‘Merely Unfriendly or Slightly Critical’: Christina Stead. The Left, and I’m Dying Laughing


The principal subject of the novel Stead spent much of her later years working on, published after her death, I'm Dying Laughing, is marked by the crisis of the Western left. As the son of one committed leftist and a nephew of another, and as someone who in his schooling and acculturation was highly exposed to the American left of the 1970s, I sensed the same crisis so seismically registered by Stead’s novel: of incongruity between aspirations and realities, of a distance between the proclaimed populism of the left and its practical elitism, and an odd disjuncture between the family worlds of these leftists and their political philosophies. In this paper, I consider a number of the ways in which Stead’s novel refracts and engages with the politics of mid-century American leftism and communism, its intellectual culture and ideology, issues that lie at the heart of Stead’s novel even as it deals with a woman, Emily Wilkes Howard, who, as a wife, as a mother and surrogate mother, as a writer, and as a political entity, ends up being unable to reconcile these contradictions.

As I grow older – I turned fifty in May of 2015 – the people who were alive when I was young – and who were much older than me – at the same time seem more like contemporaries. In this spirit, I reflected, upon reading Hazel Rowley’s biography, that I could have actually met Stead In 1974, Stead made arrangements with her friend ‘the radical pharmacist’ Harry Bloom, to lunch at Luchow’s, a German–American restaurant which Stead and her husband, William Blake, had long loved.1 The restaurant was just east of Union Square, a square which in the past was a center of political and labour protest, in the future of big-box stores and chic cafes, but in 1974 a drug-ridden den of vice where bats were seen flapping around in wastebaskets whose content was best not the subject of inquiry. Herbert London, a right-wing New York gadfly, even…

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Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Politics, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Birns, Nicholas. ‘‘Merely Unfriendly or Slightly Critical’: Christina Stead. The Left, and I’m Dying Laughing.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016, doi: 10.20314/als.57f2e7a7ce.