Canadian Exploration Literature: Ananthology Edited|
Letter from the Khyber Pass
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|On And Off The Track
by Michael Darting
ALTHOUGH very few of the writers includedin Canadian Exploration Literature were actually born onthis side of the Atlantic, it is quite possible to argue, as Germaine Warkentindoes in her introduction, that the writings of these European explorers and furtraders represent "the first body of a literature which can in any calledCanadian."
The anthology serves as a usefulcorrective to Margaret Atwood`s simplistic description in Survival ofthe two main themes of Canadian exploration literature: "Exploration thatdoesn`t `find` anything" and "Doomed exploration." In fact, whatis immediately striking about these explorers is not just how much they didfind, but also how little they felt threatened byit For the most part, neither nature nor the Native peoples posed a deadlythreat. It was nature, after all, in the form of animal furs, that kept theEuropeans coming back here in the 18th 19th centuries, and it`s clear fromthese writings that the fur trade was dependent on the cooperation of theindigenous Population.
Considered as works of literature, thejournals of the early explorers are no longer thought to be, as Northrop Fryeonce put it, "as innocent of literary intention as a mating loon."Contemporary critical theory`s fascination with the paraliterary hasconsiderably raised the profile of travel writing. With an obligatory bow intheory`s direction, Warkentin invites us to consider these narratives as"unstable texts," foregrounding "gaps," "silences,"and "erasures." Unnecessarily straining to justify the Contents of ananthology that is largely devoted to the writing of white European males,Warkentin claims to hear "other voices -women, natives, labourers --which speak through them." But no amount of deconstructive analysis candisguise the utilitarian outlook of the majority of European explorers: forthem, Indians were reliable and stoic guides with questionable personal habits,French-Canadians were lazy and dishonest, and women were useful to havearound at night.
Beginning with Radisson`s journal of 1660("Our wildmen weare dazelled att such guifts..."), the early exploration narratives might almost beviewed as business reports, so much are they concerned with commercialtransactions, or with social observations likely to assist future commercialtravellers. They remind me of contemporary guides for North American businessexecutives setting out for Japan, full of helpful notes on etiquette and localcustoms. With Samuel Hcarne`s Journey to theNorthern Ocean (1795), we come at last to a story -- a narrative, thatis, with some sense of dramatic structure, characterization, and the expressionof emotion. Also noteworthy is the narrative of David Thompson, "the mostoutstanding of Canadian exploration writers in English," which features,under a separate heading, the only Native voice, that of the Peigan chiefSaukamapee, describing life on the Prairies in the mid-18th century.
With its unmodernized spelling andextensive notes, Canadian Exploration
Literatureis a book intended for theadvanced student and teacher, for whom it will likely prove to be of greatvalue and interest. For the ordinary travel buff, however, George Woodcock`s Letter from the Khyber Pass would be a better read.Jim Christy, who edited the collection, has gathered together the best ofWoodcock`s travel articles, originally published in such magazines as Saturday Night, The Beaver, and Canadian Forum. As a traveller, Woodcock has always preferred the track lessbeaten: here he writes of Peru, Cambodia, Lebanon, Tibet, the Gilbert Islands,New Zealand, Burma, India, China, and the Welsh mining district.
At their best a fine blend of scholarshipand poetry, Woodcock`s travel narratives occasionally tip too far in thedirection of travel lectures, in which, as Keath Fraser has put it, "thescholar can still be seen inadvertently shoving the poet out of the road."Thus, while adept at describing the mystical atmosphere of Angkor War or theunspoiled beauty of the New Zealand coast, Woodcock is just as likely to launchinto an extended discussion of the Burmese political system or the socialproblems of modern Spain. He also has an unfortunate tendency to lapse intocondescension as, for instance, when he praises the "rich primitiveculture" of the Gilbert islands, with its "proud and utterlyuncorrupted people."
Woodcock`s travel writing, ironically,suffers from the fact that he has been everywhere and so often too that verylittle seems alien or exotic to him. Less a tourist than a tour guide, Woodcockinstructs more often than he surprises, but he is nonetheless a guide to whomwe would willingly give our attention.