8 Debates

8.6 Sunset Song: nationalist or socialist novel?

There were in fact several critics of Sunset Song in the 1930s who gave extended consideration to the novel's potential to serve an instrumental social/political function; it is to two of these that we now turn.

Activity 20

Read the extracts from ‘Nationalism in Writing: Tradition and Magic in the Work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ (1938) by Neil M. Gunn, and ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ (1936) by James Barke (linked below). How does each critic answer the following questions?

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Gunn and his beliefs

Gunn was a fellow-Scot, a contemporary of Gibbon, and an acclaimed author and critic in his own right. In 1936, he had debated the question ‘Literature: Class or National?’ in the Scottish journal Outlook with Lennox Kerr and Edward Scouller. Kerr had opened the debate by arguing that ‘There is actually a greater gap in understanding, in culture, and in every practical ideal or problem between men of the same nation, but of different classes, than there is of men of different nations, but of the same social and economic class’ (Kerr, 1936, p. 75). Accordingly, for Kerr, class allegiance should take priority over nationalism as a political motivation for creative writing: ‘new art will have nothing to do with a Scottish or any other national renaissance … Its real body will be its inspiration in the working class’ (ibid., p. 80). In his response, Gunn flatly rejected Kerr's working-class internationalism, both as a political and as a literary project. He argued that the national scale of the Russian Revolution proved the political inadequacies of internationalism – ‘Lenin did not approach the crofters of Wester Ross before collaring the land of Russia for the Soviet Republics’ (Gunn, 1936, p. 56), and as regards literature, ‘it would seem that a man creates most potently within his own national environment. Outside it he is not so sure of himself, not so fertile, not so profound’ (ibid., p. 58).

In his 1938 essay ‘Nationalism in Writing’ in the Scots Magazine, Gunn developed these ideas and related them specifically to the work of Gibbon. Gunn recognises at the outset Gibbon's dual ambitions to write ‘work of literary value’ and ‘propaganda’, identifying these preoccupations as ‘on the one hand, the concern of the creative artist; on the other, the concern of the man for the iniquitous conditions of the poor’. He proceeds to try to paraphrase the details of Gibbon's political commitment, identifying two defining strains. The first is a conviction that world history was moving inexorably towards what Gibbon calls a ‘Cosmopolis’ (a utopian collective society), ‘not because of any need for it in itself, but because it was for humanity's final good on the material or economic plane. When we attain Cosmopolis, economic slavery and physical want will have vanished.’ The second is a ‘genuine, profoundly sensitive concern for the downtrodden’. Gunn then quotes a polemical flourish from Gibbon's essay ‘Glasgow’ that conveys the nature of the latter's commitments. Gibbon writes:

[I] would welcome the end of Braid Scots and Gaelic, our culture, our history, our nationhood under the heels of a Chinese army of occupation if it would cleanse the Glasgow slums, give a surety of food and play – the elementary right of every human being – to those people of the abyss.

Gunn only quotes this one passage from Gibbon's ‘Glasgow’ essay, but it is worth pausing to emphasise quite how scathing Gibbon is about nationalism here: ‘What a curse to the earth are small nations! … there is an appalling number of disgusting little stretches of the globe claimed, occupied and infected by groupings of babbling little morons – babbling militant on the subjects (unendingly) of their exclusive cultures, their exclusive languages, their national souls, their national genius’ (in Bold, 2001, p. 106). Gibbon's solution? ‘Glasgow's salvation, Scotland's salvation, the world's salvation lies in neither nationalism nor internationalism, those twin halves of an idiot whole. It lies in ultimate cosmopolitanism’ (in ibid., p. 108).

Rankled by Gibbon's provocative anti-nationalism, Gunn claims finally that ‘the Scots people, reforming and running their own social system, could cleanse the Glasgow slums without help either from the Chinese or from Cosmopolis’. Gunn therefore regards Gibbon's anti-nationalism as woefully misconceived and his cosmopolitanism as pie-in-the-sky fantasy, defending his own nationalist position vis-à-vis Gibbon by reference to Sunset Song. According to Gunn, Gibbon's finest work, A Scots Quair, is written not in English (the language of Cosmopolis), but in a dying regional language of Scotland, and this proves for Gunn that Gibbon's literary choices should be accorded more authority than his political criticism.

In answer to the two questions posed, the simple answer for Gunn is that literature has an instrumental function, that it is written for the nation that produced it; internationalist or cosmopolitan aspirations can only be considered once the national imperative is met. As to whether Sunset Song satisfies this critical requirement, Gunn's answer would be in the affirmative, but with the important qualification that Gibbon must remain true to his instinct and write in the speech of the Scots peasant, as he does in Sunset Song. When Gibbon thinks beyond his regional and national location, and writes of cosmopolitanism and universal oppression, he flouts, indeed sabotages, his authentic vocation as a Scottish writer.

Barke and his beliefs

Like Gunn, Barke was also a Scottish contemporary of Gibbon and the author of several novels. In the opening paragraphs of his 1936 Left Review article, Barke identifies Gunn and Gibbon as Scotland's two most significant novelists. He categorises Gunn (disapprovingly) as an idealist and nationalist, and Gibbon (approvingly) as a materialist and internationalist. Barke argues that Gibbon correctly subscribes to Marx's dictum that ‘the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life’, and that Gibbon's idiosyncratic socialism (the ‘Cosmopolis’) accorded with internationalist Marxism. Not only Gibbon's political philosophy and commitments win Barke's praise; Barke also acclaims Gibbon as the author of fine literature. Barke then sets out his own standards of judgement:

To the reader unsympathetic or unconcerned with the struggle of the working class, to the critic who does not recognise the class war (far less the class nature of society) and who concerns himself with ‘art’ and ‘literature’ (deprecating, scorning ‘propaganda’) this insistence of the essential class content of A Scots Quair may appear irrelevant or even distorted. But there is no irrelevance or distortion. Even a superficial understanding of the content of A Scots Quair should reveal its true purpose, nature and significance. All art is propaganda. Gibbon had no illusions about this elementary truth.

In conclusion, Barke reflects on the appropriate critical frame for assessing Gibbon. He considers first the frame of Scottish literature, arguing that although Gibbon was never ‘a perverted, illogical, reactionary Nationalist’, A Scots Quair should be classed as ‘probably the greatest Scots novel in Scottish literature’. Second, he considers Gibbon's work in the context of ‘modern bourgeois art’ and concludes that ‘many of the bourgeois critics … have been forced to recognise Gibbon as a literary artist of the highest standing’. Both these critical frames, however, are secondary for Barke to the emergent critical demands of revolutionary literature: ‘For A Scots Quair is a worthy forerunner of the novel that will dominate the coming literary scene: the novel that will be written by workers for workers, expressing the hopes, ideals, aspirations of workers.’

Barke's answer to the question ‘What is literature for?’ is therefore that literature should express in literary form the class struggle and the materialist view of history. Literature is emphatically not for promoting or nurturing nationalism (Gunn's position), or for disinterested, apolitical contemplation (the position of the aestheticist critics of ‘modern bourgeois art’). For Barke, Gibbon's A Scots Quair is exemplary in serving the instrumental function he prescribes – to express ‘the hopes, ideals and aspirations of workers’ – and will accordingly be remembered as ‘a magnificent and heroic pioneer achievement’.