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Archive for the tag “Romanticism”

The Romance of Canada 4: Escape to the Barrens


Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Man Who Saw America” (NYT Magazine, July 5, 2015)

Nicholas Dawidoff, who appeared here before in the guise of a football writer, has a fascinating article about photographer (best known for The Americans) and filmmaker (best known for Cocksucker Blues) Robert Frank in the NYT Magazine. It’s worth reading on its own merits, but Canada does play a small role, when Dawidoff describes Frank’s reaction to his own growing fame:

Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north.  (42)

“A barren hillside far in the Canadian north” — how romantic that sounds! Later in the article, however, it turns out that the place he moved to was Mabou, Nova Scotia. Here’s Dawidoff’s description of the move:

Overwhelmed in New York, craving ‘‘peace,’’ Frank asked [June] Leaf [his girlfriend] to go to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to find them a home. It was winter. She bought a pair of thick boots and flew north: ‘‘He knew I’d do anything for him,’’ she says now.

They moved to Mabou, where the March wind was so strong you had to walk backward. They knew nobody, and the house they’d purchased overlooking the sea was, in the local expression, ‘‘after falling down.’’

Now, if you consult a map, you will see that while Mabou may be barren, it is roughly as far north as Maine. (If Frank is “the man who saw America,” Dawidoff is “the man who never saw (a map of) Canada.”) It’s a bit troubling that this kind of error can make its way into The New York Times (even if only the magazine) — doesn’t anyone check these things? Do the editors really think a place that’s much closer to Martha’s Vineyard than to the Arctic Circle represents the “far north”? Perhaps they think anywhere in Canada is the far north. Or perhaps this is just another instance of Americans’ total indifference to our country and everything to do with it.

Beyond that, Frank’s girlfriend saying that flying to Nova Scotia proves that she would “do anything for him” is quite charming, suggesting, as it does, that travelling to Nova Scotia is a perilous undertaking from which one is fortunate to return alive. And while Dawidoff doesn’t say it directly he certainly implies, through the references to the thick boots and the strong March wind, that Canada is cold — one of the most common ideas about our country.

The main impression of Canada conveyed by this article, however, is that it is a remote, unpopulated land that is ideal if you’re looking for somewhere to escape to. (We saw a similar attitude to Canada in Kris Kraus’s novel torpor.) And perhaps I’m imagining things, but I even feel like there is a certain admiration in Dawidoff’s tone as he describes Frank’s abrupt departure from New York. We do tend to idolize great artists, and far be it from me to suggest that Frank doesn’t deserve Dawidoff’s adulation; but there is a special reverence reserved for those who not only produce great works of art, but who also reject the trappings of fame and celebrity that come with their accomplishment. The reclusive genius is a romantic figure, admired for being more honest and true to the artist’s calling by virtue of having rejected fame, and in describing Frank’s flight to Canada, Dawidoff places him firmly in that category.

And so Canada plays a role here, not as an independent nation with an identity of its own, but rather as a marker of authenticity that validates a particular kind of American achievement: ironically, it is by leaving New York for Canada that Frank establishes his status as a true American original, a genuine artist not interested in his own fame but devoted only to the tough realities of his art.

What, after, all, could represent a more complete rejection of fame than leaving New York City (and “all the glories of the art world” — what are those, I wonder?) for Canada? And not just Canada, but a “barren hillside” in the (supposedly) “far north”?

In fact, there are probably areas in the United States that are just as much a wilderness as the most wilderness-y areas of Canada; and yet escaping to a cabin in Montana doesn’t have the same romantic finality, the same grandeur in terms of a gesture, as fleeing to Canada, where of course acclaim can never pursue you because, as everyone knows, in Canada the mechanics by which acclaim comes to be don’t exist: there are no magazines, no newspapers, no television, no radio, no people or communities; just an endless succession of barren hillsides where American artists fleeing their own celebrity huddle together to stay warm against the unending cold.

The Romance of Canada 2: Ansel Adams Pays Us a Compliment


Ansel Adams, In The Canadian Rockies (2013)

This is from a letter Adams wrote to Virginia Adams while he was photographing the Canadian Rockies in 1928, which is quoted at the very beginning of this book:

These mountains are breathtaking — utterly different than anything we have seen. The peaks and forests and “tone” fulfill almost every ideal I have had of what “my” mountains could be. The cold ice crashes down tremendous cliffs to the very edge of deep, somber forests. No dust is here — all is snow, ice, clean black rock and mossy earth covered with thick green vegetation — all cool and calm and very strong in the primal aspect. These are the great mountains we dream about.

There speaks the true Romantic voice! Just the choice of words shows how Adams had absorbed the Romantic idea of the natural sublime: the forests are deep and somber, the ice crashes down, the cliffs are tremendous, the rocks clean and black, the vegetation thick and green. Here, in essence, is the idea of Canada as an unspoiled wilderness of breathtaking natural beauty, so different from the mountains Adams has seen before, presumably in the U.S., and presumably rendered less impressive by the fact that they had become more travelled than the remote regions of Canada he visited. The word “primal,” at the culmination of that sentence, suggests that in travelling to Canada, Adams feels almost as if he has travelled back into an earlier period of time when nature was still untamed.

And note the use of the word “ideal”. I don’t like to harp on Plato too much — well, actually I kind of do — but this letter seems to lend itself particularly well to a Platonic interpretation. When Adams speaks of the “ideal” he has had of “what [his] mountains could be,” we enter the territory of the Platonic idea of forms: the “ideal” mountain is essentially the “form” of a mountain, the perfect, idealized concept of “mountain” of which all earthly, actual mountains are an imperfect reflection or imitation. And yet in Canada, Adams has found the ideal; it’s as if he has entered the world of Platonic forms and seen in reality the perfect mountains that until now he has only been able to visualize in his imagination.

Canada here is almost a mythic realm, a place so unspoiled and rich in natural beauty that its mountains cease to be earthly objects and become the perfect forms that fill the artist’s dreams.

The Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit


François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (1850)

Canada has an interesting presence in French literature. Based on my (admittedly limited) reading (further study is needed, as they say) our country seems to be much more in the minds of earlier writers (i.e. in the 17th and 18th centuries) than in the minds of 19th-century authors. I suppose this makes sense in that references to Canada dwindle in French literature after France loses its colonial interest in our country; still, it feels counterintuitive, somehow, that when, in the 19th century, we would expect Canada’s profile in Europe to be growing, in France, at least, it seems to be shrinking.

Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb enacts this process in miniature: there are a number of references to Canada in the early parts of the book, which deal with the last couple of decades of the 18th century; as the book proceeds into the 19th century, however, Canada vanishes from the narrative and European matters take up Chateaubriand’s attention. (I should also mention that the Penguin edition I read (pictured above) contains  only selections from the book, so there may be later references to Canada that weren’t included.)

The “Father of French Romanticism” Considers a Career as a Lumberjack

This passage relates a discussion between Chateaubriand and his parents about what career path he should choose (it’s basically down to the army or the church):

I hit on an absurd idea: I declared that I would go to Canada to clear forests or to India to join the army of one of the princes of that country.

By one of those contrasts which are to be found in all men, my father, normally so reasonable, was never greatly shocked by an adventurous project. He grumbled to my mother about my changes of mind, but decided to despatch me to India. I was sent off to Saint-Malo, where a ship was being fitted out for Pondicherry.  (71)

It’s hard to know how seriously to take this suggestion of going to Canada “to clear forests”; the author himself calls it “absurd,” and it may be no more meaningful than a modern teenager’s threat to run away from home if they don’t get their way. Still, the idea of Canada as a wilderness of trees needing to be cut down is apparently already firmly established, and while Chateaubriand doesn’t use the word “lumberjack,” we can see the outline of that quintessentially Canadian figure hovering in the background.

This perceived lack of civilization is in marked contrast to the impression we get of India, where apparently there are princes with armies on the move — something much more aligned with the activities of European men in the late 18th century. It’s perhaps not surprising that Chateaubriand’s father in the end chooses the aristocratic pursuit of war-making for his son rather than the more laborious job of tree-cutting.

A Country that Keeps Getting In the Way

But Chateaubriand didn’t just fantasize about running away to Canada; after the French Revolution, he actually came here. (You can get a sense of his overall impression from two quick facts: the chapter of his book that includes the trip to Canada is called “Among the Savages,” and the phrase “the Canadian forests” comes up repeatedly.) His reasons for the trip were, first, to see the United States (not Canada), and second, to discover the Northwest Passage, which he seems to have thought would be a fairly simple matter.

Before he reaches North America, however, his ship encounters some difficulties due to wind and weather. Instead of arriving in the U.S., he finds himself off the coast of Canada, as if our country were somehow preventing him from reaching his destination. This is part of a description of the journey after a stop-off on the island of Graciosa:

The wind forced us to bear north, and we arrived at the Banks of Newfoundland. Some floating icebergs were drifting around in the midst of a pale, cold mist.  (123)

It’s pretty clear that Newfoundland is not where he wants to be, and the description has a compressed quality that shows a distinct lack of interest. This vision of Canada is probably more or less what a European of the period would imagine: a few icebergs and a cold mist — which isn’t so bad since there’s nothing to see anyway. What do these French sailors do now that they have arrived on the shores of Canada? They beat a hasty retreat to the nearest French possessions:

We steered for the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, looking for a new port of call.  (124)

In fairness, Canada isn’t really his object, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

What’s The Opposite of “Civilizing”?

They make it to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Chateaubriand strikes up a bit of an acquaintance with the Governor there:

I dined two or three times with the Governor, an extremely polite and obliging officer. He grew a few European vegetables on a slope outside. After dinner she showed me what he called his garden. A sweet, delicate smell of heliotrope came from a small patch of flowering beans; it was not wafted to us by a gentle breeze from home, but by a wild Newfoundland wind which had no connexion with the exiled plant, no attractive element of reminiscence or delight. In this perfume which was no longer breathed in by beauty, purified in its breast, or diffused in its wake, in this perfume of a changed dawn, a different culture, another world, there lingered all the melancholy of nostalgia, absence, and youth.  (125)

And in the next paragraph, still referring to the Governor:

My host inquired after the Revolution; I asked him for news of the North-West Passage. He was in the van of the wilderness, but he knew nothing of the Eskimos and received nothing from Canada but partridges.  (125)

The opposition between the “wild Newfoundland wind” and the flowering bean plants sets up the contrast one would expect between the wilderness of Canada and the civilization of Europe. We get the impression that Canada is a desolate country where fragile beauties are beaten down rather than cherished and enjoyed.

The statement that the Governor is “in the van” (i.e. the vanguard) of the wilderness is an interesting one. We should perhaps expect the opposite statement: that as the governor of these French islands right next to the wilds of Newfoundland, he is in the van of civilization, standing at the tip of the civilizing influence which Europe has pushed out towards the wilds of Canada. And yet Chateaubriand sees it the opposite way; if Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are the van of the wilderness, then that suggests that the process is moving in the other direction, and that the wilds of the New World are stretching their influence back towards the supposed colonizers, and perhaps will somehow uncivilize the civilizers, so to speak.

(I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the use of a specific word in a book I have only read in translation, but just for comparison, here is a passage where Chateaubriand uses “vanguard” in the more expected way:

It has been observed that the settlers are often preceded in the woods by bees: these are the vanguard of the farmers, the symbols of the industry and civilization whose coming they herald.  (143)

There we can see “vanguard” used in its more standard sense, which suggests that perhaps Chateaubriand was intentionally playing with its meaning in the earlier passage, suggesting that Canada had a kind of de-civilizing power that Europeans had not yet recognized, as it does in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Two Campers in Cloud Country.” Or perhaps it’s just an instance of carelessness, by either Chateaubriand or his translator.)

Melancholy Reflections on Past Defeats

Chateaubriand has some interesting observations on the failure of the French colonial project in Canada:

In the shameful years of Louis XV’s reign, the episode of the Canadian War consoles us as if it were a page of our ancient history discovered in the Tower of London.
Montcalm, given the task of defending Canada unaided, against forces which are regularly replenished and four times his own in number, fights successfully for two years, defeating Lord Loudon and General Abercromby. At last his luck deserts him; he falls wounded beneath the walls of Quebec, and two days later breathes his last: his grenadiers bury him in a hole made by a bombshell, a grave worthy of the honour of our arms! His noble enemy Wolfe dies facing him; he pays with his own life for Montcalm’s life and for the glory of expiring on a few French flags.  (142-43)

It seems odd, at first, that Chateaubriand would go to the trouble of describing a defeat, and yet it’s in character with the overall tone of much of the book, which could perhaps best be characterized by the world “melancholy”. His vision of life is one in which anything good is always in the past; the present is always slipping away; and the future holds only the promise of worse things to come. It is fitting, then, that he sees a tragic glory in Montcalm’s defeat, and awards him what would now be called a “moral victory” simply for having held out so long against such terrible odds. This kind of ringing, elegiac tone is the essence of Chateaubriand’s style and one of the key elements of his romanticism.

A Visit to the Falls

While in America Chateaubriand naturally wants to see for himself one of its greatest natural wonders, Niagara Falls. He makes his way there, travelling with “a troop of settlers and Indians”:

It was there that I first made the acquaintance of the rattlesnake, which allows itself to be bewitched by the sound of a flute. The Greeks would have turned my Canadian into Orpheus, the flute into a lyre, and the snake into Cerberus or perhaps Eurydice.  (144)

It’s hard to be certain what to make of this; the “Canadian” is presumably one of the natives, not one of the settlers. At first Chateaubriand seems to be saying that Canada does not lend itself to mythologizing, in the way the world of the ancient Greeks did; and yet, with his tales of rattlesnakes charmed by flutes, is he not himself actually mythologizing in much the same way?

In any case, he goes on to visit Niagara Falls:

The Niagara Falls savages in the English dependency were entrusted with the task of policing that side of the frontier. This weird constabulary, armed with bows and arrows, prevented us from passing. I had to send the Dutchman to the fort at Niagara for a permit in order to enter the territory of the British government. This saddened me a little, for I remembered that France had once ruled over both Upper and Lower Canada. My guide returned with the permit: I still have it; it is signed: Captain Gordon.  (145-46)

The phrase “English dependency” means Canada, as opposed to the United States, and makes clear that the Falls Chateaubriand went on to visit were what we now think of as the Canadian side. This passage offers a very different take on the French colonial experience than the earlier one: there, Montcalm’s loss was portrayed as being somehow honourable, even glorious; here, the loss of France’s possessions in Canada brings only sadness. (Sadness — at least in its literary form, “melancholy” — is, as I alluded to above, the keynote emotion of this book.)

It seems worthwhile, since we’ve come across references to Niagara Falls several times before, to quote at least a bit of Chateaubriand’s impressions:

Already, six miles away, a column of mist indicated the position of the waterfall to me. My heart beat with joy mingled with terror as I entered the wood which concealed from my view one of the most awe-inspiring sights that Nature has offered to mankind.
We dismounted, and leading our horses by the bridle, we made our way across heaths and copses until we reached the bank of the Niagara River, seven or eight hundred paces above the Falls. As I was moving forward, the guide caught me by the arm; he stopped me at the very edge of the water, which was going past with the swiftness of an arrow. It did not froth or foam, but glided in a solid mass over the sloping rock; its silence before its fall contrasted with the roar of the fall itself….
The guide continued to hold me back, for I felt so to speak drawn towards the river, and I had an involuntary longing to throw myself in….
Today, great highroads lead to the cataract; there are inns on both the American and English banks, and mills and factories beneath the chasm.
I have seen the cascades of the Alps with their chamois and those of the Pyrenees with their lizards; I have not been far enough up the Nile to see its cataracts, which are mere rapids; I make no mention of the waters of Terni and Tivoli, graceful adornments for ruins or subjects for the poet’s song: “Et praeceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus.”
Niagara eclipses everything.   (146-47)

That passage pretty much has it all, doesn’t it? What a concentration of romantic ideas: the joy mingled with terror as he is about to come face to face with Nature’s sublime; the strange, bewitching appeal of death as he yearns to throw himself into the current; the reference to the shallow consumerism that has now taken over and degraded the site, so different from its unspoiled state when he visited; and finally the implication of a wild and savage beauty in the Falls, utterly unlike the refined waters of Terni and Tivoli.

That last is, of course, a typical association with Canada, but in the view of the romantic mind, the idea of a wilderness ceases to be something menacing, or something that needs to be tamed or civilized, and becomes instead something that must be appreciated for its natural beauty. We are seeing here the idea, which would ultimately become a cliché, that the unspoiled wonders of nature are more beautiful than all the works of man, and that God is, in a sense, the first and ultimate artist.


Chateaubriand inaugurates several strands of what we might think of as a “romantic” view of Canada. First, in his plan to run away here to become a lumberjack, we glimpse the petulant teenager strain of romanticism, always trying to shock or upset his parents. In his desire to find the Northwest Passage, we see the romantic image of the discoverer-hero, setting out to map the uncharted wilderness for the benefit of all mankind. His references to First Nations people seem to partake of the “noble savage” idea, while his discussion of Montcalm’s loss on the Plains of Abraham is replete with the melancholy sense of vanished glory and noble failure.

And finally, there is the discussion of Niagara Falls. Chateaubriand may not have had a huge impact on Canadian history — he never got around to locating that pesky Northwest Passage, after all — but he certainly had a major, if unwitting, impact on the Canadian tourist industry. His account of visiting Niagara Falls is the earliest one by a major European writer that I have come across, and in his visit he essentially set the pattern of Canadian tourism that still prevails today: when people come to Canada, if there’s one thing they know they want to see, that one thing will be Niagara Falls. In places around the world where Canada is known for absolutely nothing else, we are known for Niagara Falls.

And the reason Chateaubriand wanted to see the Falls — the desire to be confronted with what we might call “the natural sublime” — is the same reason people come today, and his description of the feelings aroused by the sight will be meaningful to anyone who has been there. Beyond that, in his description of the “great highroads” and the “inns” that have sprung up around the Falls since his visit, he took note of the beginnings of the tourist industry that dominates Niagara Falls today, and he probably wouldn’t be surprised by the hotels, gift shops, and casinos that have appeared since. Ripley’s Museum might shock him a little.

That Romantic Winter in…Toronto?

The Swimmer, Directed by Frank Perry (1968)

We stand now on a bridge, as it were, a bridge between the past and the future. This post is a pendant of sorts to last week’s post on The Stories of John Cheever, dealing, as it does, with the film based on Cheever’s story “The Swimmer.” In its glancing at romantic ideas of Canada, however, it also looks forward to our upcoming series on The Romance of Canada, which will commence (barring distractions) next week. And so even as we tie up a few dangling Cheever threads, we are also unravelling the skein of romantic ideas about Canada, which we will then take in hand and weave into a breathtakingly rich tapestry of…

But enough of that strained metaphor. You get the idea.

While the Cheever story “The Swimmer” doesn’t contain a reference to Canada, the film, oddly enough, does (though it’s not included in the trailer above). For those not familiar with the story, it follows Ned Merrill as he attempts to “swim home” from a pool party by going from one backyard pool to the next, swimming each pool along the way. The mention of Canada comes when Ned (Burt Lancaster) goes to swim the pool of his ex-lover, Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule), just over an hour into the film (1:05 to be moderately precise). The dialogue is as follows:

Ned: Remember last winter in Toronto? We called room service and ordered bull shots.
Shirley: I wasn’t in Toronto last winter.
Ned [apparently confused]: I was sure I came up for the opening of your show. Remember how it snowed? And I ordered a horse and a sleigh to take us from the hotel to the theatre.
Shirley: I haven’t been in Toronto in three years now.
Ned: Was it Boston?

It’s a bit hard to know how to take this reference. By this point in the film, Ned has been revealed as a sort of fantasist of his own life, increasingly out of touch with reality (well beyond what Stephen Greenblatt might consider a little harmless “self-fashioning”). The question of whether Ned and Shirley ever actually visited Toronto together will, I think, have to remain an open one.

As for the city itself, we are immediately struck by what is one of the most common impressions of Canada: that it is cold and snowy. This is fine in and of itself. It does snow in Toronto, and since Ned specifies that they visited in the winter, it’s not surprising that there would have been some snow. But in his description of how he dealt with it, we move from the realistic into something approaching the mythic — which is, admittedly, typical of Ned.

The snow was so bad, apparently, that he had to hire a horse and sleigh to get them from the hotel to the theatre. A horse and sleigh!

Recall that this film was released in 1968 and has a contemporary setting; it’s not a period piece set in the frontier days. In 1968, Toronto was amply supplied with all the usual modes of modern transportation, including a subway system, buses, taxis and cars. And yet Ned had to hire and horse and sleigh. In all my years in Toronto, never once have I seen anyone try to get through the snow with a horse and sleigh. Renting a snowmobile would be more believable.

At the mention of the horse and sleigh, a Canadian viewer will most likely feel that Ned has moved irretrievably into the realm of fantasy — a horse and sleigh? in Toronto? in 1968? — and begin to sympathize with Shirley’s point of view. But what about American viewers, who must have comprised the majority of the audience for The Swimmer? Many of them would have only the sketchiest idea of what Toronto is actually like,  and the idea of a horse-drawn sleigh ride through snowbound Toronto might seem perfectly plausible — might, in fact, link up neatly with their pre-existing notions of Canada as a rather romantic wilderness playground of cold and snow where horse-drawn sleighs whisk ruddy-cheeked, cuddling couples across the frozen expanse of Canada’s largest city as if they were on the Russian steppes.

(Despite my dismissive reaction, a little research reveals that such things are indeed available, though you have to travel outside Toronto to take advantage of them.)

Oh well — at least it wasn’t a dog sled.


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