History, Faculty, Research

Faculty Profile: Historian Jack Little

November 19, 2014

In the ubiquitous hunt to pin down the Canadian national identity, historian of Quebec Jack Little has in recent years broadened his studies to a national focus, now studying nineteenth and early twentieth century examples of “how others see us and also how we have interpreted ourselves.” Little has looked at the pre-Confederation period, including the Gold Rush era in BC.  The colonial writers he studied were “upper middle class British adventurers who had come here to strike it rich.” 

Little was surprised by how these early British travelers depicted the region; “I was really struck by how they were going through this very rugged and mountainous terrain, having some terrible times because they were totally unprepared, and instead of seeing it like Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness, it was this pretty, colourful, perspective and everything was picturesque.  It’s not what you expect.”

Historically, Little links this picturesque representation to British colonial pre-conceptions and also colonial interests.  For British travelers, “it is the lens they see the world through, it is what they are accustomed to, but it is also a subconscious way of expanding the British perspective onto the colony. If you look at the Canadian or Australian wilderness as picturesque then it’s not threatening, it makes it more attractive for colonization.”

Little has also written articles on American perceptions of Quebec, and on the cross-country journal written by Rupert Brooke in 1913.  A recently completed paper on Picturesque Canada: The Country as It Was and Is examines the picturesque presentation of Canada from the perspective of Canadian writers.  As Little sees it, “this massive two volume book that came out in the 1880s was promoting Canadian nationalism, but the urban industries don’t play a role and the railway is very much in the background. With its major focus on the opening of the Prairie west to settlement, it’s about Canada as a frontier but also as a picturesque place.” 

Little points out this is quite different from the book Picturesque America which came out roughly ten years earlier, and boasts descriptions of impressive mountains, canyons and rock formations, huge waves and waterfalls.  For Little, “the argument is that Americans were pushing a view of the sublime as a way of distancing themselves from England and Europe, a way of saying we’re distinct and we’re great.  I would argue that Canadian nationalists presented the landscape in a much tamer way.  It is a mentality that persists until after the turn of the twentieth century when the Group of Seven arrived on the scene and presented a new wilderness vision.” 

A priority has been to bring this new focus on landscape into the classroom.  This fall Little is teaching a seminar called Visions of Canada that will encourage students to research travel narratives and tourist brochures as well as novels, art, and other media.  For Little, since so many published documents are now readily available online or in the library’s microfiche collection, the students will be challenged to produce interesting original research and as he says, “those are the most enjoyable courses to teach.”

He is also co-organizing a workshop on the history of Canadian tourism this fall at the Granville Island Hotel, “a nice little touristy area,” Little says with a smile.  Tourism is a broader, yet still relevant, take on Little’s historical focus on landscapes.  Little observes, “tourism history is very new in Canada, it’s a new field in general.  A lot of interesting work is being done on it though; it’s the largest and fastest-growing industry in the world in terms of employment, so of course it’s important in Canada.”

According to Little,  “the response has been great, we have twenty people who are coming with papers from all across Canada, and from a number of different disciplines, people in fine arts, literature, history, geography, business, so I think it’s going to be very interesting.”  The topics to be presented range from ‘wild’ horses at the Calgary Stampede and cross-Canada hitchhiking in the 1970s, to the St Lawrence Seaway as a tourist site and the Harper government’s promotion of 1812 War battlefield tourism. 

Little’s ongoing study of landscapes and tourism as a window into representations of Canada has provided much food for thought. He now lives on Bowen Island, a place that has become the focus of a recent article (Vancouver’s Playground: Leisure and Sociability on Bowen Island, 1902-57) on day tripping and urban sociability in the steamship era.