Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Mapping and Romanticism

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Mapping and Romanticism

Article excerpt

"Literary cartography," as one might designate the relationship between literary texts and maps, has generated a number of modes of criticism within the last three decades. Most cartographic historians and "map-minded" literary critics are comfortable with the idea that there are correspondences between the two artefacts, and that a map might be approached as a legible text. Alan MacEachren, for one, is concerned with "how the map 'represents' in both a lexical and a semiotic sense" (12), and Jess Edwards uses Renaissance theories of rhetoric to explore maps' form, content and production history. Many literary cartographers attend to similarities between maps' and texts' political intentions: Richard Helgerson and John Gillies both point to shared objectives, with Helgerson comparing the side-lining of "royal authority--or at least its insignia" on Saxton's maps to a similar (proto) Whiggish progression in Elizabethan chorographies (114). Some cartographic historians see maps as products and perpetrators of power and control, and Brian Harley has influentially applied Foucauldian and Derridean ideas to "a search for metaphor and rhetoric in maps where previously scholars had found only measurement and topography" (233), calling this "deconstructing the map." A few scholars are interested in generic and formal correspondences between maps and texts, such as Julia S. Carlson, who compares the linguistic and syntactic qualities of Wordsworth's inscriptions to "a graphical culture that cartography had helped to create, which allowed the public to visualise--within new kinds of codification--lines, forms, and their relations to the world beyond the page" (91). Others, including Michael Wiley and John Wyatt, examine historical and biographical evidence for authors' cartographical knowledge, and use such source material to elucidate particular textual moments. For example, both Wiley and Wyatt are interested in the influence of Wordsworth's knowledge about the Ordnance Survey, Britain's national mapping agency, on his Guide to the Lakes and Black Combe poems.

One of the most famous literary cartographers of the last twenty years, Franco Moretti, demonstrates a rather different approach to maps. In Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998), he plots specific geographical references in 19th century novels onto maps, and explicates emerging patterns. Moretti explains his interest in maps "not as metaphors, and even less ornaments of discourse, but as analytical tools: that dissect the text in an unusual way, bringing to light relations that would otherwise remain hidden" (3). In an interview with John Sutherland in the UK's Guardian newspaper, Moretti linked his methodology to the digital revolution, describing how "larger and larger banks of data are becoming available, and we have absolutely no idea of how to deal with them ... We really do not know how to pose useful questions to that mass of information" ("The Ideas Interview"). Plotting geographical references on a map is, in Moretti's view, "a good way to prepare a text for analysis," as it distils the wealth of textual data and metadata into "a few elements" (Graphs, 53). He describes his methodology as a form of "macro-criticism" that can be applied to texts en masse, to reveal shared geographical tendencies ("The Ideas Interview").

Moretti's mode of literary cartography relies upon a specific understanding of "mapping." His maps are imbued with confidence in their own realism: they depend upon a "one-to-one" translation of the text's fictional landscape onto a truthful cartographic image of the world. They would lose meaning if the concept of mapping were to become slippery, if the maps on which he plotted textual geographical references were made with any less accuracy than those of the GPS-era, or if his own plottings did not exactly marry place-names with their cartographic locations. Furthermore, as the Italian geographer Claudio Cerreti has pointed out, Moretti's cartographical analyses of the "reciprocal positions and distances" of places or objects, are dependent on geometry to the extent that they more closely resemble abstractions of relations than depictions of "the specificity of the various locations" {Graphs, 54). …

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