The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Sheila Watson: Essays on her Works edited by Joseph Pivato
Counterblasting Canada: Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson edited by Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, and Kristine Smitka

Reviewed by Kait Pinder

Joseph Pivato, ed.

Sheila Watson: Essays on her Works. Guernica, 2015.

248 pp.



Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, and Kristine Smitka, eds.

Counterblasting Canada: Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson. University of Alberta Press, 2016.



As Mary G. Hamilton notes in her “Brief Biography of Sheila Watson,” “[p]ossessed of a brilliant eclectic mind, teacher, writer, editor, mentor Sheila Watson was the literary mother figure to such disparate Canadian writers as bpNichol, Robert Kroetsch, Michael Ondaatje and Rudy Wiebe” (Pivato 23). Watson’s influence is not limited to this list of men of Canadian letters. As one of the great matriarchs of Canadian literature in the twentieth century, Watson, more than others of her generation, has never really fallen out of critical favour. Two recent collections of essays—Joseph Pivato’s Sheila Watson: Essays on her Works and Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, and Kristine Smitka’s Counterblasting Canada: Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson—continue to strengthen Watson’s reputation as a central figure of Canadian modernism and, more importantly, point to new grounds on which we can mark Watson’s achievement and influence. In particular, both of these collections pay welcome attention to Watson’s short stories, first novel, and critical writing—works that have long been overshadowed by her best-known and canonical novel, The Double Hook.

Like George Bowering’s 1985 collection of essays, Sheila Watson and the Double Hook, Joseph Pivato’s Sheila Watson: Essays on Her Works includes a short biography of Watson, reprinted essays from some of Watson’s best critics, and excerpts from Watson’s interviews and essays. Pivato’s collection updates the focus of Bowering’s book to include more recent and new writing on The Double Hook as well as Watson’s other works of fiction. Pivato also adds illuminating personal reflections on Watson by some of her students and a bibliography of Watson’s works and criticism on them. Pivato’s collection will introduce new readers of Watson to her life and works, and to many of the conversations her critics have had about them in the decades since Bowering’s collection. Pivato’s opening essay, “Scholarship on Sheila Watson,” is especially helpful in this regard. 

While the collection includes new essays on Watson, the strongest essays on her work are those that have been reprinted from various Canadian journals. For example, Glenn Willmott’s “The Nature of Modernism in Deep Hollow Creek” remains the most insightful reading of Watson’s first novel. In an astute editorial move, Pivato has made this essay—about the novel Watson wrote in the 1930s and did not publish until 1992—the first scholarly analysis his reader encounters. This placement subtly resituates the relationship between The Double Hook and Deep Hollow Creek and briefly allows the earlier novel to escape the long shadow of The Double Hook. Pivato has also included Margaret Morriss’s “‘No Short Cuts’: The Evolution of The Double Hook,” which draws on archival material to trace carefully the famous changes Watson made to The Double Hook before its publication in 1959. Sergiy Yakovenko’s new essay, “The Power of Silence: The Genotext in Sheila Watson’s ‘Rough Answer’” broadens the collection’s scope and participates in the growing critical conversation surrounding Watson’s mythic and modernist short stories. Despite the strengths of the essays included in this collection, however, it is surprising that the collection lacks an essay—such as Marlene Goldman’s “Ethics, Spectres, and Formalism in Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook”––that would introduce readers to the recent ethical and post-colonial criticism about The Double Hook and Watson’s challenging representation there of the apparent loss of both indigenous and settler rituals and traditions.

Overall, Pivato’s collection will be a useful resource for a reader first encountering Watson’s work. The collection situates Watson’s work within both its critical reception and Watson’s own life as a “teacher, writer, editor, [and] mentor.” The essays here portray Watson as an integral Canadian modernist whose work reaches far beyond regional and national borders, and whose influence stretches throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. 

If the best essays in Pivato’s collection give an account of where scholarship on Watson has been, Counterblasting Canada announces the multiple exciting directions that it may go in the twenty-first century. Focused on the creative and critical relationships between Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson, Counterblasting Canada places Sheila Watson within a group of avant-garde Canadian writers. Watson’s place within this group is clear: she wrote her doctoral dissertation on Wyndham Lewis; this project was supervised by Marshall McLuhan; and she was, of course, married to the poet and playwright Wilfred Watson. This impressive collection delivers on the promise set out by its editors in their introduction: situating Lewis, McLuhan, and the Watsons within “a new context” in part now available through their recently opened archives, the book offers “a series of radical new readings and interpretations of their work” and “demonstrate[s] the importance of the intellectual concerns that link these key figures of twentieth-century Canadian culture” (xix).

Framed by two essays about McLuhan’s relationship to the University of Toronto and its English department, the collection is organized into three sections—“The Art of Being Read,” “The Antennae of the Race,” and “Art and Anti-Environment”—which respectively examine McLuhan’s, Sheila Watson’s and Wilfred Watson’s reading of Lewis, McLuhan’s ideas about art in the modern world, and McLuhan’s and Lewis’s theories of art and culture through the lens of Sheila Watson’s fiction. This collection is a rich and inspiring resource for scholars who are interested in almost any part of Canadian culture touched by this quartet’s “vorticist blast” (xix). From Elena Lamberti’s discussion of the way in which Watson and McLuhan “learnt from Lewis […] to imagine their old/new nation as part of a more global scenario” (48) to Adam Welch’s study of General Idea as “creators of anti-environments to the pervasive American ground” (88) and Kristine Smitka’s analysis of visual media in Watson’s short story “Rumble Seat,” each essay in this collection demonstrates the importance of these figures through new and complex readings of their work. 

Although the topic of the book may suggest a line of influence that leads unwaveringly from Lewis through McLuhan to the Watsons, the contributors and editors have been careful to emphasize the creative transformation of ideas as they were exchanged, criticized, and taken up by these four thinkers. Adam Hammond’s “Excellent Internationalists: How Sheila Watson and Marshall McLuhan Made Wyndham Lewis Influential” counters a simplified idea of influence by looking not at “the way that Lewis impacted Canada and Canadian artists” but at “how Canada and Canadian artists impacted Lewis” (60). This essay compellingly demonstrates McLuhan’s and Sheila Watson’s creative and critical reception of Lewis—characterized in Watson’s case as “resisting and reworking” (75)—and concludes that this pair of Canadians took “what was best in [Lewis’s] North American internationalist thought and synethsiz[ed] it with his earlier modernist style” (61). Dean Irvine’s “Sheila Watson, Wyndham Lewis, and Men without Art” similarly exemplifies the innovative readings of Watson’s work that attention to her own readings of Lewis and McLuhan open up. Irvine elucidates Watson’s “incisive and thorough critique of expressionism” across her oeuvre. This essay impressively covers Watson’s critical writing, two novels, and her collection of short stories, and so embodies not only the energetic reconsideration of Watson’s work through the lens of her relationship with both Lewis and McLuhan, but also the comprehensive critical payoffs of such a reconsideration. Here, alongside a discussion of The Double Hook, Watson’s less-known works can be seen as part of her larger critique of expressionism. Together with the other critical essays about Sheila Watson in this collection, Irvine’s essay helps to announce a new period in scholarship on Watson: after this collection, Watson’s critics will find it easier to lend her lesser-known works the kind of critical attention The Double Hook has received in the past.

Reading Counterblasting Canada one has the impression that this quartet—Lewis, McLuhan, and Wilfred and Sheila Watson—and their thinking about culture touched just about every discipline and genre available in the mid to late twentieth century. Perhaps the most unexpected and exciting revelation of this book, however, is the relevance of these thinkers to the situation of the liberal arts in the twenty-first century. McLuhan’s intertwining of the avant-garde and the classroom, his vision of “an avant-garde pedagogy” (21) as Gregory Betts lays it out in his excellent essay, may provide an inspiring model of the classroom for professors and students today, who, like McLuhan, desire an education and a classroom capable of “breaking down the division between art and life by creating an immersive total environment” (35). Leon Surette’s recollection of McLuhan as a professor who challenged his conservative colleagues in the University of Toronto’s English department in the early 1960s similarly reminds us that the professor’s role as cultural “irritant” (15) begins within the institution in which he is housed. Sheila Watson: Essays on Her Works also presents Watson as an inspiring and rigorous teacher. As Caterina Edwards recalls, Watson was a mentor who “took [her students] seriously” but who “did not praise” (Pivato 174). As the decrease in enrollment in liberal arts programmes and the crisis in academic labour across the country forces us to rethink our roles as teachers and cultural critics, we would do well to turn back to Watson and McLuhan for guidance—especially on how to create classrooms that facilitate “the disruptive power of art” (Betts 22) and to inspire new students to take up the critical and creative work of cultural curatorship. Finally, then, these collections not only open up new critical conversations about Watson and others, they remind us that our provocative predecessors are also mentors who might help us reimagine the liberal arts in the neo-liberal university.


Kait Pinder received her PhD in Canadian literature from McGill University in 2015. She now teaches in the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, where she is also beginning work on a new research project about compassion and Canadian fiction.




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