Frontier literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Frontier literature

Frontier literature

The challenges of empire filled the personal writings of adventurers, dreamers, and newcomers to the outback. The allure of newness appealed to the British romancers Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, RUDYARD KIPLING, and H. RIDER HAGGARD, and to the Tasmanian historians James Fenton and John West, while it also introduced a subgenre known as the emigration text, a study of the hazards of settling in a foreign clime. Less optimistic on the topic, of JOSEPH CONRAD turned the plunder of the Congo jungle into a brain sickness in his classic novel HEART OF DARKNESS (1899), in which the outsider plunges into a toxic environment made savage by the exploiter rather than by the African native. Danish fabulist ISAK DINESEN'S Out of Africa (1937), like OLIVE SCHREINER'S The Story of an African Farm (1883) and G. B. Lancaster's A Spur to Smite (1906), aired concerns for the displaced pastoral tribes of Kenya and the paternalism that replaced their ancestral freedoms.

In Canada, the English-born sister authors Susanna Strickland Moodie (1803-85) and CATHARINE PARR TRAILL (1802-99) revealed a duality that informed the English-speaking readership of the glories and terrors of living in the wild. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, Traill, Moodie's older sibling and fellow provincial settler, settled outside Peterborough, Upper Canada (now Ontario), north of the Lake Ontario, in 1832 and collected her impressions in The Backwoods of Canada (1836). At peace in her home on the Otonabee River, she describes the frontier as a land of hope, newness, and anticipation. In a polite quibble with an Ohioan, she admits to prejudice against the rough plains behaviors to the south. His retort reminds her that “It would be hard if the English were to be judged as a nation by the convicts of Botany Bay” (Traill 1836, 293). To would- be pioneers, she warns that frontier life is not easy for genteel idlers and fortune hunters. She allies with pioneering “bush-ladies” (271) and alerts less hardy souls, “If people will not conform to the doctrine of necessity and expediency, they have no business in it” (140).

Susanna Moodie, a less contented emigrant arriving from Leith, Scotland, in 1832 at Douro, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), covered rural life in Roughing It in the Bush; or Life in Canada (1852) and of community experiences in Belleville, Ontario, in Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853). Unlike the Nova Scotian poet and journalist Joseph Howe (1804-73), who valorized native conditions with “The Song of the Micmac” (1874), a salute to the fortitude of aboriginal settlers, Moodie took the side of the imperial reformer. In the first volume, the cautionary text pairs “a peculiar charm in the excitement of improving a wilderness for the benefit of children and posterity” with homesickness for England's sophistication (Moodie 1852, 287). While living in a vermin-infested log cabin, Moodie pictures herself as a dutiful wife, homesteader, and parent. In the same imagery, she describes Canada as a foster mother to civilization's orphans, a reference to her Canadian-born daughter Agnes Dunbar and sons John Alexander Dunbar, Donald, and John Strickland. In a sobering balance, she treasures Ontario as the site of family graves, including John Strickland Moodie, who drowned in the Moira River in 1844 at age five.

The Poet's Canada

Other genres particularize the purpose and expectation of western settlers. The Irish poet Thomas D'Arcy McGee (1825-68), spoke in “The Arctic Indian's Faith” (1869) of the spirituality he gained from observing the animism of the Wapiti of Montreal, a view he shared with the British- Mohawk author PAULINE JOHNSON. Charles Mair (ca. 1838-1927), a native-born Ontarian from Lanark, honored a Shawnee warrior in the verse drama Tecumseh (1902), which revealed to white audiences the native belief in communal living on undeeded land. Mair's protagonist declares, “Our fathers commiserated [the whites'] distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given to his red children” (Mair 1886, 7). Of Shawnee greatheartness, the text promotes sharing “all earthly goods / by the Great Spirit mean for common use” (13) and reminds the native to honor traditions of living off the land, loving wives and children, and respecting peace among nations.

To Samuel Mathewson Baylis (1854-1941), the romanticized era of the French woods runner in the poem “The Coureur-de-Bois” (1919), like the cowboy of the plains, favored the loner rather than the family man. In a time of all-male bonding and hardihood, the survivalist “roved a king / His untamed will his law” (Lochhead and Souster 1974, 93), a perspective supported by dime novels and early Hollywood screenplays.

William Henry Drummond (1854-1907), an Irish physician with a love of language, found much to admire in the Creole, particularly the off-and-on cadencing of Franglais, a pastiche of French and English. In “The Habitant” (1898), he agrees with a resident of Cheval Blanc (Whitehorse) about avoiding the city in favor of the wild. With the swagger of the backwoodsman, the speaker declares, “If you geev de fine house an' beaucoup d'argent (plenty of money)— / I rader be stay me, an' spen' de las' day me / On farm by de rapide” (101).

Poets who published in provincial newspapers and journals popularized nature verse as a vehicle for sermonizing. William Kirby (1817-1906), a journalist in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and editor of the Niagara Mail, considered frontiering a form of character refinement. In the ode “Lord Lorne in the Northwest” (1881) and the didactic idyll “ThunderStorm in August” (ca. 1876), he welcomes rough weather on the prairies and in the mountains as reminders of the creator's dominance over empires. In the latter poem, the speaker declares “reverses, poverty, disease, and death” a form of “purifying fire … To stay corruption's foul contagious breath, / To keep alive the spark of truth within” (17).

A Scots poet, Alexander MacLachlan (181896) of eastern Ontario, charged newcomers to Canadian with generating urban rot in a pristine environment that his poem “Indian Summer” labels holy. Like the conservationist Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney, 1808-1938) and the nationalist Mair, MacLachlan doubted that Canada would survive the waves of European immigrants that carried them from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In “We Live in a Rickety House” (1900), he thunders, “Our ignorance and crime / Are the Church's shame and disgrace” (21). The statement repudiates prevalent notions of empire building as a Christian duty to pagan lands.

Colonizing Australasia

Essential to accounts of frontier life in the provincial Southern Hemisphere, anonymous convict laments, settlers' diaries and journals, and verse scenarios often tinged colonial homesteading with nationalism. The canon espouses a love-hate relationship that portrays England as both nurturing founder and oppressor, as voiced in the seditious effrontery of the anonymous “The Wild Colonial Boy” (1830). Inhumanity dominates the action of Marcus Clarke's novel His Natural Life (1874), a tragedy of duty and personal ethics featuring British transportees imprisoned in alien spots such as Macquarie Harbour in Van Diemen's Land, an early name for Tasmania. The cruelty of living incommunicado emerges in the reminder that “No letters are allowed to be sent to the friends of prisoners without first passing through the hands of the authorities” (Clarke 2006, 242), a regulation more in keeping with the early history of Australasia's colonization. The core of later Australian literary themes rests on concepts of liberty and civil rights, themes in the work of the journalist Daisy Bates (1859-1951), who described infant cannibalism and trade in females in The Passing of the Aborigines (1938), an unsympathetic view of native nonwhites.

Establishing a continental identity, the folk ballads of Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson (1864-1941) and Henry Lawson (1867-1922), Australia's national poet, focused on bushrangers, cowboys, and raffish loners in rugged territory outside the bounds of European gentility and the control of Queen Victoria. In 1887, Lawson acknowledged fealty to both land and queen in “The Song of the Republic,” an anthem to patriotism published in the Bulletin, Australia’s oldest newsmagazine.

Both Lawson and Paterson depicted the first- generation Aussie as a model of bush pragmatism and self-reliance, subjects reflecting similar topics in the empire literature of H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and ROBERT Louis STEVENSON. The legendary outback hero, particularly the title figure in Paterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” (ca. 1888), thrived in the high country and developed a mystic oneness with drought, heat, and aboriginal and animal elements of the grasslands and desert. In “Song of the Pen” (ca. 1885), Paterson declares that such outlanders thrive on cattle herding, sheep shearing, and horse breaking and avows, “Work is its own reward!” (Paterson 2004, 3), a statement ironically reflective of the values of late Victorian England.

The mythos of endurance in the wild colonial communities distanced from the mother country asserted grit and daring as tests of individualism, the theme of Lawson’s short story “The Drover’s Wife” (ca. 1892); “While the Billy Boils” (1896), an ode in prose to the overland stockman; and Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda” (1895), a poem used as an advertising ditty for “Billy” brand tea in western Queensland in 1902 that became Australia’s unofficial national anthem. It symbolizes the outback swagman as the empire’s reject. In “Old Australian Ways” (1902), Paterson emphasizes what separates the Aussie from Great Britain: “Our fathers came of roving stock / That could not fixed abide” (Paterson 1987, 27). Adrift from English jurisprudence, the frontiersman “must saddle up and go / Beyond the Queensland side, / Beyond the reach of rule or law” (27).

A Colonial Survey

Early in the 20th century, Edith Joan Lyttleton (1873-1945), a Tasmanian author who wrote under the pseudonym G. B. Lancaster, gained popular success in Europe and the United States for colonial fiction laced with scenic grandeur, slang, and outback jargon. From submitting short works to the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, the Australian, Everybody’s Magazine, Harper’s, and the Bulletin, she advanced to specific provincial challenges in the three novels, Aussie bushmen in A Spur to Smite (1905), pioneers and miners in The Tracks We Tread (1907), and Melanesian missions and the press gangs of European copra and lumber traders in New Caledonia and Vuataoni in the northern Solomon Islands in The Altar Stairs (1908). In Lancaster’s ethical evaluation of the Royal North-West Mounted Police in The Law-Bringers (1913), the protagonist, Officer Jim Tempest, like GEORGE ORWELL in Burma in his autobiographical “Shooting an Elephant” (1950), bears the solitary burden of “regular patrols, the settlement of little sordid matters, the suggestion of law and order which he carried on his own body where he went” (Lancaster 1913, 76). His duties as a law enforcer take him from Grey Wolf, an outpost on the Athabaska River in north Alberta, to Hudson Bay and up Oregon’s McKenzie River to the Arctic, a long trek made wretched by solitude and predators, human and animal.

Lancaster’s one-woman empire survey continued with research into yellow fever and American imperialism in Cuba and Panama in Fool Divine (1917) and into Tasmanian convict labor in a Lyttleton family saga, Pageant (1933), a Literary Guild selection and winner of a Gold Medal for Australian literature. In the chapter entitled “Civilising” in the latter novel, she re-creates the preparations of locals for a visit from a British royal. In a deft aside, she adds, “At last the hated stigma of convict was erased, although it seemed likely that England would not discover this for another half-century” (Lancaster 1933, 328). Lancaster shifted her interests northeast to the Yukon for The World Is Yours (1934) and to the settlement of New Zealand for Promenade (1938), in which she criticizes the muddles of imperialism: “That infernal East India Company … trying to entangle us; and Stamford Raffles [the founder of Singapore] imploring us to hold on to Singapore— a worthless mud-flat; and Australia clamouring for protection and her own way” (Lancaster 1938, 34). The text honors the first generation of islanders, “those who were no exiles, to whom New Zealand was the only land they knew” (161). In her last months, Lancaster showcased provincial courage in Nova Scotia in Grand Parade (1944), a salute to female colonialists.



Clarke, Marcus. His Natural Life. London: Adamant Media, 2006.

Dixon, Miriam. The Real Matilda: Woman and Identity in Australia 1788 to 1975. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1976.

Lancaster, G. B. The Law-Bringers. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1913.

------- . Pageant. Victoria, Aust.: Penguin, 1933.

------- . Promenade. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938. Lawson, Henry. Henry Lawson: Twenty Stories and Seven

Poems. Perth, Aust.: Angus and Robertson, 1947.

Lochhead, Douglas, and Raymond Souster, comps. 100 Poems of Nineteenth Century Canada. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974.

Mair, Charles. Tecumseh: A Drama. Toronto: Hunter, Rose, 1886.

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush; or, Life in Canada. London: Richard Bentley, 1852.

Paterson, Andrew Barton. Banjo Paterson’s Poems of the Bush. London: J. M. Dent, 1987.

----- . Saltbush Bill, J. P, and Other Verses. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.

Proudfoot, Lindsay J., and M. M. Roche. (Dis)placing Empire: Renegotiating British Colonial Geographics. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.

Steenman-Marcusse, Cornelia Janneke. Re-writing Pioneer Women in Anglo-Canadian Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Sturm, Terry. An Unsettled Spirit: The Life and Frontier Fiction of Edith Lyttleton. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2003.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America. London: Charles Knight, 1836.