Methodologies and Approaches

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High-Modernism: This is Harrison’s most experimental novel, and it draws on many modernist techniques. It is heavily influenced by James Joyce’s “Nighttown” episode of Ulysses. It is also a sharp departure from the socialist realist novels common in the literary left at this time (see Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money and Ted Allen’s This Time a Better Earth).
Secondary Sources: Vautour, “Countering and Co-opting.”

Allusion & Intertextuality: Harrison frequently borrows words from pamphlets and speeches, and characters from other novels or from real-life. In this way, he puts himself in conversation with many other influential modernist writers. His use of quotes–for example, quoting an earlier Earl Browder against a later Browder–allow him to critique the unstable politics of his contemporaries.

Stream of consciousness and interior monologue: Much of the novel is spent in Simpson’s head, where readers follow his hallucinatory or (day)dream adventures. The narrative is a continuous flow of Simpson’s thoughts, imaginings, and reactions. At certain points, Simpson’s emotional turmoil accelerates the jumbling of ideas and sentences, and his thoughts recall images and quotes from earlier in the novel.

Satire: Though most novels–and literature more generally–of the Spanish Civil War are deeply earnest, Harrison employs satire and irony in Meet Me on the Barricades, exposing and critiquing many aspects of the Left and the anti-fascist movement. If the satirical content of Harrison’s work seems distant and inscrutable today, it is because it is primarily directed against the perceived hypocrisy of 1930s left-wing organizations and figures. Simpson himself is a satirical figure, as he is passionate about politics but unwilling to take action. The satire also targets political figures (Browder, Hitler, Lenin), other writers (Gold), the Popular Front, and leftist debates over literature and publishing.
Secondary Sources: Sharpe & Vautour, “Imagining Spain.”

Anti-hero: Simpson is an unconventional hero; it can be argued that he is unlikeable and that he does not perform heroic actions (or any actions of note). Within the canon of Spanish Civil War novels, and war novels more generally, Simpson is a notably passive and uninspiring protagonist. Simpson’s characterization is an important aspect of the novel’s satire, as Simpson functions as a critique of the passionate and passive everyman.
Secondary Sources: Vautour, “Countering and Co-opting.”

Leftist Politics: Like Harrison himself, Meet Me on the Barricades is deeply engaged in the Leftist politics–of the United States specifically–of the early 20th century. There are many paths for reading into this political and social context.
Secondary Sources: Denning; Kutulas; Sharpe & Vautour, “Introduction.”

Disillusionment & Pessimism: Ascaso in particular is deeply disillusioned and cynical about Leftist politics, and the potential for radical change. Disillusionment is also a major theme in Harrison’s war novel, Generals Die in Bed, and in many other First World War novels. There is rich potential for a reading of disillusionment across these two very different texts and very different contexts.
Secondary Sources: Sharpe, “Traitors in Love.”

Popular Front: In the mid-1930s, with the rising threat of fascism, Comintern (the international organization of Communist parties) encouraged a political alliance between communist and non-communist groups, including socialists, anarchists, and liberals. These groups assembled around the common goal of anti-fascism. But these alliances were unstable, and many leftists were opposed to these alliances. As a novel of the late 1930s, Meet Me on the Barricades is engaged with the fallout of Popular Front politics.

Leftist Infighting: Despite the push for a Popular Front, there was much disagreement within the broad coalition of the Left. This manifested as in-fighting, from the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, to the fighting in the streets of Barcelona and the execution and imprisonment of the POUM, a radical Spanish political party. Simpson struggles to understand these events, and reconcile them with his own vague leftist politics.

White supremacy: Through Simpson, Harrison critiques the North American Left’s internalized racism: Simpson reveals it is easier for him to feel solidarity with White people (Spaniards) than non-White people (Chinese). Harrison also focuses on some of the ways that popular front agitation against fascism occasionally played on racist anxieties (Harrison 80). Simpson also negotiates contradictory stereotypes of Russians as cultured Europeans and savages. These off-hand comments offer an opening for analyzing the racial politics of the Leftist movement, and who was excluded from revolutionary thinking and on what grounds.
Secondary Sources: Sharpe, “Traitors in Love”; Sharpe & Vautour, “Imagining Spain.”

Patriarchy & misogyny: Simpson’s attitude towards his wife Mathilda is dismissive, and he often associates her with the apathetic bourgeois he despises. His fantasy mistress, Natasha, is a manifestation of male desire, and she is explicitly encourages him to pursue his sexual desires outside their relationship. And yet, Mathilda is more of a intelligent and compassionate matriarch, and Natasha ‘betrays’ Simpson by acting on her own sexual desires. Simpson struggles with how women–as sexual actors and intellectual subjects–fit into the revolutionary masculinity that Simpson clings to.
Secondary Sources: Sharpe, “Traitors in Love”; Sharpe and Vautour, “Imagining Spain.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What do we make of Simpson’s physical description and personality (5)? How does Harrison negotiate–or critique–relatability and likeability as they apply to protagonists?
  2. Simpson’s unremarkable and quiet death after the excitement of a night of drinking and arguing contrasts sharply with the more heroic endings of war novels. What are other examples of Harrison bucking literary conventions?
  3. How might we understand Simpson in today’s terms: is he an ally? An activist? A Slacktivist? Is he advancing the causes he purports to support, or hindering them?
  4. What is the effect of the formal shift in Chapter X? What does it tell us about Simpson?
  5. What are some of the methods Harrison uses to introduce his politics throughout the novel? Are we to understand the dialogue of a character such as Ascaco or the content of the “stage directions” as the more direct presence of the author’s voice?