Editing Modernism in Canada


July 2, 2011

Two Steps Toward Digital Editions of Wyndham Lewis’s Canadian Works

Wyndham Lewis—the Canadian-born modernist painter, writer, critic, pamphleteer, etc.—is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. Two examples should suffice to make the point: Lewis’s work is the highlight of a major Vorticist exhibition at the Tate Britain this summer; and his first (and, to my mind, best) novel, Tarr, has recently been issued in the Oxford World’s Classics. That this renewed attention should be focused on his earliest work, however, is indicative of a lamentable tendency to concentrate on Lewis’s early activities as an avant-garde provocateur and to ignore a fascinating period of his later career—one of central interest to the study of Canadian modernism: the time he spent in Canada during the second world war.

Lewis spent the entirety of the period 1939-1945 in North America, living mostly in Toronto and Windsor. He published one book in Canada—Anglosaxony: A League That Works (Ryerson Press, 1941)—and planned another, which he published on his return to England, America and Cosmic Man (1948). Both books demonstrate an important shift in Lewis’s political thought, from the strongly-advocated nationalism of the early to mid thirties towards an equally adamant espousal of internationalism. In Anglosaxony, Lewis praises the “flexible,” “non-absolutist,” and “rootless” character of North American citizenship (29). He develops this in America and Cosmic Man, where he describes North America as “a laboratory for the manufacture of Cosmic Man” (201-2), the “perfectly eclectic, non-national, internationally-minded creature” (203) he takes as his ideal citizen.

Neither of these works has received the attention it deserves. The case is particularly acute for Anglosaxony, which Thomas Dilworth describes in The Talented Intruder as “virtually unobtainable” (159). The book was printed in a tiny edition in 1941, which sold so poorly that the majority of copies were pulped. Lewis produced a revised edition in 1941, in which he attempted to reflect the rapidly-changing political situation. Because of the poor sales of the first edition, however, it was never printed (the manuscript is available in PDF format, however, on the website of the Wyndham Lewis Society.)

It was with a view to remedying this situation that I attended DEMiC at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in early June. I participated in the Text Encoding Fundamentals class, where my goals were (1) to learn the TEI encoding procedures by which I could make the first edition of Anglosaxony available in a digital edition and (2) to learn more advanced coding techniques that would allow for the production of an edition reflecting Lewis’s unpublished revisions to this first edition. With much help from my instructors and classmates, I now have the encoding knowledge that will eventually allow the reader of a digital Anglosaxony to view the text in its original 1941 edition, to see it as it would have appeared in a revised second edition, or to see a version that registers the differences between the two editions.

Anglosaxony and America and Cosmic Man demonstrate the extent to which Lewis was influenced by his period of residence in North America—their celebration of multiculturalism and internationalism result directly from is observations of life in Canada and the United States. But they do not register the enormous influence that Lewis exerted on Canada—in particular, on the development of Canadian Modernism. Scholarship is only beginning to explore the full scope of this influence. In The Talented Intruder, Thomas Dilworth provocatively claims, “[b]y crossing the Atlantic in 1939, Lewis brought Canada into the history of literary modernism” (157). In his forthcoming Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations, Gregory Betts of Brock University devotes a chapter to what he calls the “Canadian Vorticists,” a community of Lewis-inspired Canadian modernists that includes such influential figures as Marshall McLuhan, Sheila Watson, and Wilfred Watson.

I began to sketch the outlines of Lewis’s relationship with Canada in an article for The Walrus in October 2010. A few weeks ago—in late June—I pursued my research by presenting on an EMiC-sponsored panel devoted to Sheila Watson and Marshall McLuhan at the 2011 convention of the Media Ecology Association at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. This panel, organized by Paul Hjartarson and Kristin Fast of U of A, gave me an opportunity to advance my argument that Sheila Watson (who wrote her dissertation on Lewis) and Marshall McLuhan (a friend of Lewis’s in Windsor who drew heavily on Lewis’s work) should be regarded as Lewis’s “ideal readers”: that they were not merely influenced by Lewis, but were able to extract the best from his style and ideas, and thus to turn him into an influence on Canadian letters and society.

The conference also put me in touch with a network of scholars who are actively exploring the importance of Lewis’s Canadian works to the development of Canadian Modernism. A fascinating paper by Elena Lamberti of the University of Bologna discussed the links between Lewis’s America and Cosmic Man and McLuhan’s 1954 Counterblast (itself a response to Lewis’s 1914 Blast.) At another EMiC-sponsored panel on the relationship between McLuhan and Wilfred Watson (who once began a dramatic adaptation of Lewis’s The Apes of God), Gregory Betts of Brock dealt extensively with America and Cosmic Man and presented a number of illuminating connections with McLuhan’s ideas. In a post-conference workshop, I was able to discuss my work with Linda Morra of Bishop’s, Paul Tiessen of Wilfred Laurier, and Wayne DeFehr of the University of Alberta—the other presenters at the EMiC-sponsored panels—who provided me with numerous leads to pursue in my work on the influence of Lewis’s Canadian texts. I’m pleased to say that I will be collaborating with this group of scholars on a book that will explore the network of influence between Sheila Watson, Wilfred Watson, and Marshall McLuhan in the context of Canadian Modernism. I’m even more pleased to say that this group has understood the crucial role of Wyndham Lewis in this network, and that the book will contribute to promoting understanding of this fascinating relationship.

It was a wonderfully productive June, in which I took major steps in my research: first learning the fundamentals of text encoding at DEMiC that will allow me to make Anglosaxony available to the growing community of scholars interested in Lewis’s Canadian works; and second attending the EMiC-sponsored panels at the Media Ecology Association’s 2011 conference, and discussing my ideas with prominent members of this very community. I owe enormous thanks to the Editing Modernism in Canada project for both.

Adam Hammond, University of Toronto

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