Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Narrating the Crash: Reading Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown

As major corporations stumble and jittery investors dump failing holdings amid a widening economic crisis, we find our warning in literature. In particular, Hugh Garner's Depression-set Toronto novel, Cabbagetown (Collins/White Circle, 1950; restored edition published by Ryerson in 1968) probes deeply into the effects economic downturns have on ordinary working people.

Cabbagetown is a multi-faceted exploration of the effects of the 1930s Depression of working-class Torontonians, and his analysis seems timely now that another historic economic shakedown seems inevitable. Early in the novel Garner invokes the slowly dawning recognition of the extent of the downturn. At first, Cabbagetown's residents seem dismissive, even smug:
One evening in October the newspapers printed extra editions reporting a stockmarket crash. Of all the city's neighbourhoods Cabbagetown probably took the news most quietly. In the wealthier districts, and even in the middle-class neighbourhoods, the citizens were shocked or sloughed off the news as merely a temporary halt to the inevitable spiralling of the economy. .... Cabbagetown went on its serene way, not caring whether the stockmarket crashed or didn't, such things being as far away and as alien to Cabbagetown as an aeroplane crash in Peru. With millions of dollars worth of investors' paper profits blowing away on the autumn breeze Cabbagetown knew that its hard-earned wealth was safe. Come Friday night or Saturday noon the same familiar pay envelopes would be carried out to the shipping platform by the foreman or handed through the timekeeper's wicket as usual. Whether some stock-market plungers lost their fortunes or whether a particular stock was worth this or that was of no particular interest. As a matter of fact most Cabbagetowners felt rather smug about the whole thing.
Soon, however, Garner's protagonists -- none of whom have stocks or substantial savings, most living paycheck to paycheck -- begin to experience the spiralling effects of the crisis:
The panic wasn't over as soon as the optimists predicted, and over the next few months its results began filtering down through business and industry, and even into Cabbagetown itself. Business said it had to retrench, and it began to cut its staffs relentlessly, and cut the pay checks of those who were retained in their jobs.
Before long they too are struggling profoundly, confronting not only joblessness but ultimately homelessness and privation. Garner's protagonists resort to a variety of strategies of survival: manual labour, domestic servitude, prostitution, public welfare, crime. These efforts are accompanied, inevitably, by a dawning awareness of the political implications and class dynamics of the Depression.

And this is perhaps Garner's most remarkable achievement with Cabbagetown. A staunch defender of the working class and a harsh critic of the excesses of industrial capitalism, Garner nonetheless rejected dogmatic Marxism. His socialism was fierce, principled, and entrepreneurial. His advocacy for the vulnerable invited state involvement only to correct the economic disparities it engendered; other than that, Garner's ethic demanded that the state stay the hell out of everyone else's business.

At a time when an economic crisis -- perhaps of Depression proportions -- seems inevitable, and moreover seems to have been brought about by the most culpable excesses -- it seems especially instructive to re-read Cabbagetown. The novel might not help anyone avoid struggling during the coming hard times, but at least it reminds us of what we might expect.

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