Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

'A True Survey of the Ground': Defoe's 'Tour' and the Rise of Thematic Cartography

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

'A True Survey of the Ground': Defoe's 'Tour' and the Rise of Thematic Cartography

Article excerpt

Despite writing an entire economic atlas of the world, Atlas Maritimus (1728), containing maps by none other than Edmond Halley himself, Defoe is still considered to have been a mere dabbler in the field of geography. The prevailing perception is that he was simply a student of the science who used his library to embellish his fiction with a smattering of geographic facts. Paula Backscheider's appraisal that, in general, ". . . he can name rivers, describe topography, and evaluate ports . . ."(1) is as far as scholars are willing to explore the amount of skill Defoe actually had in the field. Likewise, when assessing the amount of geographic acumen he displays in A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1726), scholars have devoted most of their time to proving that many of his topographical descriptions are simply lifted from William Camden's Britannia (1586).(2) The purpose of this essay, however, is to demonstrate that with the Tour Defoe actually displays an expert's ability to put into practice the procedures of map surveying and construction. For the most part, critics have remained blind to Defoe's cartography and have used the text only as a means of bolstering his reputation as a literary craftsman. For example, Pat Rogers believes the Tour is "the true English epic" and the result of "the author's mature literary artistry,"(3) while Mary Elizabeth Green calls it "a highly artistic recreation of numerous travels."(4) These assessments may be true, but what I wish to do is to forget about literary discourse for a while so that I may reintroduce the Tour as a map.

Because it both struggles with and exploits to its advantage the basic problem faced by all maps, that is, the reduction of a large area of land onto the limited space of the blank sheet, it is possible to situate the Tour inside the discourse of eighteenth-century cartography, and when this critical move is initiated "Defoe the cartographer" emerges. This is a figure--no less important than the novelist--who did not simply borrow mapping techniques in a makeshift fashion, but who instead helped set in motion a larger representational strategy which allowed the nation state of the eighteenth-century to exercise its power systematically across its entire geographic space. The Tour deserves much more critical attention than it has received because it represents an early and rare example of a kind of cartography we now call "thematic cartography" which, according to historians of the science, played a significant role in the development of trade routes in the early nineteenth century.(5) What I hope to demonstrate here is that Defoe recognized in this science the ability to do more than simply build canals and roads. Before anyone else, Defoe saw in the discourse of thematic cartography the ability to transform physically and psychologically the landscape of Britain into a blueprint for economic development, and for this reason he can be counted among the early architects of the modern nation state.

FROM ITINERARY TO MAP

In recent years the study of cartography has been undergoing a revolution which is largely the result of geography's encounter with the theories of Barthes and Foucault.(6) Like the literary text, the map is now being studied as a cultural text constructed by signs and power codes which are part of larger hegemonic discourses. As well, historians of cartography, such as J. B. Harley, have begun to explore how maps, rather than passively recording data, have shaped social relations and served the interests of authority: "In modern Western society maps quickly became crucial to the maintenance of state power--to its boundaries, to its commerce, to its internal administration, to control of the population, and to its military strength."(7) Since the Enlightenment, cartographers have been chasing the dream of the perfectly transparent map, but this has finally been exposed as an impossiblity by scholars who understand that no matter how much science and technology is used to produce a map, it is always composed by a rhetoric which seeks to persuade the viewer in some way. …

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