Oram on Calder, 'Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness'

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Oram on Calder, 'Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness'
Jenni Calder
Richard Oram

Jenni Calder. Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 256 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7486-4738-5.

Reviewed by Richard Oram (University of Stirling)
Published on H-Environment (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Dolly Jørgensen

Describing a book as a flawed gem runs the risk of damning with faint praise, but labeling Lost in the Backwoods as such a work is intended to highlight its tremendous successes as well its shortcomings. For readers seeking a better understanding of the individual experiences of Scots in North America in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of their collective contribution to the complex processes of domination, conquest and colonization, and state formation and identity building, Jenni Calder has assembled a remarkable sequence of vignettes that illustrate key phases and episodes in the “making” of Canada and the United States. She has also produced an enthralling series of explorations of the individual experiences of Scotsmen and Scotswomen, detailing both positive and negative responses and outcomes to the unimaginable challenges of the unforgiving, alien environment into which entered. Told most powerfully in chapters 2 (“The Never-Ending Forest”) and 3 (“Desperate Undertakings”), Calder’s narrative captures the sense of awe, unpreparedness, and inadequacy of the early colonists and pioneering explorers in the face of the immensity, diversity, and utter unfamiliarity of the continent and its dramatically varied environment. It is a narrative of individual triumphs and tragedies; failure, setback, and success; overweening ambition and unrealistic expectation; and the hard, grinding reality of the efforts to convert what was perceived as untamed wilderness into something that was recognizable as “home.” Calder offers a series of individual stories whose uniting thread happens to be the Scottish identity or heritage of the characters enacting them.

Therein lies the flaw; the narrative rarely moves beyond collective biography to examine the wider context in which these Scots were actors and participants. The overarching influences of international politics (Britain or Russia versus the fledgling United States), mercantilism, and expansion of trade-based imperialism make cameo appearances throughout the discussion, but even where some of the men and women whose lives are examined moved on to become key figures in commerce or government, these external influences are treated almost as serendipitous phenomena. More fundamental, however, are the questions raised by the assumptions sketched out in chapter 1 (“Scotland’s Hard Country”). Considering the centrality of “wilderness” to the book’s subject matter, it is disappointing to find so little real engagement in this critical chapter in which Calder sets out her fundamental thesis with extensive literature surrounding the development of the concept of wilderness in Scottish, British, and European traditions. Given the impressive depth of the research into the North American experience, it is particularly disappointing to see the formative scene setting of the Scottish context reduced to a series of semi-mythical tropes culled largely from Whiggish narratives of modernizing improvers struggling against ignorance and near-barbarity in a wild, unforgiving environment. Here especially there is no engagement with the last decade of discussion of the development of the juxtaposed notions of “Highland” and “Lowland” landscapes and cultures in Scotland, and of the supposed interconnection of the physical landscape and the physical and mental characteristics of the people living in these areas: hard landscapes and harsh environments supposedly breed hardy people. That this is a trope that can be traced at least as far back as Isidore of Seville in his Etymologia, which has its own roots in that conscious classical Latin opposition of the virtuous barbarian and the vice-ridden civilized man, both presented as end-products of the environments in which they moved, goes unrecognized here. If you are looking for a forensic discussion of the development of “the wilderness idea” in Enlightenment Scotland and its transplanting into the reality of the American wilds, this is not a place to find it.

In some parts, the discussion—like the book’s title—becomes somewhat lost in the backwoods and the key themes that Calder sets out to explore get overwhelmed in a mass of often repetitive detail about the organization of expeditions and the range of hardships that Scots experienced. In places, the relentless flow of descriptive information detracts from rather than enhances the case being made. That is to be regretted, because the core discussion of this work—the collective involvement of Scots in the transformation of North America and the manner in which, in turn, that participation has influenced Scottish perceptions of both self and that continent at home—represents a hugely significant contribution to research into the colonial experience. To gain the best from this book, however, like many of the men and women whose lives it details, you must persevere to the end.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=40174

Citation: Richard Oram. Review of Calder, Jenni, Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2014.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40174

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