Notes on 30th Text for Reading Field: Jasen

Canadian History, Week Five

Patricia Jasen. Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Patricia Jasen seeks to demonstrate that from 1790 to 1914, visits to the ‘wilderness’ allowed tourists to engage in the fashionable pursuit of romanticism, experiencing the sublime and encountering the picturesque. She argues that this pursuit, though fueled by ideology, was made possible by an expanding complex of capitalist endeavors. These, although loosely organized, in aggregate formed a recognizable tourist industry. Her proposition is that “romantic values” and entrepreneurial marketing combined to reinforce “concrete social, political, and economic” agendas.[1] The agendas, to her way of thinking, in combination added up to an active perpetuation of colonialism as an “expansionist cause.”[2] As an ideology in its own right, she avers, the impetus for colonialism incorporated and was bolstered by such romantic, dichotomous themes as ‘wild’ and ‘civilized.’

Jasen outlines the development of tourism as an industry in Niagara Falls, along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, in the upper Great Lakes, the Muskoka region north of Toronto, and she touches on excursions to civic parklands. She illuminates complex and ironic interactions between Euro-American tourists and Native inhabitants, pointing to the divergences between ideals and actualities that made up identities attributed to both. Especially well handled is Jasen’s description of how identities were appealed to and employed for commercial gain, and used for reinforcing or crossing over cultural divides – activities that were initiated on both sides of a divide as well as in the space between.

Jasen’s presentation of tourism, holidaying, and vacationing as a predominantly middle-class phenomena in Ontario, though equally interesting, is not as thoroughly established. The principal problem is that her account does not consistently delineate ‘middle’ from ‘moneyed’ and ‘working class’ families and individuals. It is not clear whether this is not an easily accomplished socio-economic division in the historical Canadian context (which was complicated by incursions or infusions of American individuals and groups), or whether her primary sources were obscure on the distinction.

Jasen makes a point of including women in her history. Interestingly, her assertion (made in 1995), that women have been underrepresented in the historiography of travel, stands in stark contrast to the later (made in 1998), equally adamant, but opposing assertion of historian Bonnie G. Smith: that women found a niche in travel writing that was lucrative, self-fulfilling, and open because men were largely absent from the field.[3]

There are gaps in Jasen’s analysis that, in my opinion, mark her historiography as an exploratory treatment that establishes starting points on a new topic, rather than a full dissertation in a mature field. For instance, her analysis of tourism is more geographically limited than her title suggests. She examines recreation, holidaying, and vacationing in areas of southern Ontario to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). Locations such as Rat Portage (Kenora), and Vermillion Bay are not covered. This is a regrettable absence. Inclusion of the disputed north-western territory in her examination would have enhanced her consideration of race, class, and gender as played out in the justification of, and reaction to, colonizing ambitions and behaviors that marked territorial expansion in Ontario. Other aspects of her argument would benefit from more thorough explanation as well. For example, it is not clear whether the dichotomization of ‘wild’ from ‘civilized’ was in fact an unvarying constant from the 18th-, through the 19th-, to the early 20th-century, or whether the dichotomy represents Jasen’s own conception of oppositional valuations. Not only would supplying  explanation go some ways to forestalling any apprehesion that Jasen’s treatment might prove ahistorical or anachronistic, it might suggest areas for deeper examination.[4] I would like to know, for example, why Jasen does not consider domesticated, rather than civilized, as perhaps a more fitting flip-side of wild. I wonder as well whether she considered the relation of civilized (from Latin, civil), to citizen — a relation sugesting (at least for some people, in some places, at some points in time), that the opposite of the civilized individual is perhaps the non-franchised: someone who is the un-represented, but nevertheless the subject, of a political economic regime.

Lastly, words should matter in a text that seeks to tie ideologies to historical behavior through the study of textual material that was consciously designed to evoke particular emotional or intellectual, and ultimately pecuniary responses through the use of carefully chosen language. Jasen assents that the words chosen do matter.[5] Yet, although she analyses the term ‘tourist’ as opposed to ‘traveller,’ she does not remark on the significance (or lack of significance), that the use (or non-use), of equally loaded terms such as ‘holiday’, ‘recreation’, and ‘vacation’ may have held. Was there change in usage over time? Was the secularization within society that was a factor in choosing to travel on days previously reserved for worship reflected in the choice of terminology? Was there a perceptible difference between imaginatively re-creating a wild or free personae and vacating a civilized one? Was the difference ideological? Did it mark socio-cultural and political economic boundaries within society?

Crossing the theoretical divide between cultural and social historiographical camps is a difficult undertaking. In my opinion the degree to which it succeeds is directly related to the degree to which material is probed. And, thorough probing, I would argue, would see more political and economic history included in the mix than Jasen supplies.[6]

Additional resources:

Michael Dawson, review of Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914, by Patricia Jasen, H-Net Reviews, http://bit.ly/OZZz.

Government of Ontario, “Yours to Discover: Tourism in Ontario through Time,” virtual exhibit, Archives of Ontario, http://bit.ly/2hWD6G.

Leonard Matheson Norris, cartoon, “I submit, sir, that this talk of having our police wear bobby helmets again to attract tourists carries the snide implication, sir, that we’re not doing our bit…” Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-243-50, (view online http://bit.ly/ZVG6l).


[1] Patricia Jasen, Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 7.

[2] Jasen, Wild Things, 152; see also 58-59, for a discussion of Washington Irving, Fenimore Cooper and the Hudson River School that suggests parallels with Donald Creighton’s idea of rivers as roads to empire.

[3] Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[4] See Michael Dawson, “Ontario revisited,” review of Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914 by Patricia Jasen, H-Net, cached at <http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev. cgi?path=12175862319888>, for charges of ahistoricism.

[5] Jasen, Wild Things, 26.

[6] For example, Jasen neglects to query the effect of cycles of economic depression.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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