Case Study Three: Jean Watts and the Daily Clarion

Emily Murphy

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As the confusion in Jean Watts’s and Ted Allan’s convoluted appointments as foreign correspondents demonstrates, communication amongst Communist Party of Canada (CPC) leadership, Brigades leadership in Spain, and editorial leadership in the Daily Clarion was not always clear. Neither were the goals of these various offices aligned while they fought and publicized the war in Spain.[1] Watts’s frustration at her lack of mobility in Spain is a symptom of this underlying confusion. As I demonstrated in the previous case study, however, Watts still produced the largest body of journalistic work of any Canadian foreign correspondent employed directly by a leftist Canadian news outlet. Contemporary criticism has, by and large, dismissed Watts’s writing, even when those critics are sympathetic to Watts’s place in history. Close analysis of Watts’s work for the Daily Clarion gives clear evidence against the premises of this dismissal, demanding that critics evaluate the richness of her contribution to Spanish Civil War journalism and the seriousness with which the Daily Clarion treated her contributions.

Watts’s journalistic work is significant both for its stylistic achievements and for its marketable utility to the Daily Clarion. In this case study, I analyze the relationship between the stylistic aspects of Watts’s journalism and the prominent position her writing occupied on the page of the Clarion. First, Watts’s writing at times conforms to the stylistics of “public relations” (Watts 0:46), but it also breaks away from that role. She developed a style of reportage that combines the discomfort of wartime Spain with the unifying struggle against fascism. In comparison with canonical perspectives on the Spanish Civil War such as that of George Orwell, Watts’s journalism adeptly navigates the coexistence of hope and despair in Spain. Second, Watts’s perspectives became a readily marketable feature of the newspaper, warranting prominent placement both within the pages of the newspaper and in its advertisements and features on newspaper staff. The Canadian editorial apparatus perceived Watts’s writing as an important and marketable perspective on the conflict.

A primary criticism of Watts’s writing and of the Daily Clarion in general has been that these cultural products are propagandistic, simply mouthpieces for the political interests of the CPC. What this case study suggests, however, is that these propagandistic functions do not exclude potential literary journalistic merit. Instead, they expose the fact that all publication and engagement in a literary and journalistic marketplace is structured by implicit political stances. The politically intense environment of 1930s Canada is no exception. In addition, it demonstrates that literary journalism can be a literature of commitment. In Canadian literary criticism, examples of literature of commitment like Dorothy Livesay’s political prose and poetry have been cast aside as holding little merit and less literary because she makes no attempt to hide her politics. To take a literature of commitment seriously is therefore an important critical move within the study of Canadian literary history.

Watts as “Public Relations Person”

In an interview in the late 1960s, Watts describes her role at the Daily Clarion as one of a “public relations person” (Watts 0:46). Watts’s description of this role seems to a certain extent accurate. The Clarion did, indeed, look to send a journalist in a public relations role to Spain. Around the time Watts went to Spain, Dr. Norman Bethune, the founder of the Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit and innovator of mobile technology for blood transfusion,[2] had alienated many Spanish doctors and would soon do so to fellow Canadian volunteers and International Brigadiers like Allan and Henning Sorensen.[3] Bethune was still the face of international Canadian leftism, and he was frequently and prominently featured in the Clarion. Maintaining his positive reputation was imperative for public relations and, by extension, funding drives for the Communist Party of Canada.

Watts’s writing at times conforms to this public relations role. Her articles frequently concentrate on the positive achievements of the Blood Transfusion Unit, and she attributes those achievements to international collaboration and the financial generosity of the Daily Clarion readership and the members of the CPC.[4] The public relations goal of much of Watts’s writing is most evident when she reports directly on the activities of the Blood Transfusion Unit and Bethune’s achievements within it. However, Watts also states in an interview from the late 1960s that her “scope was as wide as [she] wanted” (Watts 0:56)—presumably referring to the range of topics she could cover, rather than a geographical range—and much of her writing develops a style of reportage that integrates blunt detail and narrativized perspectives on civilian and military life. The apparent contradiction between the breadth of Watts’s scope in reporting and her role as a public relations writer is reflected in a body of work that addresses multiple goals. Her writing promotes a positive public image for the Blood Transfusion Unit, but it also develops a distinct style of reportage.

A portion of Watts’s writing conforms to a public relations function. In a front-page article entitled “Doctor Bethune’s Unit Reorganized Covers All Fronts: Project Given Official Stamp of Ministry of War” written shortly after Watts’s arrival in Spain (3 March 1937), Watts communicates positive achievements on the part of the Mobile Blood Transfusion Unit. This article represents a clear example of public relations writing in several ways. It attributes the unit’s achievements to the financial generosity of the Canadian people, asserts that the need for further generosity is ongoing, and suggests that financial generosity unites Canadian citizens, labour for leftist causes, and the Spanish struggle. Her writing also masks the growing tensions between Bethune and his Spanish colleagues by concentrating on forward-looking collaboration and cooperation between Bethune and the Spanish doctors. It aligns the achievements of the Blood Transfusion Unit with the unity amongst military volunteers. It equates the medical and the military for a CPC readership that would likely have understood militarism as part of its political identity.

I will take up these aspects of Watts’s public relations role in turn, starting with the way in which this article attributes the achievements of the Blood Transfusion Unit to the financial generosity of the Canadian people. The article describes the reorganization and expansion of the Blood Transfusion Unit with particular attention to how the support of the Canadian people has enabled these changes:

Valencia, Spain, March 2.—The Canadian blood transfusion service headed by Dr. Norman Bethune was reorganized today to extend to all fronts of the Spanish war with a control board of two Spanish doctors and the Canadian medical man.

The project, bearing the official stamp of the war ministry, represents a positive achievement in international cooperation. It followed Doctor Bethune’s return from Paris and renewed activity in the blood transfusion work.

With equipment bought in Paris, a new development in blood transfusion is now predicted. Hospitals are now installing frigidaires in all main centres—15 on the Madrid front, 17 on the Aragon front—with the objective of installing 50 in the near future.

Canada’s Work

The reorganization is the direct result of the generosity of the Canadian workers, whose contribution is greatly appreciated here. Each dollar from Canada is saving the life of one anti-fascist fighter.

Leave For Front

The Bethune unit now has six cars operating on the Madrid front and the government is undertaking additions. More Canadian money is needed, however, for technical equipment and food. (3 Mar. 1937)

Watts’s article structures the relationship amongst financial donation, the anti-fascist struggle, and international politics as the context into which Canadian philanthropy fits. The success of the Mobile Blood Transfusion Unit results from the financial generosity of working-class Canadians. In the article, financial donation does not simply equate to support. Instead it is equivalent to “Canada’s Work.” By referring to financial generosity as work, the article evokes the labour-based values of the CPC, for which the Daily Clarion acted as a mouthpiece. It suggests that the donations of the Canadian people to the Spanish cause are not charity, but a labour in the service of leftist politics on an international scale. Indeed, for many Marxist-identified members of the CPC, charity would have gone against a more radical belief in equal distribution of wealth. The temporary and discretionary nature of charitable giving contradicts the classical Marxist goal of eventual, total societal change.

Although the article does not explicitly mention the communist values that many of the volunteers would have held—and that the subscribers to the Daily Clarion presumably also held—the article’s reference to “anti-fascist” fighters targets a common fascist opponent. Anti-fascism was a unifying force amongst supporters of the fledgling Spanish democracy across the political spectrum. The article’s appeal to the Canadian working class, then, positions Canadian financial donation as a particularly important labour in the defeat of fascism, a labour that would unite Canadian communist politics with international and Spanish leftism, both communist and democratic.

Against the backdrop of this call for Canadian financial support as a labour integral to the success of the Spanish cause, the article’s core argument is that Norman Bethune is engaging in peaceful collaboration with Spanish doctors and the Spanish government. In contrast to this representation, at this point in the civil war Bethune’s relationships with Spanish doctors were largely sour. Watts accomplished quite a bit of public relations ‘spin’. The article’s focus on a “positive achievement in international cooperation” corroborates Watts’s description of herself as a “public relations person,” providing a positive valence to forward-looking collaboration between Bethune and the anonymous Spanish doctors. The title and article indicate that the expansion is approved by the Spanish “Ministry of War.” Canadian medical efforts appear to be aligned with the Spanish government’s desires: the article states that official governing bodies of the Spanish Republic approve of and, implicitly, rely upon Canadian humanitarian interventions in Spain.  The article omits the considerable tensions that had developed between Bethune and the Spanish doctors, and instead asserts that now that Bethune has returned from Paris, the unit will forge ahead with a renewed collaborative expansion.

One of the primary mechanisms by which Watts’s writing achieves its public relations goals is through the elision of the specific politics and allegiances of the soldiers and medical volunteers it features. In this vein, the article’s theme of collaboration between Canada and Spain takes on a militaristic valence that aligns with the values of the CPC. It suggests that the successes of the Canadian people through the medical and humanitarian apparatus of the Blood Transfusion Unit are part and parcel with the militaristic nature of communist political identity. The article concludes with a section describing the “splendid unity” of the new volunteers for the Spanish cause:

Splendid Unity

The recruiting and training of fighters is going well under a unified command. The splendid unity was clearly demonstrated this week in Barcelona when 5,000 new troops marched behind the republican flag without a single party banner.

With good equipment and uniforms now being supplied, the young-worker officers being trained behind the lines have a fine soldierly appearance and will strengthen the government forces tremendously.

(3 Mar. 1937)

This segment of the article does not mention medical equipment or expansion of blood transfusion facilities across Spain. Instead, it refers to “good equipment and uniforms now being supplied” (3 Mar. 1937). These uniforms were likewise possible, it implies, because of Canadian financial generosity. By appending this section to the rest of the article, the text elides any distinction there may be in the funding streams for medical and military intervention. It equates the support of military and medical ventures.

In an additional elision, the segment erases the marks of identity that would align soldiers with any political interests that would give clues to their national origins or identities: the “5,000 new troops [march] behind the republican flag without a single party banner.” The new recruits are unified in the military support of the Spanish Republic, and such unification allows them to shed other political and national affiliations. Given that the article sets out to depict a positive collaboration between Canadian and Spanish representatives, working against the underlying unrest between the two parties, these elisions—of the financial distinction between the medical and the military and of the national and political identities of the new troops—expand the definition of unity across the spectrum of participants in the Spanish Civil War.

This segment seems at first to locate the unifying cause for Spanish Civil War volunteers to be the defence of the Spanish Republic, a democratically elected body. But its underlying argument is that Canadians in Canada are to thank for this unity. That is, the successful integration of new troops in addition to the expansion of the medical facilities in Spain is due to communist political intervention on the part of individual, working-class Canadians. As “[e]ach dollar from Canada is saving the life of one anti-fascist fighter” (3 Mar. 1937), and the unity of marching under the flag of the Spanish Republic depend on the generosity of communists in Canada. In her public relations role, Watts aligns Canadian generosity with the goals of the mouthpiece of the CPC, claiming the success of the Spanish war efforts for workers in Canada.

Watts’s articles frequently conclude with an appeal for further funds from Canadian readers. This appeal echoes the newspaper’s general tendency to undertake funding drives for causes chosen by the CPC. For example, in “Says Science Must Aid Spain: Dr. Mueller Joins Bethune Medical Unit; Great Service Rendered” (22 Mar 1937), Watts reports on renowned geneticist Dr. Herman J. Mueller’s decision to join the Canadian Mobile Blood Transfusion Unit. The article argues that the advances of science may be best spent in order to aid the preservation of civilization. The article appends a section entitled “Canadian Support” that appeals for continued financial support for the Canadian medical intervention in Spain: “Adequate apparatus is guaranteed by the continued support of the Canadian people. Dr. Bethune is confident that great credit will accrue to Canadians” (22 Mar 1937). The section further echoes the argument that financial generosity is tantamount to labour in the international militaristic cause, as the installation of such equipment as “a blood refrigerator that Canadian dollars supplied” across front-line hospitals in Spain constitutes a “magnificent demonstration of international working class unity” (22 Mar. 1937).

Another front-page article contains no direct appeals for the Spanish cause. However, what literary critic George Bornstein calls the “bibliographic code”—the way that the “iconicity of the page [communicates] important aspects of a text’s meaning” (Bornstein 6)—relates Watts’s articles to appeals for funding outside of her own writing. Attending to the arrangement of the page, the “semantic features of its material instantiations [or] (its bibliographic code)” (Bornstein 6), results in a reading practice that attends to the “features of page layout, book design, ink and paper, and typeface as well as… ‘the sociology of texts’” (Bornstein 7). For example, the Daily Clarion’s bibliographic code places Watts’s article, “Fascist Shells Slay Civilians of Madrid” (21 May 1937), in very close proximity to two articles that announce future and past funding events for the newspaper, “Communist Party Issues 5-Point Program for Spanish Aid Week, May 30—June 9” and “Who Did What In the Clarion Drive.” Watts’s section titles “Always Blood” and “Slaughter of Innocents” are printed in bold typeface (See Figure One). They directly abut a list, also in bold typeface, of five objectives for the Spanish cause, “the main objective the raising of $2,500 to provide an ambulance of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion now fighting with the International Brigade on the Madrid front.” Immediately next to these objectives is the list of monies donated, organized by province, city and such organizations as “Hungarian Worker’s Club,” the “Young Communist League” and the “Milk Drivers’ Union.” These organizations are largely unions, demonstrating the leftist syndicalist readership on which the Daily Clarion counted for monetary support. Although Watts’s article does not contain an explicit appeal to the Clarion readership, the bibliographic code of the newspaper page aligns Watts’s journalism with the goals of the Spanish Aid Week and the general funding drives of the newspaper. The layout of the page subsumes Watts’s writing to the motivations of the newspaper.

There is plenty of evidence in the Daily Clarion to support Watts’s description of herself as a public relations person. Watts’s stylistic choice to elide the individual political identities of medical and militaristic Spanish Civil War volunteers supports her depiction of a “splendid unity” (3 Mar. 1937) amongst the Spanish and international participants. This elision implicitly casts these unified participants as unified in their communist politics, even though the political reality may have been much more complicated. In turn, this political unity allows Watts to argue that Canadian financial support to the Daily Clarion (and the Communist International by extension) plays a major role in the success of the Spanish war effort—whether that success is military or medical. Even at times when Watts does not explicitly write copy that may be used for public relations purposes, it is difficult to escape the explicit political leanings of the newspaper. The placement of Watts’s writing within the bibliographic code of a Communist newspaper argues for the alignment of her writing with the paper’s politics, potentially in contradiction to the content of her articles. If scholars have tended to dismiss Watts’s journalism as propagandistic writing, the mechanisms of the bibliographic code may have fuelled this dismissal. While some of Watts’s writing certainly does read as promotional public relations work, I will now demonstrate how her body of work was, in fact, more complex.

Watts as Anti-Fascist

The content of Watts’s articles at times stands apart from her public relations role. I bring this nuance to light by comparing Watts to more canonical literary authors like George Orwell. In an article describing Watts’s arrival in Spain, “Clarion Correspondent Sees Spain Rebuilding In Midst of Warfare” (3 Mar. 1937), Watts’s descriptions are vivid and multisensory. She describes the hopefulness of Valencia in similar terms to those that Orwell would describe the atmosphere of Barcelona early in the war. Watts was in Spain shortly after Orwell, and their descriptions of Valencia and Madrid represent similar moments in the conflict. As I compare these two writers, it becomes clear that each uses similar stylistic strategies in order to reach divergent goals. Orwell wishes to set up Barcelona as a straw-man. The city may seem to be an ideal instance of a fledgling Communism, but Orwell uses this optimism as a foil to his own disillusionment with the politics of the Spanish Civil War. By contrast, Watts does not entertain idealism for the sake of framing any political or historical lessons. Instead, it communicates the ambiguities and unpleasantness of war.

The imagery of war-time iconography is a primarily stylistic means by which Watts and Orwell accomplish the vivid descriptions that characterize their writing. In Homage to Catalonia (1938),[5] Orwell describes his arrival in Barcelona in December 1936, a mere two months before Watts’s arrival in Madrid by way of Valencia, as though he landed in a “startling and overwhelming” communist idyll. “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,” he writes:

Practically every building of any size had been seized by workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties… Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud’ instead of ‘Buenos días’. (32)

Part of what Orwell finds startling and overwhelming about this newly collectivized Barcelona is the visual impact of political iconography. The “hammer and sickle” and the various flags of communist and anarchist parties indicate the ideological takeover of Barcelona. The visual economy of the city declares the communist values of equality and collectivism to be the values on which daily life operates. Further, Orwell’s description allows for a variety of visible political commitments. The anarchist black and red flies alongside the communist red. The coffee shop workers, shop-walkers, and bootblacks have collectivized of their own accord. The existence of anarchist groups and syndicalist organizations seems, in fact, to be a marker of this brand of communist idealism: a multiplicity of political allegiances are possible, so long as they fit under the umbrella of communist-informed, classless egalitarianism. Orwell’s Barcelona communicates an ideal leftist and anarchist politics through the visual language of political iconography, the egalitarian spoken language of its citizens, and the uniting communist ethos that underlies these displays of political allegiance.

Watts’s writing treats the working-class neighbourhoods and subjects of Valencia as fascinating topics equal to Orwell’s exploration of the ostensibly egalitarian and communist Barcelona. She similarly draws upon political iconography. Anti-fascist posters line the streets of Valencia: “Yet every wall and fence is plastered with great posters. Here is a picture of a worker stabbing an enormous serpent with a swastika on its side. Here is a black-robed figure scattering swastikas in a field covered with graves of the dead” (3 Mar. 1937). While Orwell draws upon iconography of an instated communist society, Watts’s use of imagery communicates that the fight against a common fascist enemy is the unifying factor, rather than any communist new world order. The iconography in Watts’s Valencia employs its vivid iconography in the service of depicting and warning against the Fascist enemy.

In addition, Watts’s Valencia teems with human activity, as she describes “[h]otels [that] are crowded to overflowing. One after another explain that there is no room, that even the bathrooms have been used to put beds into… Crammed into six or seven rooms live more than a dozen people” (3 Mar. 1937). Orwell’s Barcelona is similarly full of people, but for Orwell these individuals seem to exist primarily in order to demonstrate the takeover of egalitarian language and attitudes. For Watts, this concentration of individuals communicates the hardships of a war effort that has displaced people from their comfortable, isolated homes. For both Orwell and Watts, vibrant imagery of political posters and ephemera in addition to depictions of urban centres overflowing with people characterize their first impressions of Spanish cities. Watts, however, uses these representations and images in order to lay bare the discomforts and dangers of civil war.

Orwell’s descriptions portray a hopeful, perhaps unrealistically so, Barcelona. Watts’s Valencia, by contrast, is tempered by the realist portrayals of lived realities of wartime. Watts describes the blackouts in effect in Valencia:

Promptly at nine o’clock at night all lights are extinguished. The streets are deserted except for a few stray pedestrians armed with flashlights. Occasionally official cars rush by with their lights dimmed. Tramcars run with only a dim green light inside. Shutters are down everywhere, the city is dead. Such precautions are necessary, since only a few nights ago fascist planes paid a visit, dropping a few bombs and killing a dozen people. Yesterday their funeral procession passed quietly through the streets. (3 Mar. 1937)

While Watts’s Valencia in the daylight is colourful and crowded, offering plenty of bustle and distraction from the war effort at hand, Valencia at night has no human activity or political ephemera to mask the exigencies of war. Instead, the city is dark except for “stray pedestrians” presumably on their way to shelter, and the lights only of official cars and dimmed trams. The blackout is not simply a precaution; the funeral processions during the day attest to the necessity of blackouts to preserve human life against fascist bomb campaigns. Watts’s Valencia is keenly aware of the darker aspects of civil war, even during the heady, optimistic days of the conflict.

It is this awareness of loss that distinguishes Watts’s writing. To draw again on Orwell as a point of contrast, Orwell’s Barcelona is hopeful to a fault. The city provides a backdrop for the later betrayals of the Soviet Union against international leftist movements that looked to the Soviets as an example of non-capitalist, anti-fascist political life. The duplicitous actions of the International Brigades leadership, particularly against political units like Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) provide historical context for the keenly felt betrayal that Orwell describes. He depends on an idealistic portrayal of an equally idealistic international cooperation in the service of the Spanish Republic. That idealism renders all the more cutting the Soviet Union’s targeted ostracization of perceived political dissidents, and bolsters Orwell’s disillusionment with Soviet politics.

Watts’s journalistic perspectives forego Orwell’s Manichean approach. Her depiction of Valencia is so visceral in part due to the fact that the iconography of propaganda posters and the proximity of human bodies are unpleasant. To return to her description of the makeshift hotels, “crowded to overflowing,” she finds that “even the bathrooms have been used to put beds into” and that “[p]rivacy is impossible” (3 Mar. 1937). Her description communicates her own difficulty finding somewhere to sleep for the night, as only “[a]fter hours of search, [she] found a room, four feet by eight without a window.” Watts comments that the young children preparing their geography lessons will be “undoubtedly disturbing” to her even though they may find their lessons “stimulating.”  Similarly, the “great posters” that provide imagery in Watts’s description are violent, relying on the threat of death for their visual impact: the “enormous serpent with a swastika on its side” represents an insidious political threat, acknowledging the Nazi support underlying the Spanish rebel forces. The “black-robed figure scattering swastikas in a field covered with graves of the dead” reinforces the descriptions of funeral processions of bombing victims that have marched through Valencia that very day.[6] Reminders of death and unpleasant crowding and proximity are part and parcel with the imagery and vibrancy of Watts’s Valencia.

Watts’s descriptions neither set up an idealistic, united Valencia for rhetorical purposes, nor do they restrict themselves to describing hopeful and positive developments for a communist readership. In fact, what hope exists in her articles may be read as futile. For instance, Watts describes the new buildings being constructed in Valencia, asserting that “[t]he Spanish people are not waiting till the war is over before rebuilding their country. Construction goes on hand in hand with fascist destruction” (3 Mar. 1937). Her description of construction avoids facile assertions that the Spanish efforts will be successful, allowing for doubt to stand alongside hope in the indeterminate outcome “when the war is over.” Similarly, the phrase “fascist destruction” on one hand conveys that the fascists are the object of destruction. On the other, “fascist destruction” may mean the destruction that fascist bombing campaigns wreak on Spanish cities. In this second reading, the construction that comes “hand in hand” with fascist destruction requires that destruction to occur. It is as though fascist destruction could act as a regenerative force, a necessary evil to unify leftists against a common enemy. Watts’s use of the phrase “fascist destruction” communicates a deep ambivalence about the approaching end of the civil war. The paradoxical nature of wartime hope emerges in the nuance and ambivalence of Watts’s journalism.

This comparison between Watts and Orwell is only one small example of the literary value of Watts’s journalism. Despite the public relations role she describes as her remit with the Daily Clarion, Watts frequently employed similar rhetorical strategies to participants like George Orwell. Orwell understood his role in the conflict to be political critic and literary eye witness. Watts’s contribution to the Daily Clarion simultaneously occupied the role of public relations person and literary journalistic eye witness.

An Asset to the Paper

Watts acted both as literary journalist and as public relations person, and these roles may seem at first to contradict one another. However, literary journalistic writing does not exist independently of the politics and market interests of its publication venues. Watts’s writing is no exception, and the Daily Clarion editorial apparatus regarded Watts’s correspondence as a central feature of the newspaper. The newspaper communicates the political and economic utility of Watts’s writing and journalistic persona in two primary ways. First, in the day-to-day bibliographic code of the newspaper, the framing and formatting of Watts’s articles and announcements for her radio broadcasts set up her articles as a prominent and highly anticipated feature of the newspaper. Second, the newspaper featured Watts in occasional advertisments and profiles of the newspaper staff, demonstrating the marketing utility that Watts offered to the paper. For the Daily Clarion, Watts’s writing and image were use features for marketing purposes, as marketable as other contributors to the paper such as J.S. Wallace and Upton Sinclair. As Watts’s writing has been dismissed as propagandistic, it is important to elucidate the way that the paper did, indeed, draw upon Watts’s journalism as political material. Watts’s writing could serve the interests of the newspaper at the same time that it could claim literary journalistic merit in its own right.

The Clarion featured Watts’s writing prominently on a daily basis, arranging the bibliographic code in order to frame her articles and image as central features of the newspaper.  Similarly to the way that the bibliographic code could align Watts’s writing with the larger political concerns of the Daily Clarion and its drives for donations from its readership, the bibliographic code can communicate how central the newspaper may have thought Watts’s image and reputation was to its readership. Such features as article headers, author images, and bylines construct a bibliographic code in which Watts figures as young, appealing, serious, close to the action, and an exclusive feature of the newspaper.

The small, framing paratextual details of Watts’s articles are examples of the bibliographic code of the newspaper form. For example, the headers of Watts’s articles indicate whether they were sent by wire or by mail.[7] Watts sent the majority of her articles by mail, particularly those that offer a more human-interest perspective on the conflict. Occasional articles, by contrast, were sent by wire, a faster and more costly mode of sending copy to the newspaper office. The article “Bethune Escapes Death: Deadly Fascist Machine-Gun Barrage Trained on Canadian Ambulance Unit at Guadalajara” (12 Mar. 1937) was sent by wire. This costly method of submitting stories to newspapers communicates a certain urgency to the story’s subject matter, and the diction of the story’s title corroborates this urgency: Bethune “Escapes Death” by a “Deadly Fascist Machine-Gun Barrage.” The title refers to the imminence of death twice. The article’s means of transmission also communicates that its content is time-sensitive; Watts’s eye-witness account of the incident must be relayed immediately to Canadian audiences. While Watts frequently provided human-interest stories sent by mail—a characteristic that may have prompted scholars to characterize Watts’s contribution as “what Canadian newspapers at the time would have described as the ‘women’s beat’” (Hannant 159)—her stories sent by wire figure her as a hard-hitting, on the scene reporter.

In addition to these small textual details that frame Watts’s articles, the newspaper prominently displayed Watts’s image with the majority of her articles. From late-March 1937 onwards, a headshot accompanies almost every article that Watts contributed to the Daily Clarion, most of which were featured within the first three pages of the newspaper (see Figure Two). Watts’s photograph portrayed her with short-cropped hair, a collar that evokes a soldier’s uniform, and a frank, forward-looking gaze. This photograph reflected much of the reputation that Watts cultivated as a journalist. Her dress was militaristic and androgynous, communicating her proximity to the conflict, and perhaps echoing her work in Theatre of Action,[8] in which she would play with gender binaries in avant-garde, socialist theatre productions. In a similarly militaristic style, her hair was slicked back, but it was still blonde, and its brightness contrasted with the dark, crowded page of newsprint. Watts’s image echoes the seriousness of the subject matter of her articles, acting as shorthand for the content of the pieces, cultivating a recognizable image that stands out across the serial publication of the newspaper.

While Watts’s photograph communicates her seriousness and political commitment, it also portrays her as young and physically beautiful. As the Clarion would call her in advertisements, Watts was a “girl reporter.” This “girl reporter” role is not without precedent—journalists like American Nellie Bly would cultivate that role as early as the late-nineteenth century, and Watts had contemporary young female journalistic counterparts in American reporters like Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles.[9] What this youthful image may communicate is a kind of political idealism. Watts’s reportage was serious and distinct from the more overtly feminine images of women in the dedicated women’s pages.[10] Her frank gaze communicates energy and earnestness that may become worn away with age. Youth may also be key to excusing her unconventional choice to participate in the war. Specifically, as a young woman, she was not yet subject to the duties of motherhood. As a Mackenzie Papineau  newsletter from 1948 notes, “Jean ‘Jim’ Watts Lawson[,] Spanish Veteran[,] drives a baby pram now instead of an ambulance” (qtd. in Hannant 162); motherhood would prevent any respectable woman from participating in the war. Furthermore, even though Watts was married to Lon Lawson, she travelled to Spain and published under her maiden name, eschewing the role as wife that could equally have prevented her from participating in the conflict.[11] Youthfulness, then, is an important part of Watts’s journalistic persona. It both excused her participation and provided a legible cultural role for Watts to play.

Another aspect of the bibliographic code, Watts’s byline, communicates the newspaper’s ownership of Watts’s writing. Watts’s byline read “Jean Watts, Our Madrid Correspondent,” and by April, her third month with the paper and only the second month in which her articles appear, the Clarion began publishing her image alongside her articles. The combination of the possessive “our” with the striking image of Watts’s face claimed the feature as particular to the newspaper.[12] As such, the newspaper leveraged the visual economy of the page and the possession of Watts’s writing to place itself in an international context. Unlike writers like Allan, whose articles the Clarion billed as a “Special to the Daily Clarion and the Federated Press” (26 Apr. 1937), communicating that his writing would appear in multiple venues, Watts’s writing was an international perspective exclusive to the newspaper.[13] In such small details as the byline, the Clarion presented Watts as their primary contact in Spain, treats her descriptions of the war as consequential first-hand accounts, and regarded her articles and her journalistic image to be central features of the newspaper.

Recognizability and exclusivity are linchpins of Watts’s value to the paper. The details of Watts’s byline and the image that accompanies her articles together establish Watts as a complex and versatile journalist. She writes both human interest stories and hard-hitting, urgent journalism. She is young, idealistic, serious, and energetic. She is a woman, but her youth allows her to participate in a dangerous conflict, and to access a sphere of public discourse off limits to many other, older women. She reports exclusively to the Clarion. The newspaper relies on the repetition of Watts’s image to act as shorthand for this reputation. And this shorthand then becomes central to the way that the newspaper markets itself to its current and prospective readership.

For example, a full-page advertisement from the Clarion on 1 April 1937 billed Watts among the six major selling points of the paper (see Figure Three). The advertisement lists six features of the newspaper that they anticipate will appeal to readers: 1) reports from “Around Union Halls”; 2) the “Sport Page”; 3) a serial publication of Upton Sinclair’s No Pasaran!; 4) reports from Pat Forkin, “the only Canadian resident correspondent in the Soviet Union”; 5) reports from Jean Watts; and 6) “Current Trends,” reports on international and national news from various sources.

The advertisers of the Clarion deemed Watts’s contribution to be among the top six selling points of the newspaper within only a couple months of her tenure with the paper. In this case, Watts’s name is placed on equal footing to Upton Sinclair, an internationally famous writer, and Pat Forkin, a journalist of significantly more experience. By the same token, these recognizable literary and journalistic monikers stand alongside the populist aspects of the paper. The entertainment of the “Sport Page” and the quotidian, community-based reportage of “Around Union Halls,” set up an expectation that the literary, the journalistic, and the populist will all be of interest to the Daily Clarion readership.[14] The advertisement supplements the presumed recognizability of Watts’s name with an animated description of her contributions to the paper. The description reads, “Clarion correspondent with the Loyalist forces on the battlefields of Spain. Here are the stark details of democracy writing free from the grasps of the fascist snake; stories of the International Brigade; the Bethune Medical Unit and the United Front of Spanish freedom” (1 April 1937). Watts’s reporting was expected to deliver on accounts of such wide-ranging aspects of the war as the “battlefields,” the International Brigades, and the Blood Transfusion Unit. When Jean Watts went to Spain as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Clarion, the paper regarded her as a marketable journalistic voice, one whose work allowed the paper to participate in an international journalistic field, and one whose perspectives on the Spanish Civil War could be leveraged in order to gain more subscribers.

In addition to advertisements for Daily Clarion subscriptions, the editorial apparatus also featured Watts as one of two women on staff, the only woman writing for the newspaper,[15] and a central member of the editorial team. One particular example is the fourteen-page 1937 May Day special issue.[16] Among those pages was a biographical feature on each of the newspaper’s primary staff writers and correspondents. Watts’s feature is entitled “Madrid Is Calling!” It emphasizes the communities of readers and listeners built up around Watts’s reporting:

Jean Watts is the girl who went to Spain several months ago as the Clarion’s correspondent, to supply first-hand information on the heroic fight of Spain’s people against fascist invasion. ‘That’s Jean Watts,’ people say as they listen in on shortwave radio to Madrid and hear the announcer’s voice, or are told the latest developments or hear an appeal for Doctor Bethune’s blood-transfusion organization…. One day she’s in Madrid; the next she may be in Valencia or at the front. She is probably the only Canadian girl gathering news in Spain. (1 May 1937)

Watts is “probably the only Canadian girl gathering news in Spain,” and, as communicated in the byline for her articles, this supposedly unique role is exclusive to the Daily Clarion. Uniqueness is an important aspect of Watts’s public image. She is, of course, not unique—she fits into a broader cultural category of the “girl reporter.” But the newspaper trades on a paradoxical perception that she is both unique and culturally recognizable. The feature reinforces Watts’s recognizability in its allusions to her radio broadcasts, describing a buzzing public response to Watts’s work. The supposed refrain, “That’s Jean Watts” and the description of Canadians gathering to tune into the same radio program represents a community of individuals and families invested in the activities of Canadians abroad and in the politics of Canadian and international communism. Watts’s writing and radio broadcasts are their point of entry to Canadian international politics. In its advertisements for the radio broadcast, the Clarion encouraged listeners to write in to Watts. Watts did, indeed, receive letters from her listeners, so the community imagined by these advertisements has some grounding in reality. Watts’s public image, constituted by her work in the Clarion and claimed by that paper, fostered a readership interested in her perspectives on the Spanish Civil War.

The small details of Watts’s byline, the inclusion of Watts alongside the other marketable aspects of the newspaper, the feature of Watts as a member of the writing staff, and the imaginative descriptions of her role in Spain work together to create a bibliographic code in which Watts’s writing and image are central features of the newspaper. If Watts is so centrally important to the newspaper, this centrality communicates some of the possible motivations of the paper’s editorial apparatus: the editorial apparatus saw Watts’s reporting to be an important draw. It anticipated that Watts would be appealing to its readership. The paper’s readership, then, may have been particularly receptive to gleaning news of a foreign conflict from a young, serious, politically committed woman, whose image would become recognizable shorthand for the content of her writing.


Watts’s contributions to the Clarion have been dismissed as unimportant. Watts herself was among the first to do this, characterizing her journalism as “colour stories” (Watts 4:45) and protesting that they must now be “most embarrassingly inept reading” (33:50). Fellow journalist Ted Allan claims that Watts’s appointment as journalist was merely a miscommunication. Historian Larry Hannant is sympathetic to Watts’s involvement in the war, but describes her as reporting on what may have been perceived as the “women’s beat” at the time (159).  However, the prominence, content, and framing of her writing speak to the contemporaneous importance of her journalistic perspectives for both the Daily Clarion and for a community of Canadians who read her reports and tuned into her radio program. The visual and advertorial apparatus of the paper tells a story of Watts as well-billed, visually prominent foreign correspondent to the Spanish Civil War. Her work was filtered through her gendered role as the “only Canadian girl gathering news in Spain” (1 May 1937), but was also billed alongside the ostensibly serious male writers and contributors to the newspaper.

Watts occupied both the role of public relations person and of literary journalist. The ambivalence of her journalistic contributions emerges within the framework of her centrality and marketability to the newspaper. Within the bibliographic code of the newspaper, Watts is serious, young, politically motivated, and idealistic. It follows, then, that her double role as hard-hitting journalist and public relations person would match this journalistic persona. Her journalistic style also traded in this ambivalence. Watts’s reportage leveraged vivid, often uncomfortable imagery of human proximity and iconographic propaganda in order to develop a style that dwelled in the ambiguities of wartime Spain. This style of reportage could provide more nuanced depictions of the conflict than some of the more canonical perspectives on the war. If Watts’s writing sometimes conformed to the “public relations” role, it also needed to navigate the complexities of political allegiance in a highly fraught and fractious conflict. Duality and ambivalence characterize Watts’s writing and portrayal in the Daily Clarion. Watts’s would at times toe the Party line. But her writing was also steeped in the complex allegiances of war. The Daily Clarion’s portrayal of Watts in the paper lauded her as unique and claimed her for its own. It also traded on her recognizability in order to build a community of listeners and readers around her writing. Watts’s cultural impact as reporter and as recognizable public image must be the continued subjects of recovery—even this initial reading demonstrates her impact upon leftist Canadian textual production and news readership of the 1930s.

Watts may seem remarkable in a Canadian context. However, in the next case study I look for cognates in an international context. I will demonstrate that the constellation of youth, gender, and recognizability in journalism applies to such American writers as Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles during the Spanish Civil War, and to multiple other female war correspondents in the first and second World Wars. Case Study Four takes up the work of situating Watts in this context and comparing her to Martha Gellhorn. The two women’s careers offer compelling parallels. Through this comparison, I move from understanding Watts in relation to other Canadian writers, in relation to male writers during the conflict, and within the context of the Daily Clarion and its navigation of a domestic Canadian readership. I begin to situate her work as part of an emerging trend: female war correspondents who developed a series of journalistic and self-fashioning strategies to navigate their surroundings during the conflict. Watts is remarkable, but this comparative work demonstrates that she is not an anomaly. Rather, her work is significant for how it is structured by and responds to the demands of her political moment.

[1] Case Study Two

[2] Bethune became famous for developing the apparatus to make blood transfusion resources more easily transported. He is often erroneously credited with inventing the blood preservation technologies that facilitated transfusion. In fact, as Henning Sorensen notes, a Spanish doctor developed the refrigeration techniques. Bethune, as Sorensen further notes, allowed this erroneous attribution to stand, neglecting to correct those who gave him credit for others’ innovations (Gerassi 106).

[3] Over the months that Watts was stationed at the Mobile Blood Transfusion Unit, Henning Sorensen and Ted Allan would be instrumental in returning Bethune to Canada to go on fundraising speaking tours—a strategic move to remove Bethune from Spain and utilize his still positive public persona in Canada. See Gerassi’s Premature Antifascists for Sorensen’s account of Bethune’s removal from Spain, and Norman Allan’s unofficial biography of Ted Allan for Allan’s account.

[4] The Communist Party of Canada estimated its membership numbers based on subscription to the Daily Clarion (Historical Atlas of Canada, 187).

[5] Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was first published in the UK in 1938, but it was not published in the US until 1952.

[6] Bombing in the Spanish Civil War would become particularly associated with Nazi forces: such civilian bombing campaigns as Guernica were a testing ground for Nazi carpet bombing techniques. Watts provides further reportage on civilian bombing campaigns in “Fascist Shells Slay Civilians of Madrid” (21 May 1937).

[7] Sending stories by mail, instead of the more expensive cable, seemed to be common practice even amongst correspondents who did not perceive their work to be writing “colour stories.” Pierre van Paassen’s wife Coralie van Paassen, for example, mailed eighteen of Pierre’s articles from Paris to Toronto (Peck 43).

[8] The same image of Watts appears alongside newspaper coverage of the Theatre of Action. See Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand (1977) for some examples of this news coverage.

[9] Case Study Three.

[10] For nuanced studies of the cultural importance of middlebrow and women’s magazine and newspaper features, see recent publications by Hannah McGregor, Faye Hammill, and Paul Hjartarson.

[11] Evelyn Hutchin’s oral history in John Gerassi’s Premature Antifascists (1986) reveals some of the ways that women’s marital status played into their social mobility.

[12] The contrast between how the newspaper featured Allan’s journalism and Watts’s journalism is instructive. While the newspaper framed Allan’s journalism as an anecdotal eye-witness account of the conflict, it framed Watts’s contributions as that of  “our correspondent”—terminology that aligns her column both with famous correspondents reporting on the war (see Case Studies Two and Four) and, in its possessive “our,” claims her work as a particular feature of the newspaper. Allan’s column, “Salud Nortamericanos!” positions itself as an account of interpersonal relationships between Allan, a Brigade volunteer, and the Spanish people. In a case study for the Canada and the Spanish Civil War Project, “Ted Allan: ‘Salud Nortamericanos!’ and This Time a Better Earth,” Ryan van den Berg draws upon Allan’s first article in which Allan explains the column’s title: Allan had named the column “Salud Nortamericanos! [because it] is how the Spanish people, with whom the Brigade is fighting side by side, greet the North American volunteers” (qtd. in van den Berg 4). As van den Berg notes, Allan’s title “highlights the camaraderie between the volunteers and the Spanish people in order to demonstrate the oneness of the international socialist community” (4). See also n33.

[13] After Watts stopped reporting for the Daily Clarion, the newspaper eventually started using the same terminology—“Our Madrid Correspondent”—to refer to Allan. A detailed account of Watts’s decision to stop reporting on the conflict and Allan’s replacement of her is worthy of future research.

[14] See Case Study One.

[15] Edna Clark, the administrative worker who organized the “books, magazines, clippings, pictures, newspapers and what-not that pour in a steady stream every day into the Clarion office from New York, Vancouver, Moscow, Paris or Auckland” was the other women included in the May Day staff feature. The section “And A Final Word” briefly credited Alice M. Crooke for contributing “materials for the women’s corner.”

[16] The first of May, or ‘May Day,’ has been celebrated as International Worker’s Day since the late-nineteenth century. The holiday is particularly socialist and communist in origin.

© 2016 by Emily Murphy