There are treasures to be found in the General Collection of the John J. Burns Library. These are not necessarily the epic or profound treasures of the Burns Library’s more renowned collections or antiquities, but ones that, nevertheless, document the more mundane matters or quotidian concerns of a certain era’s comings and goings, ones that do comprise, as has been well said, “the quick and dirty products of everyday print.” Of these, a handbook published for the rising travel movement of Gilded Age America provides insight into both the peregrinations of Americans and the local customs of their potential destination—the Maritime Provinces of Canada. This first edition, 1875, of The Maritime Provinces: A Handbook for Travellers, overseen by M. F. Sweetser,which was advertised for sale to the travelling public for $2.00, was “designed to enable travellers to visit any or all of the notable places in the Maritime Provinces, with economy of money, time, and temper, by giving lists of the hotels with their prices, description of the various routes by land and water, and maps and plans of the principal cities and the ancient settlements along the coast.” It chronicles the language, customs, climate and principal occupations of these young Canadian Provinces—or still British Colonies in the case of Newfoundland—for the expectant voyager in 1875 when this region had “as yet received little attention of this kind.”
The publication of this book also relates to the Boston area and implicates its own unique story. It comes as one of a series of such travel handbooks from the press at the publishing house of Osgood and Company based in Boston, a venture with its own tumultuous and interesting history among the American industry. James R. Osgood was a pedantic literary figure and publisher from the area, who began his involvement in the publishing industry with Ticknor and Fields, becoming partner by 1864 and owner in 1868. Often plagued by insolvency, the various iterations of his own publishing efforts championed, at one time or another, many adventurous and notable publishing ventures of the late 19th century, including: The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, Henry Wilson’s 3 vol. history of the Civil War, The Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, an edition of Edward Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, an edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an American edition of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Osgood also had an important publishing relationship with Samuel Clemens. Osgood also had a connection with the great novelist Charles Dickens, who, as the Charles Dickens museum documents, orchestrated a six-mile walking race on a snowy Boston February in which Osgood was declared victorious following a final-lap intake of brandy. The well-crafted weblog bibliophemera suggests that Osgood may have also had a connection with the beautifully illustrated Harvard Book. One of Osgood’s successor companies went on to become a part of the publishing conglomerate Houghton Mifflin.
As for the handbook itself, the genre of travel literature, to which this book belongs, is becoming a burgeoning field of scholarly inquiry. We can envision here paradigmatically Marco Polo’s ventures to the China and Mongol Empires, or the Journey of medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta from his own Islamic lands to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and back. But even on a smaller scale, travel literature depicts the elaboration of identity and self-understanding under the conditions of foreignness, the construction of the other from the perspective an originating culture, as well as transnational and cross-cultural encounters and movements. Travel crystallizes that dimension of pilgrim restlessness in the human condition. In the case of American travel literature, the Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writingemblazons the following claim of literary scholars Judith Hamera and Alfred Bendixen as its introduction: “Travel and the construction of American identity are intimately linked. This connection undergirds commonplace descriptions of America as a nation of immigrants and a restless populace on the move. It lies at the heart of the politics of Manifest Destiny, in complex relationships between the technology, commerce, and aesthetics of the car culture, and in [its] migration narratives…American travel writing both acknowledges this connection and deploys it to perform complex ideological and cultural work.”
Just such cultural work is on display in this book when Sweetser juxtaposes the cultural realities of American and Canadian societies: “The remarkable ethnological phenomenon here presented are also calculated to awaken interest in…The American tourist [who], accustomed to the homogenousness of the cities and rural communities of the Republic, may here see extensive districts inhabited by Frenchmen or by Scottish Highlanders, preserving their national languages, customs, and amusements unaffected by the presence and pressure of British influence and power.” We also encounter here and early appearance of that great American stereotypical assessment of the Canadian sensibility: “The people of the Provinces are generally courteous, and are willing to answer any civilly put questions. The inhabitants of the more remote districts are distinguished for their hospitality, and are kindly disposed and honest.”
For the researcher interested in that period of Canada’s development, lastly, this book, bristles with detailed and informative accounts of daily life and society—transportation systems and costs, lodging, early city plans. The accompanying maps are particularly notable. Vivid in detail and scintillating in presentation, these maps encapsulate that region during this period of its development. Among which, the urban history of St. John, Halifax, Montreal and Quebec is depicted. This remains a rich source for early Canadiana, and
early American views of Canada, for a time and area in which there are only limited remaining sources.
Whether the detail discovered about the early Maritime landscape will resonate with the ambivalence the author records—“Some travelers have greatly admired the rural scenery of these suburban roads, but others have reported them as tame and uninteresting”—nevertheless, such a source from the Burns Library General Collection still is found to open up the worlds of 19th century publishing, identity construction in American travel literature and early Canadiana.
- James Daryn Henry, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Theology
Bendixen, Alex, and Judith Hamera. The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Sweetser, M.F. The Maritime Provinces: A Handbook for Travellers. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875.
Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing. New York: Routledge, 2011.