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'A secret understanding': Critical responses to 'modern life' and mass culture in English Canada, 1939--1963

Leonard B. Kuffert

Abstract

During the Second World War and the generation or so after, a number of English-Canadian observers reported on the fundamental changes overtaking Canada as it became less isolated from a world figuratively shrinking its way towards becoming Marshall McLuhan's 'global village.' This loose affiliation of commentators spoke with certainty, but their opinions were in essence the often hastily-formed impressions of a surprisingly diverse group. Rapid changes to the pace and rhythms of contemporary life--though hardly peculiar to the mid twentieth century or to Canada--brought with them forms of culture thought detrimental to the individual's use of leisure time and even to Canada's coherence as a nation. This dissertation explores a critique of mass culture that was, for nationalists and taste monitors alike, inextricable from the environment of 'modern life.' Although wartime and post-war commentaries on modern life and mass culture in English Canada were often antimodernist, nationalist or elitist in tone, these were not simply attempts to recapture some bygone golden age, distinguish Canadians from other North Americans, or introduce 'Culture' to even the farthest-flung settlements. Contributors to this critique certainly worried that they might be sending such messages, and consistently emphasized their democratic intentions and credentials, especially when trying to unmask a commercial culture disguised as 'what the people wanted.' Critics of the mass society favoured self-improvement, self-awareness and lively engagement with one's surroundings, but over the course of a generation, many of these observers acknowledged the imprecision and permeability of cultural boundaries, widening their definition of acceptable leisure to include entertainments or works falling short of the lofty standards that had been bound up, during the earlier part of the twentieth century, with Shakespeare's plays or avant-garde art. Still, critical suspicions about the extraordinary power of modern life and mass culture to affect the individual and society can be read as indicative of a mid twentieth-century Canadian orientation towards cultural change.