A Tribute to Wilbur Zelinsky

Article excerpt

For six decades Wilbur Zelinsky has been an original and authentic voice in American cultural geography. His curiosity is endless, his intellectual appetite voracious. He seeks human meaning in every facet of material life and every corner of the American scene. His scholarly productivity continues to be extraordinary--more than 200 books, atlases, chapters, articles, reviews, and reports, and still counting. The body of work includes ten articles in the Geographical Review over fifty years, on topics from log houses of Georgia (1953) to American religious landscapes (2001c). It is therefore especially fitting that the following articles in celebration of Wilbur appear in the Geographical Review. The articles exhibit a richness of contact with and reference to Wilbur's incredible body of work, and in the process they also reveal something of the person.

First and foremost an explorer, Wilbur, like all explorers, is dedicated to bringing profound understanding to simple things. He is also an insatiable reader and not averse to employing hypothesis testing and quantitative analyses when and where appropriate. He is a wordsmith of uncanny ear, considerable wry humor, and incomparable devotion and attention to language. His remarkable web of cultural references and the clarity of his expression are simply astounding. He is in every way the consummate scholar, all the while having great fun and never assuming his is the last word.

Early work experiences trained Wilbur well for observation and analysis. He was a map draftsman in various firms during World War II, even as he was moving about to find a place to earn a degree, which he did at the University of California, Berkeley in 1944. After receiving a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1946, he worked as a terrain analyst for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in occupied Germany. He returned to Berkeley for his doctorate, which he completed in 1953, then worked as an industrial location analyst for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway from 1954 to 1959. His academic appointments include the University of Georgia (1948-1952), the University of Wisconsin as a researcher (1952-1954), Wayne State University as an adjunct professor (1954-1959), and Southern Illinois University (1959-1963). In 1963 he joined the Department of Geography at Pennsylvania State University, where he has remained ever since. He served as department head in 1970-1976 and assumed emeritus status in 1987, although he is still at work every day when he is not in the field, visiting friends, playing his violin, or attending the theater.

Wilbur's conception of cultural geography is as catholic as his interests. Little of the vernacular, from mules and fences to houses and towns to place-names and cemetery names, has escaped his gaze. His first published article, "The Historical Geography of the Negro Population of Latin America" (1948), may have been the first publication on African Americans by a geographer. The "Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition," published in the Geographical Review in 1971, is a significant complement to the concept of demographic transition both operationally and intellectually. He was also the first geographer to write about the place of women in the profession (1973). And it would be inappropriate not to mention the remarkable 1974 presidential address Wilbur delivered to the Association of American Geographers (AAG), "The Demigod's Dilemma" (1975), which challenged scholars of all stripes and disciplines to be true to truth before theory. In so many ways and in so much of his work, he has always been prescient.

In addition to the presidency of the AAG (1972-1973), Wilbur's honors include the AAG'S award for meritorious contributions to geography (1966), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1981-1982), and the 1993 Jackson Prize for the revised edition of The Cultural Geography of the United States (1992), as well as the Cullum Geographical Medal of the American Geographical Society (AGS) (2001). …


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