- Fashioning the Canadian Landscape: Essays on Travel Writing, Tourism, and National Identity in the Pre-Automobile Era by J.I. Little
“Come to Canada to avoid modernity,” shouted much of the nineteenth-century travel literature about the country. Whether the writers came from the United States or the United Kingdom, or even from Canada itself, they all agreed that the perceptive traveller could enjoy contact with landscapes largely untainted by technological change. Authors celebrated rural and “wilderness” landscapes that rejuvenated tired, urban middle-class spirits, and, in contrast to the United States, they tended to celebrate picturesque, rather than sublime, vistas. Beyond their effusive descriptions of topography, the writers also often wrote about the people they encountered, particularly those who, in their eyes, had shunned modernity: French and Scottish Canadians and Indigenous people.
Distinguished historian of the Eastern Townships, among many areas of expertise, J.I. Little compiled this collection of essays on travel literature from a series of his previously published articles dating back to 2003, and he includes two new chapters. Little, and the travel writers he examines, cover a wide expanse from Labrador to British Columbia. The study focuses on English-language and male writers, though there are references to a handful of French-language writers. Little contextualizes the discussions with some of the key works of landscape analysis and tourism and cultural history, such as Mary Louise Pratt, John Urry, and T.J. Jackson Lears.
Some chapters focus on particular regions, comparing authors’ depictions of Quebec City, the Eastern Townships, Cape Breton, Labrador, and the West Coast. Others analyze specific authors and their works: American journalist C.H. Farnham, British writers Rudyard Kipling and Rupert Brooke, and Canadian author George Monro Grant. The chapters are well illustrated. The “Afterword” jumps forward in time to summarize Victoria-based journalist Bruce Hutchinson’s An Unknown Country (Longmans, Green, 1942). This final essay quotes Hutchinson at great length but ends with a reflection that fits the volume as a whole: “Such narratives are far from complete or accurate representations of past societies, but they do present us with a clear window onto the desires, motivations, beliefs, and prejudices of those who wrote them” (314). By reproducing the writers’ words, Little helpfully reveals their prejudices and enthusiasms. The second part of this concluding sentence is a more tendentious proposition: “And they did exert a profound [End Page 125] influence upon the attitudes and perspectives of those who read them” (314). This may in fact be true, but it is exceedingly difficult to prove. And the glibness of much of the writers’ captivating prose may stand in the way of this conclusion.
This book reflects the ironies of travel writing during this time period. Authors benefited from the technologies of modernity – railroads and steamships – to journey to distant locales and then write about them for large audiences (they could hope) who would buy their work in book or magazine form. The writers needed to bend their turns of phrase in ways that might capture the readers’ imagination. As a result, they tend to be highly quotable, and Little’s articles provide an extensive sampling of their prose. Pleasant similes that might capture a reader’s imagination over a century ago may appear superficial, even silly, today, as they probably did to some of the people living in the localities at the time. Travel authors wrote in metaphors, comparing vistas that the reader was unlikely to see to something that was more familiar. In 1858, Kinahan Cornwallis projected that Vancouver Island would become “the England of its ocean [the Pacific]” (70). Some authors rejected phenomena that did not fit their presuppositions. Rudyard Kipling dismissed Lake Superior as “a hideous thing to find in a heart of continent” (273). Rupert Brooke agreed about the Great Lakes: “These monstrous lakes, which ape the ocean, are not proper to fresh water or salt” (294).
In describing the landscapes, the writers played with images of the picturesque and the...