REALIGNING CHRISTINA STEAD
Michael Ackland argues for a ‘Red Stead’
What were the ideas that captured Christina Stead’s imagination and impelled her writing?
This question, after the reprinting of numerous letters and novels, as well as the reissuing of a massive, standard biography, should by now be thoroughly answered. But it isn’t. Certainly the crucial dates and main stations of her existence have been established, as have the names and backgrounds of those with whom she was intimate. In many respects, however, she remains, as the title of a recent monograph proclaimed, ‘the enigmatic Christina Stead’. 1
Stead herself, of course, contributed to this situation, both by spending the forty most productive years of her life as an expatriate and, during her last ten years in Australia, by answering questions evasively and deliberately upsetting expectations. Despite her stark fictional portrayals of female oppression, for instance, she refused to be enrolled among supporters of women’s liberation. On other occasions she cultivated an impression of disorientation and indecision: for example, in May 1976, she gave Meanjin‘s Nina and Clem Christesen a copy of her novella collection The Puzzleheaded Girl, inscribing it, ‘Love to Nina and Clem from a puzzleheaded Christina Stead.’2
Her death in 1983 was followed by a steady stream of major monographs and articles that enrolled her in a burgeoning counter-canon of neglected feminist authors and celebrated her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, as an unflinching anatomy of ‘the political powers of patriarchy’.3 That Stead at the time of its composition was living through Roosevelt’s New Deal and was deeply involved in communist activities is usually passed over as non-essential, as is the possibility that then – and throughout her career – she was interested in very different contemporary issues and engaged intellectually with the radical politics of the Left.
Stead’s commitment to communism has been regarded as an impediment to her literary standing and consequently downplayed. The trend began with the reissuing of The Man Who Loved Children in 1965 with an influential prefatory essay by Randall Jarrell which praised the book as an unforgettable, rarely equalled portrayal of family life. Other reviewers concurred – with the exception of Jose Yglesias, who claimed that ‘Marxist ideas … are inseparable from Stead’s literary vision’.4 They are ‘what organises her emotions and talent, what lends tension and drive to her creative process’ and what ultimately ‘has delayed her recognition’. Speaking of the novel itself, he observed that, ‘although it may be possible to ignore this now, as Jarrell does in his essay, it was, consciously or unconsciously, impossible in 1941′.
To one correspondent, Stead disingenuously alleged surprise at these remarks: ‘I have just been proclaimed a “Marxian muse” to everyone’s astonishment, my own not least’ (1993, p. 612).5 But to one of her closest communist friends in Manhattan, Stanley Burnshaw, she was more candid: ‘I do like the Jose Yglesias review very much, it is pertinent and canny’ (1993, p. 612) – an acknowledgement generally overlooked by later commentary on the novel.
Subsequently, too, selected phrases – such as her avowed weariness with interminable political discussions – have been quoted to support the notion of an author disenchanted with politics, whereas such remarks usually signalled Stead’s impatience with politicos oblivious to literary or human issues.
In fact, during the 1930s, Stead resembled Catherine Baguenault, the heroine of her first completed novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) – described as ‘a woman of revolution’, with relentless energy for proletarian causes. As fascism grew in strength, Stead hastened to the intellectual barricades. In June 1935 she attended the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris, then found her way to Spain as a supportive Leftist onlooker, until she wisely fled the country once the Franco-led uprising began in July 1936. During the ensuing decade in New York she was closely associated with the Communist Party. For a time she was a literary editor of its cultural magazine, New Masses, and a New York board member of the League of American Writers. She socialised in communist circles and often lived within easy walking distance of the party headquarters near Union Square.
That the case for a ‘Red Stead’ is less well known than it deserves is largely the result of Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead which, since its publication in 1993, has been recognised as the authoritative biography. Rowley was offered and took the rare opportunity to revisit her own classic a decade later, so that in 2007 it was reissued as a ‘new edition’ by Melbourne University Press and resumed its role as the standard source on Stead. Its claim to newness rests, however, not on further insights, nor on the incorporation of a decade and half of intervening Stead scholarship,6 but mainly on the deletion of approximately twenty per cent of the original text to create a tighter, more reader-friendly narrative.7
As justification for this lack of substantive emendation, one could argue that Rowley’s reading of Stead has been largely unchallenged. A major dissenting voice (unacknowledged in the new edition) has been that of Anne Pender, who claims that Rowley’s psychoanalytical approach misrepresents certain key relationships and ‘obliterates some of the essential qualities of Stead’s art’.8 A biographical concern with authorial traumas and emotional preoccupations has also deflected attention away from a full examination of Stead’s lifelong interest in the socialist movement. Moreover, the organisation of the biography in loosely connected subdivisions, often of two pages or less, made – and makes – possible the presentation of an array of vignettes about diverse aspects of her existence without inter-relating or analysing them. Disconnected, unexamined or underplayed data (and many of Stead’s intersections with socialism fall into this category) is easily lost so that overall the biography offers a carefully considered emotional, rather than intellectual, history of its subject.
As evidence of this, and of the accumulated effect of these omissions, I wish to examine briefly three representative instances of Rowley’s handling of Stead’s exposure to socialism: the first from her formative years in Australia, the next from her period of fervid conversion to Marxist-Leninism and, finally, the neglected issue of the putatively Marxist content of The Man Who Loved Children.
The biography’s shortcomings as intellectual history emerge clearly from its opening sections dealing with Stead’s early life in Australia. Typically resonant phrases from her autobiographical sketches, such as ‘A Waker and Dreamer’ (which describes her father David Stead), are quoted without probing or contextualising commentary. That David was, in his daughter’s words, ‘a state socialist [who] knew little about socialism [and] believed in “evolution not revolution”‘9 is acknowledged, but his and Stead’s relationship to local socialist theorising is not explored. Neither is the way in which Stead’s early years proved to be an intellectual apprenticeship for her later conversion.
Rowley describes David’s attempt to establish a state trawling fleet, but leaves uninterrogated Stead’s statement that ‘for five lively years we had nothing but trawling and fishing talk’ (p. 490). Stead’s claim seems unlikely, given that the years in question stretched from 1915 to 1920, and so embraced such epochal events as the divisive conscription debates, the Bolshevik Revolution and the disastrous ALP split – a matter of some consequence to David as an appointee of the Holman New South Wales Labor government.
Similarly, the following telltale passage from the manuscript of ‘A Waker and Dreamer’ is quoted by Rowley as an example of difficulties that dogged David’s managerial work, without exploration of how the experience contributed to Stead’s political education (not to mention that of her father) nor of how she later came to view it. Stead wrote:
My father, a staunch Labour man, who believed in the people, in the good of man, attempted to break the strike by getting helpers from the office and shops, from our family and among friends, to scale and gut, to save the fish which lay then at the docks. There was great enthusiasm I remember: he was satisfied with this activity and everyone ‘pitching in’, ‘lending a hand’ (one of his favourite jolly ideas) (1993, p. 25; 2007, p. 21).
The remembered incident is both vivid and troubling. Father, in fact, is acting as a rat and scab, but Stead’s prose recasts strike-breaking as a ‘jolly’ family pastime. A morally suspect, ideologically damnable and physically dangerous activity excites, readers are asked to believe, ‘great enthusiasm’.
Not satisfied, Stead finally deleted the passage altogether.
What she learned and felt as a result of David’s controversial, five-year-long engagement will probably never be known. But many decades later it was still sufficiently embarrassing to merit a blanketing reticence which suggests that her famous remark that ‘they just made an etching of me; I am deep-bitten’ was apparently applicable to far more than the emotional scars left by her father’s acrimonious second marriage.10
Also largely uninterrogated in Rowley’s account are Stead’s earliest encounters with communism in Australia. Rowley reports that ‘Christina Stead had respect for her progressive history teacher, Miss Barnes, who had the girls discussing the Communist Manifesto‘ (1993, p. 39; 2007, p. 35); yet the biography’s emphasis falls on the patriotism of the period and Stead’s response to it. Among the many crucial unasked questions about the decade preceding the future novelist’s voyage to London are why she aspired to write a book on The Lives of Obscure Men, and whether the political scenes in her first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, are based on fact or first-hand experience.
According to Rowley’s version, Stead’s other significant antipodean engagement with radical thought came in extramural classes, conducted by the fledgling academic Keith Duncan. But Duncan ‘saw himself’, Rowley explains, ‘as a Leftwing liberal, not a communist’ (1993, p. 59; 2007, p. 52), someone who merely promoted general intellectual ferment rather than a specific ideology. In fact, Stead’s involvement with the radical Left was deeper than Rowley – or most commentators on this novel – have acknowledged. As Stuart Macintyre has noted, Stead’s discontent led her into ‘the inner-city milieu of the communists': not only is Seven Poor Men of Sydney ‘set during the seamen’s strike of 1925′,11 but its characters attest to direct acquaintance with such local socialists as Guido Baracchi and his partner Neura who, with their German political experiences and modernist tastes, provided the models for Fulke and Marion Folliot.12 Rowley makes no reference to this involvement in antipodean socialist circles, and so is spared the difficult but tantalising tasks of separating the ‘overlay of later onto earlier politics’ in the novel,13 and describing Stead’s ideological state before her embarkation for England on 28 March 1928.
Equally disappointing is Rowley’s account of Stead’s political formation during the fractious 1930s. Typically the biography seems more intent on laying bare – or at least speculating about – what was happening in Stead’s heart rather than in her head. By 1930 at the latest Stead, under the tutelage of her lover, the well-versed theorist William J. Blake, had entered the Marxist-Leninist fold. In a letter of 24 November, for instance, she scoffs like an old hand at ‘the regular yearly rumour … that Stalin has been assassinated’, dismissing this as a strategy of ailing European states that ‘need a little cheering by false rumours’.14 Communist doctrine is presented as unassailable, and Stead rejoices at the fact that ‘Soviet Russia has put itself into a position to frighten the whole of Europe in so short a time’.
Rowley decided against publishing such testimonials to the convert’s fervour and, when faced with a long article by Stead in Left Review on the 1935 Writers’ Congress, observes merely that ‘Stead’s report on the congress … is the most emphatic printed statement she would ever make about the political responsibility of writers’ (1993, pp. 172-3; 2007, p. 157), before adding melioratingly: ‘Certain ideas and phrases in Stead’s nine-page piece sound like Bill Blech [as Blake was known before he anglicised his name]; he probably helped her with the article’ (1993, p. 173). The issue of Stead’s political credo, unambiguously emblazoned on every page of the report, is neatly side-stepped, and the possibility foregrounded that its communist rhetoric could be attributable to Blake’s convictions rather than Stead’s. In the new edition, the account of the report is reduced from almost two pages to less than half a page. The few snippets of Stead’s clichéd but fervent phrases, quoted originally, are omitted, together with her enthusiastic and highly revealing account both of the participants and the proceedings. The scene, in short, is washed clean of its red tincture. Any sense of where Stead stood intellectually disappears along with the vivid imagery her commitment inspired (she writes, for instance, of the doomed bourgeoisie: ‘we hear the last swish of the last vertebra of the dinosaur’s tail as he breathes his vegetarian last in the antediluvian grass’).15 We lose the hints of her Stalinist allegiance, as well as her hopeful enrolment among committed writers who ‘decidedly believed they were cohabiting with the future’ (p. 456).
Nor does Rowley investigate the extent to which Stead as a writer attempted to realise this call for ‘political responsibility’. The evidence, however, is glaringly obvious. Her novels written in the 1930s read like a catalogue of stock Marxist-Leninist themes: the conditions and growing class consciousness of the proletariat (Seven Poor Men of Sydney); the struggle between bourgeois and revolutionary mentalities (The Beauties and the Furies); the dark machination of international financiers (House of All Nations); the insidious threat posed by a Roosevelt-like populist and demagogue who claims to have only his people/his children’s interests at heart and mimics key elements of a socialist program (The Man Who Loved Children). Rowley, however, comprehensively downplays the significance of the book’s historical setting and political references, insisting instead that this story of the Pollit family is such a thinly disguised sketch of Stead’s adolescence that its writing amounted to therapy: ‘The memories came flooding back. She slept badly. She raged. She wept. Among all that masonry, she was effectively undertaking her own psychoanalysis’ (1993, p. 258; 2007, p. 228). According to Rowley, the original story was transferred to the America of the 1930s solely to increase its marketability at the insistence of Stead’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, and it is set amidst the second New Deal because that was the America the author knew firsthand since ‘unlike Bill Blake, she was no historical novelist’ (1993, p. 261; 2007, p. 230).
This reading deprives Stead of intellectual and creative agency, leaving her curiously ‘tied [...h]amstrung’ and emotionally ‘ligated’ to her father, ‘even at the other side of the world’ (1993, p. 263; 2007, p. 232). That other interpretations could and should be made of Stead’s career and output is, I hope, abundantly clear.
Stead was forthright about her strong political conviction to those who knew her best. She readily acknowledged being too far to the Left for the taste of many, and poured scorn on the irredeemably self-centred bourgeoisie, such as the American public: ‘they seem to think it is fair enough for these people [Germans and Russians] to fight it out, they hate Hitler but neither one side nor the other means a thing to them; it is all sub-Yankee’. She was scathing about the morally and intellectually moribund state of her host country: ‘Such a weak, soft middleclass, has one foot in the grave and one on a banana-peel. They can’t fight anything, so the first gangster who comes along will have them all on their knees.’16 Roosevelt presumably was one potential candidate for this part – or some other fair deceiver like her own Sam Pollit.
Stead, then, was interested in far more than ‘the politics of patriarchy’, and although this interpretative approach has helped resurrect her name from literary obscurity, it has unduly narrowed the intellectual scope of her work. So, too, does the standard biography in its original and new form. It offers no coherent picture of Stead’s intellectual world, and is frequently misleading on the nature and extent of her socialist commitment. One of its central contentions is that Stead’s ‘commitment was to her writing, not politics’ (1993, p. 254; 2007, p. 223), as if the two were discrete and separate spheres, rather than interrelated and mutually nourishing.
Stead followed the familiar twentieth century trajectory from a socialist apprenticeship to whole-hearted conversion to communism and its contemporary embodiment in the Stalinist state – and this places her among a sizeable group of local and overseas writers whose careers await reassessment. Rowley’s vision of Stead as an author passionately driven to create characters – ‘anger fuelled her creative fires’ – (1993, p. 279; 2007, p. 247) may in time yield to one of a writer at least as interested in her work’s informing ideas. Stead had, as she remarked of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, been at pains to ‘really put some gristle’ in it.17 The same might be said about her subsequent novels as well.
1. Teresa Petersen, The Enigmatic Christina Stead: A Provocative Re-reading, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2001.
Michael Ackland is a Reader in English at Monash University and the author of Henry Handel Richardson: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 2004).