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The Niagara Companion

Interview with Linda L. Revie

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The Niagara Companion

How did you come to write The Niagara Companion?

Niagara has always been an obsession with me. During my childhood, my family planned a trip to the Falls every May 24th weekend. This annual pilgrimage became important to my understanding of borders, in particular, the differences between how Canadians and Americans developed their landscapes. The American side seemed very industrial, and the Canadian, more touristy. They also put different values into nature, through the design of their parklands, the way they decorated their walkways. Each national made its own use of the world’s greatest wonder.

I was fascinated as a kid by everyone’s very different reactions to the Falls. I remember hearing people call it “nature’s shrine,” “the greatest place to have a honeymoon,” etc. Various overheard exclamations as I stood at the railing about where all the water came from made me want to know. I could never get Niagara out of my head, and out of my psyche. I suppose I’m like a lot of people who over the centuries have seen Niagara and had it as a touchstone for understanding things about themselves, their connection to life and the earth, and all the crazy complicated issues about culture that are so over the top at Niagara Falls!

How does your book differ from others that have been previously written about this subject?

Even though Niagara is a borderlands place, the state of scholarship about the Falls has been dominated by interpretations of what it has meant for generations of Americans. Some recent articles and books examine Niagara as a symbol of pride and national identity for Canada, and my book does that too, but primarily I look at the way cultural difference is invented, or conventional notions are entrenched, in the imperialist attitudes of visitors to the Falls of Niagara. I have made it a point to focus on commentators who visit the Canadian side and who try to draw distinctions between the domestic subject (the “colonized” Canadian) and the “imperial” spectator (the “colonizing” European or British traveller or American). In that way, I’m writing a history of cultural attitudes toward Canada that all centre on the point of entry - either into the country, or out - at Niagara Falls.

What are some of the interesting findings in your book?

One of the compelling themes in this book is how women experience Niagara. In researching the writers and painters, I have come to know that some of the most interesting responses are from female travellers, whose social/historical contexts appear different from their male counterparts. Mostly, the women at Niagara become more emotionally unhinged. But in this book, I not only examine how women travellers talk about their emotional responses to the Falls, I also look at what they physically do when they get to Niagara - where they stand, how they move around the place - and these preoccupations, interestingly, go hand in hand with the different ways the landscape is drawn and described. Women’s accounts are much more forthcoming about the physicalities of the place, and can provide templates for the whole tourist industry that grew up to facilitate human travel through the landscape.

Are there any important messages in this book?

There are many ideas stacked up under all those layers of cultural meaning. For example, whether nature is a locus for tourism, technology or spiritual regeneration, there’s often a fantasy of civilization vs. wildness, artifice vs. nature, fear vs. control, the natural vs. the mastered. In this study, I’ve found that in fine arts depictions, Niagara was often drawn as a primordial wilderness long after it had been developed into a tourist mecca. This was done to make the place sublime and to keep the associated feelings of fear and terror.

I’ve also discovered that the propensity to make Niagara sublime (and hence dangerous), and then to bring it under control (through the various tourist and other industries, or through landscape development), is similar to the way writers and artists keep the Indian figure looking wild and uncivilized at the same time as Native Peoples were coming under complete governmental control. The message here is that both nature and the native come together in this dialectic of naturalness and savagery, that is, ultimately, a fantasy of unresolved dualities.

These ideas together boil down to one big message: the power of the repressed. Humans either need to control the thing that elicits feelings of fear, whether it be nature, the Indian, industry, etc., or that thing will control them. This notion of control and repression shapes the history of visual and written responses to Niagara Falls.