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Foreign North. Outside Perspectives on the Nordic North

Research project The programme intends to investigate how the North has been constructed in and by various languages and cultures, how outside constructions correlate with domestic images and how these perspectives on the North change over time.

In its first phase, the programme Foreign North is concentrated on travel texts by foreign visitors to the Nordic North in the period 1775-1914, a time when the genre of travel writing changed radically both as to form and content. The primary objectives of the study are to elucidate how the conception of the Nordic North as national (Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish) and European periphery emerges and is sustained in the texts, and to develop a theoretical framework that may lead to a deeper understanding of how peripheries have been constructed historically. A central issue is to investigate how a categorisation based on the centre/periphery dichotomy relates to other interpretative paradigms. In this context, special attention will be given to the relation between what can be termed an Arctic discourse and a Viking discourse in the texts, that is, the relation between the myth of the North as pristine land, providing aesthetic pleasure and mental access to a simpler lifestyle at a time when rapid industrialisation changed the face of Europe, and the myth of the North as the home of a strong, free people providing a common heritage for the rising European middle classes. In both these cases, however, the value of the North is located in the past, and a further area of investigation is how the relation between past significance and present or future opportunity is expressed in the works.

Head of project

Heidi Hansson
Professor, other position

Project overview

Project period:

2009-03-19 2009-12-31


Finansår , 2006, 2007, 2008

huvudman: Heidi Hansson, finansiar: Vetenskapsrådet, y2006: 1000, y2007: 1030, y2008: 1060,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Language Studies

Research area

Archaeology, General literary studies, History, History of ideas, Modern languages

Project description

It is valuable to examine to what extent the perceptions transmitted by foreign travel writers reflect Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish central perspectives on the countries’ northern regions and how far foreign travellers may have been influenced by the extensive nineteenth-century domestic mapping projects and scientific inventories of the countries they visited. Consequently, the programme also includes a comparative dimension. In its second phase the programme will be expanded to include also fiction by foreign writers, artworks and their reception, and works produced before and after the period 1775-1914.

The aims of the empirical investigations are to identify the constructions of the North existing in various periods and describe how these change over time. Concrete tasks for the programme are to examine

· how northern nature and the inhabitants of the North are described and categorised in texts and illustrations

· how visitors from various countries construct the North in their descriptions and to what extent different national understandings of the region can be said to exist

· what differences and similarities there are between men’s and women’s descriptions of the region and to what extent the landscape and inhabitants of the North are presented in gender-coded terms

· to what extent linguistic and literary factors influence the images of the North transmitted

In simple terms, outside constructions of the North may be summarised under the headings dystopia and utopia. Areas perceived as peripheral may function as mirrors of the present and be used either nostalgically or critically (Sörlin 1988). International research in the field of travel writing has paid little attention to the definition and function of a periphery, however, since most of the interpretative models used are based on post-colonial theory and primarily aim to demonstrate the imperialist and colonialist nature of the genre. Nevertheless, for the outside observer the periphery may contain opportunities and liberties not available in the centre. Foreign North will therefore specifically investigate the meanings assigned to the North as periphery in foreign travel writing and examine the travellers’ notions of where the periphery begins and ends. A particularly important aspect is the question of the borders of the periphery, and one of the programme aims is to clarify how the idea of the periphery as a buffer zone between the centre and the unknown emerges in nineteenth-century travel literature.