The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity

The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity

The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity

The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity


The rapid rise in popularity of maps and geography handbooks in the eighteenth century ushered in a new geographic literacy among nonelite Americans. In a pathbreaking and richly illustrated examination of this transformation, Martin Bruckner argues that geographic literacy as it was played out in popular literary genres--written, for example, by William Byrd, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Royall Tyler, Charles Brockden Brown, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark--significantly influenced the formation of identity in America from the 1680s to the 1820s.

Drawing on historical geography, cartography, literary history, and material culture, Bruckner recovers a vibrant culture of geography consisting of property plats and surveying manuals, decorative wall maps and school geographies, the nation's first atlases, and sentimental objects such as needlework samplers. By showing how this geographic revolution affected the production of literature, Bruckner demonstrates that the internalization of geography as a kind of language helped shape the literary construction of the modern American subject. Empirically rich and provocative in its readings, The Geographic Revolution in Early America proposes a new, geographical basis for Anglo-Americans' understanding of their character and its expression in pedagogical and literary terms.


Let us consider two family portraits in order to glimpse how geography shaped Anglo-American identities during the long eighteenth century. in a 1667 portrait celebrating the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert holds out a manuscript map of Maryland boldly inscribed Nova Terrae-Mariae Tabula; standing before the lord is his grandson, playfully pawing at the same map under the watchful gaze of an African servant (Figure 1). Shown in the hand of a British statesman, the map—emblazoned with the family crest—represents the Calverts’ possessions in the British American colonies. Handed down to the Americanborn boy, the map also signals the patrilineal exchange of landed property from fathers to sons, imperial landowners to future colonists. Linking three generations, the map becomes the symbolic text and literary key to British American self-representation.

A century and a half later, in the newly formed United States, a painter marshals a much larger array of geographical texts to limn the members of an emerging middle class (Figure 2). in an 1810 group portrait, the Reverend Jedidiah Morse—a conservative Federalist and successful author of geography schoolbooks—has gathered his wife Elizabeth Breese and their three sons around a table, upon which are placed a globe, a geography book, and a foldout map. This portrait still celebrates the patriarch, possessions, and the ritual display of modern identity, but in a new and different way. Instead of a single map representing landed property as the basis of identity, diverse geographical texts have now become the prized possessions defining the early American subjects.

What is fascinating about these portraits is that American identities are not predicated on the visual display of maps or geography books as such. Rather, what appears to prop up the self-image of the imperial . . .

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