Exploration and Travel Literature in French | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Exploration and Travel Literature in French

Travel accounts, in their dual capacity as documentation and literature, were the founding texts of Quebec culture. The early narratives offer eyewitness accounts of how a small group of Europeans established settlements in North America.

Exploration and Travel Literature in French

Travel accounts, in their dual capacity as documentation and literature, were the founding texts of Québec culture. The early narratives offer eyewitness accounts of how a small group of Europeans established settlements in North America. For the years 1534-1634 in particular, they are our richest sources for the reconstruction of both the period's mentality and its events. As literature, they established subjects that later writers picked up: nomadic life in the open spaces, the St Lawrence River, the seasons and the process of settling a country. The accounts of travel in New France fall into 3 somewhat overlapping categories: the investigations and explorations reported by Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain; the more encyclopedic accounts written by Gabriel Sagard, Nicolas Denys and the Jesuits; and the critical analyses of Louis Hennepin and Baron de Lahontan.

Cartier studied the St Lawrence R, offered the first overall view of the Montréal region and attempted to develop a comprehensive profile of the Indian. Champlain left the waterways behind, penetrated the land and its villages, formed alliances and waged war. Sagard, whose descriptive narrative is predominantly ethnological in approach, takes a narrow but perceptive look at the Huron, pores over the details of their daily life, and attempts to draw conclusions about their sexual, religious, dietary and political practices.

The Jesuits, on the other hand, in their comprehensive 60-year inquiry recorded in the Jesuit Relations, produced a more fragmented but also more systematic study. Their knowledge was informed by a mixture of mysticism and militant evangelism and a vision of the world as a vast theatre where God and Satan fight a bitter, unending battle, in this case through the "savages." Finally, Lahontan, in his Nouveaux Voyages, Mémoires and Dialogues, sought not so much to record new knowledge about the new land as to challenge the nature of what was already known. Whereas Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix had presented North American history as a coherent, comprehensible whole, Lahontan argued that because it was forever changing, it could have no lasting meaning.

The travel account, a complex genre, is both a description of individual experiences and a means through which existing general knowledge can be disputed or expanded. Yet how can the author convey the uniqueness of his own adventures when, in many cases, others have travelled his route before him? It is not enough to stress exotic and curious events and places; they must be dramatized, ordered and put into an appropriate context for the understanding of the reader. This explains the numerous dissertations on the climate and on the Indians' origins and religion; the many charts and drawings of North American Indians, and of septentrional (northern) and méridional (southern) plants and animals; the long descriptions of certain pet phenomena - for Lahontan, the beaver; for Hennepin, Niagara Falls; for the Jesuits and Marie de l'Incarnation, the earthquake of 1663, war, hunting, and the elaborate Huron marriage rituals and festival of the dead.

From 1760 on, travel accounts fall into 3 main categories. Reports written by the voyageurs, traders and explorers comprise the first of these groups. Although relatively few first-hand narratives are extant, 20th-century Canadian and American scholars have brought to light interesting accounts written between 1779 and 1810 by Joseph-François Perrault, Jean-Baptiste Perrault, Charles Le Raye, Jean-Baptiste Trudeau, Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, François-Antoine Larocque and Gabriel Franchère.

A second category, which flourished in the first half of the 19th century, consists of missionary reports replete with observations on Indian and Métis life. Les Missions by Fathers Modeste Demers and François-Norbert Blanchet and descriptions of the Pacific coast region by Fathers Jean-Baptiste Brouillet and Jean-Baptiste Bolduc are typical of such accounts. By the 1880s French Canadian missionary orders were sending their members out to labour in the far corners of the British Empire, Latin America, French Africa, Japan and China, and reports of their travels were published in a plethora of mission-oriented periodicals (see Mission and Missionaries).

The third and by far the largest category of travel literature produced since the end of the French regime belongs to the golden age of transatlantic luxury tourism, from the mid-19th century to the early 1960s. More than 70 accounts of travel to the "Old World" were published between 1815 and 1914. France is described in 46 of these, Italy (especially Rome) in 38 and England in 20. Tourists and pilgrims also visited the Holy Land, Algeria, Egypt, Spain and Greece. All these narratives provide valuable insights into the mentality of the clerical and intellectual elite of Québec at the time.

Accounts still recognized for their literary merit include Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis's Journal d'un voyage en Europe ... 1819-1820; François-Xavier Garneau's Voyage en Angleterre et un France [1831-33] (1854-55); and a variety of accounts by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, Honoré Beaugrand, Narcisse-Henri-Edouard Faucher de Saint-Maurice, Jules-Paul Tardivel, Father Léon Provancher, Father Jean-Baptiste Proulx and Father Henri Cimon. Quality declined after 1914, but there were exceptions to the general banality, eg, the writings of Henri Bourassa, Jean Bruchési; Charles-Joseph Magnan, Dr Jules Dorion, Germaine Bernier (Impressions, 1954) and Alain Grandbois (Visages du monde). Eugène Cloutier also wrote a series of fine personal travel reports (En Suède, 1970; A Cuba, 1971; Au Chili, 1972).

Travel writers also wrote about trips through Québec, Canada, the US and even Africa. Arthur Buies was clearly the best of those writing on Québec. Others wrote of specific historical events such as the War of 1812; the Rebellions of 1837-38 (seen through the eyes of political exiles, who described their adventures as deportees in Bermuda and Australia); the California gold rush; the expedition to Mexico (Faucher de Saint-Maurice); the experiences of the pontifical Zouaves; the North-West campaign of 1885; the Klondike Gold Rush; and the 2 world wars.

In sum, travel accounts in French were at their richest - from every point of view - during the French regime. Thereafter, the adventurous missionary and colonial expeditions, with all their suspense, sense of purpose and excitement of discovery, were followed by relatively uneventful tourist excursions. In the 19th century autobiography and the novel supplanted travel literature as expressions of personal adventure. By the 1960s, as a result of mass tourism and the competition of mass media, this genre had virtually disappeared from French Canadian literature.

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