelo, in “The Rhetoric of Sentimental Greeting Card Verse,” treats it with both seriousness and rigour. His central thesis is important to understanding the work Jaques’s poetry performed in the marketplace, for he discovers that “greeting card verse is neither artificial, affected, nor insincere, but straightforward, genuine, and sincere … it exemplifies beautifully an important kind of ceremonial discourse” that “is both universal and particular” (D’Angelo 1992, 337). By ceremonial or epideictic discourse, D’Angelo means that greeting cards have a public life connected to the event of their exchange: “greeting card verse is decontextualized when it is put on racks of cards in card shops, drug stores and supermarkets. Under appropriate circumstances, however, the person who buys greeting card verse recontextualizes it, appropriates it to his or her own intention, and sends it to someone else as a personal message” (337). It is dialogic in the sense that greeting card verse is embedded in a relation between the writer’s intention and words and the sender’s intention and words, and thus it is a form fundamentally audience-centred and message-bound (337-38). Another feature of ceremonial discourse is that it will praise the virtuous and the good because it is designed for its receiver’s pleasure (338).

While in her autobiography Jaques alludes to the consumption of her books as greeting cards and implies the dialogic relationship between herself as writer and her consumers as senders of messages at once universal and particular, she also inscribes this public rhetorical event into some of her poems. For instance, “I Hear From Her at Christmas,” yet another poem about Christmas cards that appeared for the first time in The Best of Edna Jaques (1974, 51), records the pleasures of receiving annual Christmas cards because they are a commodity form through which author and reader, purchaser and receiver, re-establish their interpersonal connection. The Christmas card is both an ephemeral or punctual and saveable or enduring form of communication, and its arrival always brings pleasure:

I hear from her at Christmas,

And oh I am so glad,

To once again renew the warmth

Of friendship that we had,

Although she lives so far away,

We are still friends on Christmas Day. (1-6)

Even though the message is one of loss and fatigue- the children have left the house and “sometimes I feel weary-like” (15)-these complaints are subordinated to “Christmas with its happy cheer” because it “Brings the old friends forever near” (17-18). The poem ends with a refrain of the first stanza’s final couplet: “And though she lives so far away / We are old friends on Christmas Day” (19-20). The longing that attends this description of lost friendship, children, and youth is recuperated by the comfort offered in the form of a Christmas card, and in turn offered by the poem itself. The exchange of quotidian details and deeply felt sentiments occurs in the purchase and receipt of the greeting card, just as it does in the purchase and receipt of the poem. Although the greeting card is a mass-produced commodity, and Jaques’s books were large-scale productions, in both forms the messages acquire the dual universality and specificity of ceremonial discourse in the process of their consumption. The public event of their exchange is as important as the private moments of their composition and reading.

The poems themselves participate in this rhetoric of greeting cards and assume a similar status in the marketplace, but there is also a trend across Jaques’s work to thematize commodity culture within the content of her poems. Not just Christmas cards, but all sorts of items appear in her verse as the signs that interpersonal relations can be restored and social wounds sutured through the right sort of acquisition and gift-exchange. Thus, another aspect of the sentimental crucial to Jaques’s poetry is its tendency to project feeling and experience onto objects. This reification of feeling in the homebound world of tools and brica-brac invites female middle-class readers into her verse just as it instructs them in the virtues of homely good taste. The Best of Edna Jaques includes numerous poems whose title contains the word “thing”: “Golden Things,” “Universal Things,” “Familiar Things,” “I Love a Little Growing Thing,” “I Love Bright Things,” “Clean Things,” “He Noticed Little Things,” and “Things They’ll Remember.” These poems celebrate the familiar pleasures of an unthreatening natural world as well as the well-worn, handmade, or inherited objects of home and hearth. Another poem, “I Love New Things,” admires recently acquired commodities but minimizes the crassness of the purchase by juxtaposing the purchased object with natural images from the garden (1974, 14). The speaker proclaims, “I love new things-a new dress or a hat, / A little flower … a bow of this or that” (1-2). The cheerfulness of new things-“Clothes look so woebegone when they are old” (4)-has its analogue in the consolation of old things that Jaques expresses in this epigram: “Old shabby things, I know, yet in each thing / Something of them forever seems to cling” (21-22).

Jaques’s assertion of the presence of the object world as a link to the past and a means to achieve wholeness in the present is echoed in her conventional poetics, dominated by her preference for rhyming couplets and quatrains. Modelled on short Romantic lyrics, her poems assert a coherent / in moments of Wordsworthian reflection projected onto the material world but targeting an immaterial feeling, memory, or thought beyond it. There is a specific way in which her verse is sentimental, then, and it has less to do with the term’s colloquial and pejorative meanings than with its historical connection to a particular literary relationship between speaker and object. In many respects, Jaques upholds Friedrich Schiller’s classic definition of the sentimental poet: “He reflects on the impression which objects make on him, and the emotion into which he himself is transposed and into which he transposes us is based only on that reflection. The object is related here to an idea and his poetic strength rests only on this relationship” (1796, 42). Unlike the male European Romantics, however, Jaques’s reflections happen inside as she domesticates the world to celebrate the symbolic economies of the home. The Madean’s article makes a telling comparison between Jaques and an earlier popular female Canadian poet: “For Pauline Johnson’s dramatic intensity Edna substitutes the contentment of The Song My Kettle Sings” (Tyrwhitt 1952, 14). A kettle, an object symbolic of female domestic labour, best signifies Jaques’s verse and ties it to sentimental traditions of reflection. Moreover, it is not just the object world that differentiates Johnson and Jaques (not to mention modernist poets and Jaques) but the ways in which descriptions of objects relay back to constructions of subjects. Circumscribed by the secure frames of home, garden, and occasionally a white nation itself housed in a British empire, Jaques’s poetic subjectivity is whole and at home with itself. Jaques’s writing is at once sentimental and middlebrow as it appeals to tradition, faith, and continuity in its content as well as its form.

Middlebrow Distinctions

Despite this anti-modernist sentimentality, from the 1930s to the 1950s Jaques’s enormous popularity could not be wholly ignored by highbrow tastemakers. Indeed, they were registered in the Canadian cultural record on a regular basis in the annual “Poetry” section of the University of Toronto Quarterly’s “Letters in Canada.” In 1935, E.K. Brown concluded his assessment of that year’s poetry with the general rule that critics should not bother to discuss bad writing because mere mention of it may lead readers astray (1936, 367). He does make one exception, however, for Jaques’s collection My Kitchen Window, which, he assures his readers, is “mediocre” but to which “the reading public, or a substantial fraction of it, is disposed to assign a false importance” (367). Most offensive to Brown is not Jaques’s verse itself, but its reception: “her verses are an expression of the ordinary self of the Canadian middle class, that is to say, of the immense majority of Canadians” (367). Four years later, in his review of the poetry books of 1939, Brown uses the publication of Jaques’s Beside Still Waters to return to this question: “One sees why Edna Jaques is popular: she is probably our most genuine popular writer of verse. But her popularity is not a very consoling fact to anyone who would wish a literature in this country, profound and penetrating and great. She enables us to see what Canadian taste really is” (1940, 288). Brown is less unsettled by the badness of her verse than by the popularity of her bad verse.

When Northrop Frye succeeded Brown at University of Toronto Quarterly, he too could not avoid Jaques’s presence in the literary marketplace. In 1953, he damns Jaques with faint praise by referring to her as the “most skilful practitioner” of “the doggerel school” (Frye 1954, 262). In his review of The Golden Road, he contends that Jaques has so completely mastered “the central technical device of nostalgic verse, a list of reminders or stimuli, vigorously checked off one after the other” that many of her poems resemble shopping lists (263). Unlike Brown, Frye’s attention is to Jaques’s technique and tone, not her enduring popularity; he prefers the evaluative terms of “naïve,” “conservative,” “romantic,” and “nostalgic” to describe the internal features of her verse. He disregards its wide circulation or what her popularity might signal to those anxious about the state of Canadian culture in the era of the Massey Commission. Frye returns to Brown’s concern with relations between the popular and the poetic in his final 1959 poetry review for “Letters in Canada.” In an effort to summarize his approach to the difficult task of writing annual assessments of Canadian poetry, Frye observes,

there is nothing particularly “modern” about the gap between poetry and its reading public, or about the charge that poets are wilfully obscure…. In every age the envious readers-a large group of every writer’s contemporaries-have resented the humility that close attention requires, and poetry has never been popular except when it provided some kind of middle distance, by telling stories or crystallizing into proverbs and slogans. (1960, 440)

Frye lays the blame for the popular success of bad poetry at the feet of middling readers who are unwilling to submit themselves to the difficult poem or confrontations with the new. Instead, they choose works that mediate the familiar in proverbial, moralizing, and rhetorical verse. The average Canadian reader’s antipathy towards difficult or obscure poetry is cast by Frye as laziness when he concludes this argument by saying, “the reading of poetry is a leisurely occupation, and is possible only for that small minority which believes in leisure” (440). Good poetry cannot be rushed, but simple, naïve poetry can be understood at a glance. Frye seems to set aside those lowbrows for whom leisure itself is a luxury; for him, the problem of the popularity of mediocre writing in Canada is a problem of the readers of the “middle,” who may have leisure but who do not use it to read difficult poems.

The commercial success of Jaques’s verse thus represented to her academic critics much that is wrong with middle Canada. She was not read as a workingclass poet, or even as the authentic voice of the folk, but as the feminine moralizer of a self-improving and half-educated middle class. According to her critics, the reading masses threatened elite culture by poaching some of its elements in efforts at self-improvement and class mobility, both hallmarks of the middlebrow. The term middlebrow gained currency in the 1920s and 1930s in debates over the mass consumption of cultural products, particularly radio programs. One memorable definition from a 1925 issue of British Punch magazine sniped that the middlebrow “consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like” (Napper 2000, 112). The term was also associated closely with the reformist impulses of the newly-licenced BBC.’6 In the United States, “middlebrow” was used by advertisers to identify the pre-First World War consumer market and was linked to the rise in radio and cultural mass production (Napper 2000, 111-12). In their studies of Bookof-the-Month clubs in the United States, both Janice Radway and Joan Shelley Rubin excavate the debates over this term used to designate a burgeoning group of primarily female consumers who enthusiastically bought objects of cultural self-improvement for themselves and their families: encyclopedia sets, digests, five-foot long shelves of great literature, and monthly subscriptions.

Although public broadcasting emerged a decade later in Canada, the term “middlebrow” had similar currency. The movement for public broadcasting led by Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt’s Canadian Radio League in the late 1920s and early 1930s was characterized by its opponents as a group of “middle-class dogooders” trying to impose BBC-style uplifting programming on a commercial market of enjoyable light entertainment (Vipond 1992, 284). After the 1932 Radio Broadcasting Act created the CRBC (renamed the CBC in 1936), such uplifting fare became a mainstay of Canadian public radio. Jaques’s poems were frequently broadcast on CBC radio in an effort to promote Canadian authors, protect national culture, and appeal to the middle audience Brown and Frye associate so closely with her. To adopt the vocabulary of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of the field of cultural production, Jaques’s writing is a Canadian example of how the middlebrow lost the struggle for symbolic power when, in the post-Massey Report decades, highbrow culture began to be consecrated through government patronage, the expansion of higher education, and the subsequent hardening of the canon of English-Canadian literature. As Bourdieu notes, “the fundamental stake in literary struggles is the monopoly of the power to say with authority who are authorized to call themselves writers” (1993, 42). Literary legitimacy is determined by neither popularity nor profit; it is awarded by those tastemakers in the dominant position of the literary field who obtain the power to distinguish between scrapbook scribblers and profound poets.

In the Canadian modernist criticism that moved into the dominant position in the literary field, the adjectives attached to the middlebrow were invariably feminine: genteel, restrained, pious, homely. RR. Scott’s notorious satire of the Canadian Authors’ Association in his poem “The Canadian Authors Meet” exemplifies the male literary elite’s anxieties over the rise of national bodies seeking to organize a middlebrow literati, coded as female, who have meetings where “the cakes are sweet, but sweeter is the feeling” (13). At the height of Jaques’s popularity, however, Frye and Brown had to recognize that the average Canadian reader liked this kind of sentimental writing. Numerous scholars have shown how closely tied the sentimental is to traditions of women’s writing, but in Sentimental Modernism Suzanne Clark suggests that the history of sentimentalism and women’s writing is also intertwined with religious and political reform movements (23). From abolitionists to temperance advocates, to the Salvation Army, to Jaques’s own United Church of Canada, the literature of instruction has frequently adopted sentimental moralizing as its dominant mode. Although obviously connected to distinctions of social class, the phrenological vocabulary of brows derived from pseudo-scientific categories of racial differentiation shifts the terms of the debate away from purely economic class divisions to distinctions between different kinds of aesthetic production and consumption. Jonathan Rose maintains that the middlebrow “was also the direct descendent of Victorian self-improvement, produced for and by thinking people with working-class roots” (431). Notions of good citizenship and ideals of whole subjectivity are thus caught up in the reformist spirit of middlebrow culture. They are manifested in a sentimental idealization of class ascendance (represented nostalgically as the moment of childhood’s innocent pleasures) that, perhaps not surprisingly, gained wide appeal at an historical moment of widespread class declension.

Maternal Idealization

Perhaps the surest sign that Jaques’s poetry is caught up in Depression-era discourses of sentimentality, anti-modernist values of rural family life, and middlebrow ideologies of self-improvement is her valorization of motherhood. She taps into a broader movement in popular culture, from women’s cross-stitch samplers to men’s tattoos, to imbue the single word “mother” with the sacred meaning of a beatified maternal figure full of self-sacrifice and tenderness. Jaques’s poetry is replete with such images, as time and again she writes encomia or praise-poems to particular mothers as well as the state of motherhood as an abstract ideal. Her 1932 poem “Kindly Eyes (To My Mother)” follows the anaphoric repetition and inductive sequence (Frye’s shopping lists) that D’Angelo identifies as particular to greeting-card verse (Jaques 1932a, 6). Exactly half of the 30 lines begin with “She” and the six stanzas move through a series of motherly “trials” (7), including a messy spouse, poverty, and toil. From these particularities, the speaker extracts the general qualities of a saintly motherhood that keeps its compassion, femininity, and most of all faith in difficult times:

She taught us by her life serene

What faith and hope and love could mean.

The common claims of brotherhood

That riches are not always good;

She dwelt among us calm and wise

And looked at life with kindly eyes. (25-30)

This praise-poem extols anti-modernist and anti-materialist values, but another and more disturbing element of the negative response to modem commodity culture shaping Jaques’s maternal ideology is evident in her 1939 poem from Beside Still Waters, “Motherhood” (87). The speaker announces,

I am the Keeper of Life,

In my body secure;

Holding the seed of the race,

Eternal and pure.

One with the tides and the moon,

In their waxing and wane,

Paying the price of creation,

In sweating and pain.

Fashioned to mold in my body

The young of the race;

I am the earth and the sea

Reflecting His face.

Fertile and rich as the sod,

And as eager for birth,

Forever, eternally one

With the tides and the earth. (1-16)

In these images of the pregnant female body at once natural and sacred, immanent and transcendent, Jaques takes to poetic extremes the prevailing belief, held by feminists and conservatives to differing degrees, that white middleclass women have a special capacity for nurture and a responsibility to bear and raise children.

Like her friend and champion Nellie McClung, Jaques advocates social amelioration through the feminine guidance embodied in the figure of the Anglo-Saxon Christian mother. The first three lines of “Motherhood” rhyme “secure” and “pure” and bring into proximity the general maternal body and the particularity of the unmarked but clearly white “race.” As much as this poem fits with Jaques’s oeuvre in its valorization of the maternal function, it also fits with her broader glorification of British Canada as part of the wider British Empire. Indeed, the speaker of “Motherhood” can be read allegorically as the voice of a young, fertile Canada extending the reach of her mother country through childbirth in the white settler colony. This imperial ideology of fecundity shares rhetorical ground with the early twentieth-century campaign for eugenics. Jaques’s “Motherhood” is the praise-poem obverse of McClung’s In Times Like These lament about the evils of war leaving behind “the epileptic, the consumptive, the inebriate” who “stay at home, and perpetuate the race!” (17). Their logic is the same but it takes different forms according to genre: McClung’s polemic imagines the dystopian future of a degenerate race while Jaques’s encomium fantasizes the Utopian possibilities of pure motherhood.7

The sentimental appeal to anti-modernist ideals of motherhood that reappears throughout Jaques’s writing thus evokes a nostalgia for an undifferentiated white nation. Rimstead observes that, in her autobiography, Jaques imposed a “mask of unity” over a nation rife with ethnic and racial tensions (2001, 190). In her poetry, this is apparent in Jaques’s representation of prairie homesteaders as cultivators and, by extension, civilizers of an untamed western wilderness. The first poem in The Best of Edna Jaques, “Homesteaders,” emphasizes active labour in its repetition of present participles:

Pushing the frontiers further

Back with relentless hands,

Blazing the trail with a plowshare

Far in the hinterlands;

Holding fast to their birthright,

Born to the realm of toil;

Bearded, grim and unconquered,

Ragged kings of the soil. (8)

In this image of the pauper-kings of the prairies toiling to claim their “birthright,” Jaques upholds the ideology of settler colonialism and generalizes it to the nation as a whole. The poem concludes with the image of the settlers, “Holding the country’s future, / Safe in their calloused hands” (23-24). The European men who cultivate a land evacuated of Native inhabitants are metonymie of the project of British-Canadian domination of the national territory. Jaques’s regal imagery at once elevates the homesteader’s manual labour to the throne and reminds readers that they, like the subjects within the poem, are governed by a real King.

The specific dynamics of Jaques’s sentimentality, then, must be framed within the ideological commitments of a more widespread anti-modernist nostalgia for an idealized white settler past yoked to the valourization of motherhood. The popular appeal of this vision is that it smoothes out the creases in social, economic, and gender relations caused by the upheavals of the interwar years, including urbanization, mass unemployment, mechanization, and international conflicts. Jaques’s poetry serves to contain the unruly, much as she transforms the fear-inducing sublime into the domestic beautiful in “This Canada”:

Her vast dominion sweeps from sea to sea,

Yet little gardens hold the heart of me,

Small streets with houses set in tidy rows,

Patches of ground where clumps of lilac grow,

And clean white clothes upon a line to dry,

Making dear homely pictures on the sky. (7-12)

Cultivation, neatness, and cleanliness underlie Jaques’s vision of Canada at a time when the mainstream press was generating fear of foreigners, socialists, and other aliens, and highbrow poets were variously celebrating and condemning the alienating effects of modern life. Her short, controlled, and predictable poetic style frames Jaques’s ideology of stability so that the form as well as content endorse the conservation of all that is traditional, Canadian, and good.

Anti-Modernist Consumption

It is this ordering of the present through appeals to an imaginary past, and not just a vague appeal to excessive feeling, that formed Jaques’s enduring appeal to the public and her quick dismissal by the critics. Although many of her poems depict poverty and other forms of suffering, they never linger there but consistently move outwards in the final verses, in a Utopian gesture, towards a future improved by faith and God. Daily life is imbued with religious feeling throughout Jaques’s verse, and she takes this faith one step further in her BackDoor Neighbors poem, “The Words of Jesus” (1946, 64). This lyric is not a poetic meditation on the meaning of Jesus’s words but rather on their form: “The words of Jesus were such simple things, / He never clothed His thought in cult and creeds, / Just spoke of homes and bread and fireshine, / The little common run of human needs” (1-4). Typically, Jaques uses the diminutive, the domestic, and the universal in a poem that serves as much to connect the poet’s formal practice to that of Jesus as it does to celebrate her subject of religious faith; she too “clothed religion in a homespun cloak” (19). The moral centre of Jaques’s verse also grants the poetic / an anti-modernist wholeness under God as any social disruption or self-fragmentation is recuperated by the end of her poems into God’s design. In some ways, Jaques is a Canadian version of the much busier field of British popular middlebrow literature published between the wars in reaction against cultural conditions of modernity as well as highbrow works of modernism. In her study of these writers, Rosa Bracco describes their position in the middle of British culture and implies that they functioned as an arrière-garde: “unlike formulaic, mass produced lowbrow writing and innovative, avant-garde highbrow works, middlebrow fiction and poetry served between the wars to maintain the tradition and values of consecrated nineteenth-century writers and ultimately reaffirmed historical continuity and the coherence of faith” (1993, 12). Jaques thus fits into a larger pattern in which the sentimental poetic speaker is troubled but never dislocated, wise but rarely critical.8

Ironically, the sentimental, anti-modernist, and middlebrow elements of Jaques’s poetry facilitated its commodification rather than staving it off; it was the domesticity of her verse that made it so marketable. As much as the rhetoric and thematics of her poetry removed Jaques from the centre of the modernist literary field of power and erased her from dominant cultural memory, the economic success of her publications contributed to her forgetting, even if this goes largely unmentioned in her critical devaluation. Jaques’s exclusion from national literary culture by virtue of her commercial success was the silent partner to the more vocal negative assessments and parodies of the quality of her poetry. Jaques’s fate thus confirms Bourdieu’s theory that the literary field operates under a logic of “winners lose” and “losers win.” According to Bourdieu, the field of cultural production often reverses the logic of the economic world by granting long-term legitimacy to those works with limited market success (1993, 7-8). Literary works that achieve economic power, such as Jaques’s, are denied recognition as works of art by tastemakers and critics; short-term financial winners are ultimately losers in the long-term competition for symbolic power.

The force of this logic is apparent in the processes through which Depression-era writing has entered the national literary field. The most often cited literary landmark of the 1930s is the poetry anthology New Provinces, featuring the work of six male modernist poets from eastern Canada-among them some of Jaques’s most vocal detractors-rebelling against an earlier aesthetic perceived as feminine and Victorian. The critical weight accorded this volume of poems by Robert Finch, Leo Kennedy, A.M. Klein, EJ. Pratt, RR. Scott, and A.J.M. Smith testifies to its status in a narrative of twentieth-century Canadian literary history imagined as a teleological progression from modernism to postmodernism. Bourdieu’s theory that “losers win” is particularly relevant to this anthology, which only made it into print because the contributors raised $200 of their own to give the publisher (Gnarowski 1976, xx). As Scott noted in a letter to Pratt over a year after its publication, this anthology sank to the bottom of the literary marketplace:

I have now something to report as to the sales of NEW PROVINCES. From May 9th, 1936 to March 31st, 1937 the magnificent number of 82 copies was sold, of which I purchased 10. This despite the fact that we have had excellent reviews from the only people in this country who may be considered serious critics. So I take it that we do not retire to a life of poetry and ease, (quoted in Gnarowski 1976, xxi)

Jaques may never have been able to retire on her royalties, but she gained profits rather than debts from her writing to an extent never experienced by the canonized male poets of Canadian modernism.

Despite internal divisions and quarrels between this modernist male coterie, their collective position at the centre of the field of cultural production but on the margins of the economic field guaranteed them longevity, whereas Jaques’s relative economic power could not compensate for, indeed it even ensured, her marginal literary status. Internal competitions for symbolic power within the modernist Canadian literary field may have pitted opposing ideological positions against each other, but all sides, whether leftist or liberal, nativists or cosmopolitans, agreed that Jaques represented the status quo of bourgeois decadence, literary mediocrity, and readerly unsophistication. In her study of British and American women writers, Clark seeks to restore the “sentimental within modernism” in order to resuscitate “the sense of great struggle over subjectivity that the resulting contradictions precipitated” (1991, 4). I want to suggest that Jaques’s historical synchronicity with the formal experiments and new subjects of modern writing in Canada can be usefully thought of as an example of how popular and female writers spoke to an audience beyond the reach of highbrow literary movements. In Bourdieu’s terms, the sentimental is one form in competition with others for symbolic power, but its ideological attachment to the feminine, both aesthetically and economically, guaranteed it would lose that struggle in a masculinist literary culture.

Moreover, the mass production of Jaques’s poetry and its status as an interested economic commodity rather than a disinterested aesthetic artefact has added to the gendered devaluation of her work. Veronica Strong-Boag describes the feminization of shopping in Canada following the First World War as the traditional venues of catalogues and local merchants began to be supplemented and sometimes replaced by supermarkets, chain stores, and department stores (1998, 128). In the American context, Radway extends this phenomenon to cultural shopping when she observes that, in an era of increased female spending power, “the commodity … whether it was a car, a refrigerator, or a new gramophone, at least potentially threatened to erase the distinctions whereby whiteness, maleness, and a monopoly on both property and print had been constituted as the tacit conditions of privilege. The threat was even more pronounced when that commodity was a mass-produced and widely distributed book” (1994, 887). Jaques’s status as outsider to the literary centre of power, then, has as much to do with the large-scale, female, and middle-class consumption and exchange of her poems as it does with her nostalgic idealization of everyday life. Her popularity signified the growing importance of the domestic economy in the marketplace as her readers bought into two traditionally masculine, elitist, and eastern Canadian spheres: property and print. Once purchased, the exchanges of poems between women extended this line of consumption along the axes of gender and class. This intersection of reading and subjectivity suggests that literary consumption can be as culturally significant as literary production. The form of her verse, not just its content, and the money she made, not just her folkiness, combined to position Jaques beyond the borders of literary modernism as well as national cultural memory.

The sympathy and confidence underlying Jaques’s sentimentalism set her apart from the elite poets of the same period, yet she was not shut out entirely from institutional approval. Jaques’s verse was broadcast on the CBC and adopted into Canadian school curricula so that, for many adult readers and much to the chagrin of the academy, her style of verse maintained a certain authority. She received letters of recognition from Buckingham Palace and Mamie Elsenhower, and numerous accolades from Canadian Clubs and Women’s Institutes Qaques 1977, 82). Her war poetry-a genre she began after the First World War when she wrote an internationally popular response to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” titled “In Flanders Now”-captured the shift towards patriotic sentimentality but also the pacifist anti-modernism of the early 1940s. In 1941, the Toronto branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association (CAA) sponsored a national competition “to let the poetic genius of Canada and of the Canadian people sound a spiritual challenge to the brutality of enemy despots and tyrants” and published the results as Voices of Victory: Representative Poetry of Canada in War-Time (CAA 1941, v). Jaques did not win the competition (that honour went to Sir Charles G.D. Roberts), but her poem “The Lord of London” appeared alongside entries from a cross-section of English-Canadian modernist and anti-modernist poets, including Arthur S. Bourinot, Audrey Alexandra Brown, Charles Bruce, Katherine Hale, Leo Kennedy, Dorothy Livesay, EJ. Pratt, and Duncan Campbell Scott. The pressures of wartime and the collective anti-fascist effort brought together an unlikely group across generations, political beliefs, and poetic practices. At this moment, Jaques’s sentimental antimodernism found an event for which it was one appropriate response, while her middlebrow audience find themselves repositioned as a national resource in the state rhetoric of a vital home front. Jaques was thus not devalued by all positions of symbolic power, especially when her output and its consumption could serve national interests, but she was and continues to be relegated beyond the borders of modernist literary culture at the centre of the English-Canadian canon. For her, however, being acknowledged by official institutions such as the education system, British royalty, and the White House had far more appeal than receiving critical praise or canonization by a masculinist elite culture she constructed as other to herself and her readers.

The cultural forgetting of Edna Jaques that has relegated her to modernism’s periphery thus obscures her position as a central productive figure at a time when the national literary field began to harden according to principles of taste that were inflected by gender, region, and class. My point here has not been to recover Jaques’s poetry into the canon of English-Canadian literature. Rather, I think her poetry and the differences in its reception across the cultural field in mid-twentieth century Canada can help us to understand what is at stake in the struggles for symbolic power that form and reform the field of national literature. At the very least, interrogating the position of Edna Jaques in English-Canadian cultural memory suggests that anti-modernism is a constituent element of modernism, just as middlebrow sentimentality is a spectre that haunts the highbrow modernist. Carole Gerson concludes her article on Jaques with a challenge:

the Canadian literary academy needs to recognize the extent to which it continues to be shaped by its modernist past, and to acknowledge that its acceptance of the literary representation of others-including women, Native Peoples, French-Canadians, members of the working class, popular poets, non-whites, and various combinations thereof-often occur in texts whose stance or authorship reduces the threat of their otherness. (1 992, 70)

For Gerson, Jaques’s exclusion from the national literary canon is a function of her aesthetic difference from consecrated modernist poetics. At the same time, however, Jaques cannot enter the literary canon because she is too familiar. Her rhetoric and her subjects are repeated everywhere in mass-produced modern daily life, from textbooks to greeting cards to advertising. She is not the unknown other. She is the uncanny self whose very homeliness is unhomely and who must therefore be repudiated as sentimental, disdained as middlebrow, and relegated to a forgotten middle distance.

Copyright Trent University Winter 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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