Mountains So Sublime: Nineteenth-Century British Travellers and the Lure of the Rocky Mountain West
November 4, 2013
Review By Forrest Pass
Mountains So Sublime is a thoughtful study of the reactions of Victorian British travellers to the Rocky Mountain West, as expressed through their published travelogues and unpublished diaries and reminiscences. Recently retired from a long career as head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Idaho, Abraham exhibits an intimate knowledge of the sources he cites. Moreover, he has lived most of his life in the American Pacific Northwest and has visited many of the locations described in the century-old travel literature. The story he recounts is firmly grounded in place, and those familiar with the western landscape will share the author’s “pleasure in reading these descriptions [arising] from the shock of unfamiliarity coupled with the frequent recognition of places and things” (xv). His selection of illustrations – all engravings and photographs from the published works he cites – contributes to this “shock of unfamiliarity.” The engraving of a peak on the North Thompson from Viscount Milton and William B. Cheadle’s 1865 book, The Northwest Passage by Land, is an excellent example, demonstrating both the perceived sublimity of the mountains and the gloominess of the forests at their feet (16). As an American, albeit an American with strong Canadian connections, Abraham draws most of his examples from accounts of travels south of the 49th parallel. Nevertheless, there is much here to interest the British Columbianist, who will recognize the names of Alfred Waddington, W.A. Baillie-Grohman, and others among the travellers quoted.
Abraham’s treatment of the British travellers’ accounts, while not intended exclusively for a scholarly audience, demonstrates cognizance of the relevant historiography. Marjorie Hope Nicholson’s classic exploration of the relationship between mountains and British romanticism, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (1959), forms a theoretical foundation for his discussion of notions of the picturesque and the sublime, and numerous less well-known secondary works on the western North American landscape are also cited. His approach is thematic, with chapters examining the attractions of the west for British travellers, their first impressions of the Rockies, and the western encounters of several prominent British writers, including Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson. After these contextual discussions, Abraham allows the British travellers to speak for themselves, quoting extensively from their writings in Chapters 5, 6, and 7. The thematic approach works well, though some of the chapter divisions seem arbitrary. For example, aesthetic ideals comprise, just as much as their economic and recreational goals and their conceptions of class, a portion of the metaphorical “baggage” British travellers carried with them. It seems strange, therefore, that the chapters treating these topics are separated by several intervening chapters.
While most of Abraham’s analysis is both thoughtful and rigorous, a few areas merit further consideration. The first is the disconnection between the British traveller’s criticism of the degradation of landscape and his own involvement in environmentally insensitive activities. It is ironic, for example, to read W.A. Baillie-Grohman criticizing the greed of American capitalists (143) when he himself pursued an incredible scheme to divert the Kootenay River into the Columbia by means of a canal. Were the British travellers really so different from the North Americans they criticized? Without detracting from his focus on British travellers, more attention could have been given to American, and Canadian, voices about the landscape as a counterpoint to the romantic British perception. The exploitative impulses of North American settlers in the West were grounded as certainly in a particular conception of the environment as were the criticisms directed at them by British observers. Indeed, Abraham’s definition of “British” is slightly problematic. From the preface, we are led to believe that “British” is synonymous with “English,” while Irish, Welsh, and Scottish travellers are included when their accounts are available. But would the Nova Scotia-born George Monro Grant (9), secretary to Sandford Fleming’s first Canadian Pacific Railway survey and later principal of Queen’s College, Kingston, have considered himself British or Canadian? The two identities were not mutually exclusive, so why not include other Canadian travellers within the definition of British?
The division between Americans and Britons is less ambiguous than that between Britons and Canadians, and this raises a second issue: the conceptualization of region. It has become fashionable in recent years for historians to consider the American and Canadian mountain west as two parts of a single, transnational region. This approach offers valuable insight, and Abraham is certainly justified in using it. However, it should not obscure what differences did exist in British visitors’ perceptions of British Columbia and the American mountain and Pacific states and territories. Abraham does acknowledge that Canadian attitudes and ideals were not as foreign to British travellers as were those of Americans (166), and this is a point worthy of further attention. Canadian commentators were particularly anxious to emphasize points of contrast between British Columbia and the American West, but even metropolitan Britons were aware of the differences. British adventurers J.A. Lees and Walter J. Clutterbuck, whose book, B.C. 1887: A Ramble in British Columbia (1888), is one of very few published British accounts from the period not cited in Mountains So Sublime, found the American mountain frontier and its inhabitants much inferior to the Canadian, an inferiority they attributed to a failure to renew American frontier communities with new blood from Europe or the East.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Mountains So Sublime is a valuable contribution to the literature on western landscape. While British Columbia is only part of the author’s focus, the book has a definite appeal for those interested in early perceptions of the BC landscape. Abraham correctly notes that Canada lacks the body of scholarship on nineteenth-century travel literature comparable with that on the United States, and the book helps to bring several nineteenth-century descriptions of British Columbia back to the public eye. It is engagingly written, well illustrated, and an interesting and enjoyable read.