Monday, April 26, 2010

Knights of the Umbrella and the Bundle: Thoreau's A Yankee in Canada

When I worked at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, Maynard Gertler had his office for Harvest House (1960-1995) on the upper floor. I remember his interesting trestle tables and a large bookshelf between holding copies of his printed books. The tables had the feel of being hand-made, by him. I sort of envisaged him hewing the wood on his farm across the border in Ontario. An interesting robust man with a wealth of life experience. My casual conversations with him always left me wanting to know more. The questions I now have about the artists who did cover work for him would have been more timely when I had only to knock on his door, or stop him in the hallway, but I was too busy then with jobs and university for extra bibliographical pursuits of that nature. Timing in life can sometimes be everything. When Maynard closed his office in the mid-nineties, he sold his business to the University of Ottawa Press and his archives were sold to Queen's University in 2008. A general overview of his publishing house can be found at The Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing.

The volume pictured above, A Yankee in Canada by Henry David Thoreau, sports cover art by Allan Harrison. It is an early Harvest House issue from 1961 with an introduction by Maynard Gertler who edited the volume. The edition I have is in wrappers, fairly heavy paper stock, the cover title printed in alternating blue and orange which gives it a period feel. It is listed on the title page and on the back cover as "An Emulation Book". The source edition is cited as coming from the Montreal Public Library's Gagnon Collection and thanks are given to the curator Mr. Jules Bazin.

Allan Harrison was directly inspired by the text in his choice of image for the cover. Thoreau writes of his predilection for travelling light, no valises and carpet-bags for him:

The perfection of travelling is to travel without baggage. After considerable reflection and experience, I have concluded that the best bag for the foot-traveller is made with a handkerchief, or, if he studied appearances, a piece of stiff brown paper, well tied up, with a fresh piece within to put outside when the first is torn. That is good for both town and country, and none will know but you are carrying home the silk for a new gown for your wife, when it may be a dirty shirt. A bundle which you can carry literally under your arm, and which will shrink and swell with its contents. I never found the carpet-bag of equal capacity, which was not a bundle of itself. We styled ourselves the Knights of the Umbrella and the Bundle; for wherever we went, whether to Notre Dame or Mount Royal, or the Champs-de-Mars, to the Town Major's or the Bishop's Palace, to the Citadel, with a bare-legged Highlander for our escort, or to the Plains of Abraham, to dinner or to bed, the umbrella and the bundle went with us; for we wished to be ready to digress at any moment. We made it our home nowhere in particular, but everywhere where our umbrella and bundle were. (pp. 47-48)

Seems very modern. Paul Theroux and Henry Thoreau would probably see eye to eye on this travelling light business. Although, upon reflection, Paul Theroux certainly has more in common with the far-flung over-seas adventures of Thoreau's contemporaries, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving than with the almost centripetal adventures of Thoreau who never ventured too far from home.

This brief foray into Canada East in 1850 at the age of 33 with his friend, the poet Ellery Channing, is still interesting to read. His knowledge of nature is evident in his observations of the countryside along the St. Lawrence river from Montreal to Québec. His contrary views on religion, government and the military can be seen in his reflections that in Canada East there was a great emphasis on military and religious display. Troops were parading on the Champs de Mars in Montreal and on the Plains of Abraham in Québec to what he felt to be an overt display of Government power. (If Thoreau had visited Montreal in the early 1860s during the American Civil War he would have witnessed a great deal more with the influx of Grenadier Guards and Scots Fusilier Guards.) Thoreau writes perhaps presciently:

In the streets of Montreal and Quebec you met not only with soldiers in red, and shuffling priests in unmistakable black and white, with Sisters of Charity gone into mourning for their deceased relative,--not to mention the nuns of various orders depending on the fashion of a tear, of whom you heard,--but youths belonging to some seminary or other, wearing coats edged with white, who looked as if their expanding hearts were already repressed with a piece of tape. In short, the inhabitants of Canada appeared to be suffering between two fires,--the soldiery and the priesthood. (pp. 106-107)

When, upon returning to Montreal, he ascended Mount Royal to take the view of the surrounding landscape and remarked the 46 year old tomb of Simon McTavish . From Thoreau's description, it seems the mausoleum was still visible although it had been vandalised as early as 1816. The classical column which was erected behind the mausoleum by his nephews, the MacGillvray brothers, is not specifically mentioned by Thoreau but it was still standing till 1940. I read recently that Montreal planned to renovate the area, where for the last fifty years or more, the burial site has been lost to sight and generally forgotten. Hopefully there is now a history plaque placed at the area north of Peel Street and Pine Avenue, where the monument resided. (It is unfortunate that his tomb is not part of the Mount Royal Cemetery where so many of Montreal's historic figures reside, but this wonderful cemetery was only developed in the late 1840s and the first burial in 1852.) It is perhaps a cautionary tale. One of the wealthiest men in Canada at the time and his monument forgotten, while an obscure nature writer with his umbrella and his bundle, has world renown.

addendum: I found this biking blog which has pictures of some of the redevelopment of the Peel Entrance to Mount Royal which looks very nice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

not to mention the nuns of various orders depending on the fashion of a tear, of whom you heard.
What does THAT mean?Gosh, that Thoreau. But he's got some good insights on that. I particularly like the parts on education, (like when he finds a school in which it seems like a process of ilustration is not taking place, it's rather a more darkening one, and the school can only get as much light as the church before it will let pass).