Review of Little, Fashioning the Canadian Landscape

View from Sugar Loaf, looking north Lake Memphremagog, from Hunter's Eastern Townships Scenery, Canada East (Montreal: 1860).

Scroll this

J.I. Little, Fashioning the Canadian Landscape: Essays on Travel Writing, Tourism, and National Identity in the Pre-Automobile Era. University of Toronto Press, 2018. 344 pgs, ISBN 9781487500214

Reviewed by Claire E. Campbell.

Last year my honours student Katherine began her thesis on the environmental history of Lake Memphremagog with a confession: she had grown up spending her summers in a rented cottage in northern Vermont, near Memphremagog and the Canadian border, and it had never occurred to her that people like her had been doing the same thing in the same place for over a hundred years.

Robert Brown and hotel guests, Lake Massawippi, 1950s (courtesy Robert Brown Jr.).

Such is the paradox of outdoor recreation: it requires the material framework of the present (in infrastructure and income), and a willing amnesia about the past. Before Katherine’s parents were even born, my grandfather was hosting Americans and Anglo-Montrealers on a lake a few miles from Memphremagog. His country inn was a converted summer home built a half-century before by an American from Georgia, in the style of Mount Vernon [!]. And another half-century before that, steamboats had ferried tourists on Memphremagog, just as my grandfather did in his Chris-Craft inboard on Lake Massawippi. A full century of generation upon generation seeking what the hotel still describes as a “picturesque lake view.”

As Jack Little shows in Fashioning the Canadian Landscape, the pursuit of the picturesque is deeply etched in places across Canada. This collection reprints eight older essays and adds two new ones (on Picturesque Canada and Rudyard Kipling). As Little notes, what-became-Canada’s identification with its various landscapes long predates Confederation, and is, indeed, “largely a product of the country’s colonial legacy” (4). Narratives of upper-middle-class British travellers and bourgeois Americans framed different landscapes as a romantic picturesque.

Hovey Manor, Dominion Day, 1950s (courtesy Robert Brown Jr.).

That picturesque might range from the domesticated pastoral in Quebec’s Eastern Townships to the wilder shores of the Pacific coast, but it consistently reinforced pre-existing, and imported, intellectual agendas. (The vibrant wilderness of Group-of-Seven mythology was a later national construction.) Little’s travellers span the long nineteenth century, a most welcome expansion of tourism history in Canada, and take us to some understudied locations, like the Labrador coast. While British visitors like Kipling and Rupert Brooke saw in Canada continuity and confirmation of the imperial project, Americans saw contrast, in unspoiled nature set against the industrializing eastern seaboard. But both groups used a picturesque Canada to affirm their sense of superiority, whether of the imperial mission or capital growth.

The picturesque aesthetic prevailed across time and place in large part because it affirmed the values of respectability, order, and colonization, and certain prerogatives of class and race (but not gender; the picturesque, Little argues, was not an exclusively feminine convention). In British Columbia, for example, British men consistently presented “distancing images of the indigenous inhabitants and the close-up idyllic descriptions of the natural environment [to reflect] a confident sense of refined superiority that, in their view, made their mission a truly civilizing one” (97). As a result, inhabitants of these different places were cast as evidence of the need for such a mission (Indigenous peoples in British Columbia), elements of nature bypassed by the trajectory of progress (the Inuit), or, where European in descent, markers of the romantic (Highland Scots) and the antimodern (canadiens). The exception is the local (presumably white) population of the Eastern Townships, who saw tourism as a shared good, an opportunity for economic development and for showcasing their own class ambitions.

All of this travel, of course, took place against or within the emergence of industrial capitalism, though this was kept neatly in the background (as it continues to be, of course, in any marketing of outdoor pursuits). American C.H. Farnham noted cash-poor farm families on the north shore of the St. Lawrence selling blueberries, but as Little points out, Farnham chose not to query the effect of the market economy or resource exploitation on canadiens or the Montagnais (193-7). The capital that drove tourism to and through these areas stays just outside the frame of these travel narratives; I would love to learn more about the “northern tourist circuit” in existence for Americans as early as the 1820s, or why British travel peaked in the 1830s (23-6). Yet with such figures as Sir Hugh Allan – the shipping and railway magnate who had a summer home on Memphremagog, and was president and chief shareholder of the Lake Memphremagog Navigation Company (124) – in the story, it is impossible not to wonder what kind of money was paying for the pleasures of unspoiled nature.

There are numerous opportunities to connect to questions of environmental history here. In 1886, the Stanstead Journal carried its first printed complaint against development on Lake Memphremagog (129). C.H. Farnham was fascinated by farmers cutting sea grass or “salt hay” in the marshlands along the St. Lawrence River (182); historians and archaeologists have been fascinated by the same practice in coastal colonies. And if Americans were attracted to icebergs in the Labrador Current even before Confederation, does this help us understand climate history, or the province of Newfoundland and Labrador’s marketing of iceberg tourism?

Environmental history emerges most clearly in one of the new essays, a fascinating analysis of the images of nature in Picturesque Canada (1882). Whereas Picturesque America celebrated the sublime in American wilderness, Little argues that Picturesque Canada – truer to its title – depicted Canada as a series of “smiling fields and orchards” (252), of cultivated, profitable, and reassuringly tamed landscapes that promised a future of wealth and progress. (And muted any concerns about a cold climate.) Such agrarian nationalism suited the small-c-conservative nature of English-Canadian nationalism (235) that admired the English picturesque tradition more than it sought a distinguishing New World persona. I think the most crucial point is that this vision of Canada assumed, and valorized, the exploitation of natural resources. The “picturesque” was not about unspoiled nature in nineteenth-century Canada; it was a foundation for the development ethos that would so fundamentally shape this country through to the present day.


The following two tabs change content below.
Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.