'I Am a Gleaner': Catharine Parr Traill and Forest Gleanings

Article excerpt

"I am a gleaner," replied the Doctor, "and in my path through life I have gathered up things both new and old. Among the chaff, no doubt, may be found a few grains worthy of being hoarded up."

The collection of tales and sketches that Catharine Parr Traill published in the Anglo-American Magazine as Forest Gleanings (1852- 53) remains the most obscure body of writing within Traill's mature oeuvre. A few of the pieces have appeared in anthologies, and Michael Peterman and Carl Ballstadt's Forest and Other Gleanings: The Fugitive Writings of Catharine Parr Traill (1994) includes eight of the twelve sketches alongside other short works. This latter volume produced a scattering of reviews but Forest Gleanings languishes still at the margins of the consideration of the work of Traill and her Anglo-Canadian contemporaries.1 This article is a reconsideration of the series and an attempt to reinterpret the significance of what has been artistically gleaned and critically discarded for the understanding of Traill's work and of Anglo- Canadian emigrant woman's writing in general. Indeed I want to suggest that the process and the outcomes of gleaning may provide a useful framework within which to understand the ways in which emigrant experience may be written and represented.

The reasons for the series' neglect are not difficult to understand. Even its status as a discrete work is less than secure: only seven of the pieces appeared for the first time in the Toronto-based Anglo-American; the rest had already been published miscellaneously in Sharpe's London Journal between 1848 and 1852. In its appearance as a series, the Gleanings remained incomplete: the last piece to appear, 'The Lodge in the Wilderness', was the first part of a narrative that was left without a concluding instalment. Nor, it seems, were these pieces the only collection Traill named 'Forest Gleanings'. She first used the title in 1838 for a manuscript submitted as a sequel to her successful narrative of emigrant life, The Backwoods of Canada (1836); no publisher was found and the pieces in that collection were sold to various magazines.2 It would appear, then, that the Forest Gleanings of 1852-53 were gleanings indeed: the scraps and left-overs gathered up after the first and best harvesting of writerly experience; fragments recycled in search of much-needed cash. And indeed this sense of the series is close to Peterman and Ballstadt's suggestion that the short works of Traill which have slipped from our notice - hence 'fugitive' - are the output of a writer on the colonial margins and engaged in a desperate attempt to make money.

Traill was without doubt in a difficult position as a writer and also influenced in her output by the need for cash. However, her own comments about gleaning and being a gleaner suggest that we might use the term to develop other constructions of the meaning and significance of Forest Gleanings. As Rupert Schieder (1986) points out, 'gleaning' was one of Traill's favourite words (xiv). She used it, as did many Romantic and early Victorian writers, to describe both the fruits of careful observation of small things, and the process of reflecting on them.3 Gleaning was a capacious term used to describe works which gathered, in one textual 'bag', miscellaneous fragments of information: for example, travel accounts or informal autobiography or advice for the young. But if this was a label for informal and unpretentious artistic activity, gleaning was not a term that suggested a merely casual spontaneity. As one provincial British writer of gleanings, a Mr Pratt, put it:

[I]t behoves a Gleaner to be diligent and not to hurry over his ground, like those who come to a full crop whom abundance makes careless. (Gleanings through Wales, Holland and Westphalia 1802: 7)

Here was a work evoking a literary activity consistent with the self-positioning of a writer of marginal, even meagre status, within the culture; gleanings were, after all, what the 'good farmer permits the poor to collect' ('A Lady' 1815). …