- Mountains So Sublime: Nineteenth-Century British Travellers and the Lure of the Rocky Mountain West
Mountains So Sublime is a beautifully designed book. The extensive quotations from both published and unpublished British travel accounts [End Page 280] of the Rockies are accompanied by an impressive collection of black-and-white photographs and sketches of the mountain scenery that are presented in a vintage postcard format. Much of the primary material ranges in date from 1848, the beginning of the gold rush in California that saw the influx of tens of thousands from abroad, to 1898, the Spanish American civil war. Geographically, the accounts extend from the Peace River in the Canadian north to the Colorado River in the south. Travellers broadly include scientists, tourists, sportsmen, journalists, artists, members of clergy, and engineers; the famous (Sir Richard Burton, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling) and the obscure; and the odd woman such as Isabella Bird, sickly when confined to domestic life in England but robust when travelling, as evidenced in her letters to her sister about her 800-mile trek through the mountains in 1873 (later published as A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains). The sheer number and variety of accounts cited suggest the once avid market for narratives about the North American West, and Abraham, who served as head of the Special Collections and Archives at the University of Idaho for over twenty years, has done an impressive job of gathering them together.
The book, however, suffers precisely from its breadth as it skims over the more interesting details of these narratives. We get very little about the travellers' biographies, for instance. Isabella Bird's gendered perspective and her revolt against domesticity are hardly touched upon, and Oscar Wilde is reduced to the 'the exemplar of a fading social fad' and is described as belonging to a group of 'what could only be called foppish young men'; hence his aesthetic philosophy and his resistance to realism in art is never fully accounted for in his descriptions of the mountains. References to the 'Red Men' and the 'Chinamen,' which pop up in many of the narratives, are never sufficiently analyzed. Class tensions between the British and Americans are considered; however, as the historical frame suggests, the Canadian context is mostly lacking.
But to be fair, the goal of the book is not cultural analysis; rather the author explicitly asks us to consider these narratives in terms of a landscape that has been lost. Yet the difficulties of this 'recovery' are many, as the conventions of travel and landscape narratives and the particular aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the writers inevitably shape the representation of the Western scenery. Thus we find Rudyard Kipling, who was writing about his 1889 visit to America for a South Asian newspaper, describing the landscape around the Columbia River as 'crowned with the ruined bastions of Oriental palaces,' while for Isabella Bird, who would later travel to the Orient, the rocks were like 'gay, massive, Saracenic architecture' (Abraham oddly lists this passage in his discussion of landscapes in terms of 'European architectural ruins'). Moreover, many also wrote of their failure to find words to describe the 'otherness' of this landscape, 'utterly beyond words,' [End Page 281] or, as Wilde put it, 'Art cannot add to nature.' Further, the sense of a belatedness common to nineteenth-century travel narratives grappling with the ubiquity of modernity, such as Flaubert's travels in Egypt or Kinglake's Eothen, is equally evident in Colon South's response to the Rockies with their long-lost 'primeval forests,' destroyed by the 'Vandalic hand of man' that 'has penetrated the sacred recesses of Nature's sylvan temples and shorn them of all their original grandeur.' It is surprising then to find Abraham concluding that these narratives 'set forth a nearly comprehensive record of the landscape as it was.' Nevertheless the descriptions of such things as buffalo being slaughtered from train windows make Abraham's point about the rapidity of change, even though the British berating...