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Title:Reading the map: geographic space, reading publics, and the shaping of nineteenth-century American identity, 1803-1898
Author(s):Snow, Spencer
Director of Research:Loughran, Patricia
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Loughran, Patricia
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Foote, Stephanie; Chai, Leon; Castro, Nancy E.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):American Studies
print culture
history of the book and reading
Abstract:In The Shaping of America, historical geographer D. W. Meinig explores some geopolitical “might-have-beens” to suggest that alternative imaginings are useful because they “jar us out of habits of mind, loosen images so familiar, so constantly put before us, so deeply imprinted on our national consciousness that they are assumed to be fixed and inevitable.” Meinig’s invitation to explore the contingency of our current nation-form provides a starting point for my dissertation, which argues that the versions of national geography transmitted to readers through popular nineteenth-century literary and cultural forms dismantle our inherited narratives of US imperial expansion. I analyze a wide range of texts, including novels, newspapers, travel and exploration narratives, textbooks, travel and railway guidebooks, maps and atlases, each of which has its own story to tell about the production of the space “America” between the Louisiana Purchase and the Spanish-American War. At the center of my discussion of these different kinds of texts lies the act of reading itself, which I claim was intimately tied to the more abstract ideological work of imagining different kinds of geographic spaces at different scales. Reading allowed nineteenth-century Americans to imagine nation and empire; it provided them opportunities to limn expanding perimeters, imagine diverse interiors, take in manifold populations, and fantasize about the extent of political and territorial dominion. I argue that reading engendered the imaginative formation and reformation of nineteenth-century American geography, thus producing vibrant alternative forms of geographic consciousness and revealing that the experience of geography was much more ragged and dialectical than our retrospective narratives of territorial expansion suggest. Ultimately, this dissertation contends that nineteenth-century American readers could never have imagined the eventual shape of the continental United States, or the process by which temporally and spatially changing and changeable sets of relationships would yield its current form. My dissertation engages the work of scholars who have variously turned to the intersections of geography and print culture to explore ideologies of exceptionalism, nationalism, and empire. While the field of American studies fruitfully trends toward wider geographic frames that reconfigure U.S. economic, cultural, and literary histories, this project suggests that these new scales, in fact, rely on a fixed and knowable national geography rather than the flexible geographies of imagination and lived experience. “Reading the Map” addresses the production of geographical imagination from the perspectives of a fluid, contestable national space and an uneven circulation of print among heterogeneous reading publics. Though it ranges from accounts of expeditions to railway guides to schoolroom geographies, my dissertation is bound together by a common interest in the way literary texts and readers produce space and geography. The chapters demonstrate a range of spatial imaginings, which draw attention to the plasticity of geographic consciousness and the rapidity of perceptual change over the course of the nineteenth century. Moreover, they pinpoint three flashpoints of geopolitical change in the United States—moments that have been primarily narrated by maps. At the same time, however, each chapter complicates the maps that prop up national mythology and emphasizes the multiple versions of American geography made available to and produced by readers. The texts I analyze were popular—if not dominant—ways of seeing American geography, and suggest that Manifest Destiny was not the only—nor indeed, the most readily available—form of geographic imagining available to nineteenth-century readers. Chapter One, “Publishing Empire,” reexamines entrenched publication and reception histories of the early texts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, including Patrick Gass’s A Journal of the Voyages & Travels of a Corps of Discovery (1807), a handful of “unauthorized” texts, and Nicholas Biddle’s History of the Expedition (1814)—the nineteenth-century’s single authorized edition, but also the early texts’ most egregious publishing failure—to suggest that national geographic imaginaries in the wake of the expedition, due in part to the slow and incomplete publication of expedition findings and in part to the conventions of literary form, were neither expansive nor cohesive. I argue that the authors, editors, and compilers of early editions, many of which enjoyed enormous success in the early nineteenth century, compromised the communication of western geography by reproducing for eastern reading and map-consuming publics an abstracted and endlessly indistinguishable and unincorporable terrain and the sensation of disorientation, loss, and deprivation. Far from signaling an unambivalent call for Manifest Destiny, therefore, the original reception of early expedition publications engendered a contraction of geographic imagining that in turn foregrounded local geographies, revising our popular mythology about territorial expansion and requiring us to search elsewhere for an orginary and unifying moment of continental consciousness. Chapter Two, “Reading and Riding,” shifts the focus from the Age of Muscle to the Age of Steam to take up another popular flashpoint of Manifest Destiny—indeed the era of its famous coining—and the technology mythically linked to its inexorable progress. I argue that the precariousness, unevenness, and chaos of the antebellum railroad project and of mid-century railroad travel paradoxically called forth a powerful fantasy of dominance and completion registered most clearly in the profusion of travel and railway guides. This chapter identifies the passenger car as a new context for literary consumption that puts pressure on the official narrative of territorial expansion and national geographic identity. Rail passengers read a variety of printed texts on board trains, but I argue guidebooks offer the best window to early rail travel in the United States and the most conspicuous site where reading and travel intersect to produce geographic imagination. Although guidebooks were an integral part of the production of new geographic perceptions, travelers who read them did not get visions of a fluid and inevitable outward march or of national connection. What they got instead were fractured and disarticulated versions of national space and an overwhelming and ever-increasing catalogue of scattered destinations they were charged to incorporate into their conceptions of national geography. The various methods of layout and organization, which largely determined how guidebooks were used, juxtaposed disparate geographic spaces and brought vastly different regional geographies into contact, which compelled travelers to completely reconceptualize previously familiar spatial, racial, and commercial relationships and geographic forms. I assemble narratives of railway travelers in the opening decades of the railroad era, many of whom consulted guidebooks en route to their destinations and whose records help describe the conditions, methods, and results of their use to argue that the dialectical relationship between represented and actual traveled space yielded new and powerful geographic imaginaries that unsettle and resist narratives documenting the role of the railroad in the emergence of a homogenous, monolithic, and clearly discernible national form. Finally, Chapter Three, entitled “Classrooms and Continents,” attends to the nearly unparalleled circulation of geography textbooks during the late nineteenth century and to the classroom as the physical context of reading and disciplinary instruction where national space was newly repackaged and standardized for entire generations of students from all corners of the nation. What many have considered a period of suspended imperial desire and contained self-examination, was instead, as an analysis of geography schoolbooks suggests, a period of active imperial projection onto global geographies. I demonstrate how the textbooks’ representation of fixed and complete U.S. space encouraged students to develop refreshed global perspectives and imperial ambitions, to imagine what might be beyond the borders of the now “completed” Union. I argue that it is precisely the textually mediated relationships between students and land that enabled the expansive geographic imaginaries developed in classrooms. This chapter suggests that visions of U.S. imperial geography contained in postbellum geography schoolbooks contrasted sharply with the simple, sterile versions of the nation produced in the maps designed for textbooks and classrooms; by the time the United States entered the Spanish-American war in 1898, global imperial imaginaries had been operating in Americans’ minds for nearly thirty years.
Issue Date:2013-02-03
Rights Information:Copyright 2012 Spencer Snow
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-02-03
Date Deposited:2012-12

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