This week’s readings on Martin Bruckner’s book The Geographic Revolution in Early America and his article, The Material Map (no paywall!) were an interesting perspective from a German scholar. Two of his themes particularly caught my eye.
- Surveying: when the political act of establishing the boundaries of an empire backfires. Bruckner’s thesis that the re-survey of land in the English colonies, ordered by the Crown in 1690, created a geo-spatial awareness and sense of community that would eventually contribute toward a geographic, and then political sense of separation from Great Britain. He describes the act of surveying, done locally and by locals, as an time-consuming, detailed act of defining the land that created personal and communication identities tied to geographic space. Reading original land surveys reflects this intimacy: ““North 18 degrees East 200 feet by land of McLarty to land of Giles, thence in a S45°W a distance of 150 feet to an white oak tree.” The work required surveyors to walk the property (through thorns, brush, and beehives), to note its natural and man-made properties, and to come to an agreement with neighbors about the exact lines to be drawn. This is yours and this is mine.
Driving through rural areas, the casual visitor sees farm fields, hedgerows, and fence. The eye is drawn to the landscape and it’s easy to fail to recognize boundaries that, to the landowner, are known and mentally recorded in great detail. An annually updated plat map book arrives each spring, just like the phone book. The body of fence law is large and are a frequent feature in agricultural periodicals. This is yours, and this is mine, and together this township, county, and country is ours.
- Literacy and geographic identity are intertwined: Brucker also argues that geography was a distinct part of literacy, embedded as text as well as images. Globes in the classroom, maps in primers, memorization of important geographical features, and even incorporation of artistic geographic elements into other pedagogical tools all served to reinforce a spatial perception of citizenship.
I thought that his analysis of his sources was very interesting and compelling; however, I wish that he would have been able to locate more examples for certain portions of the work. Some of the sub-arguments were dependent upon a few scattered sources that often spanned several decades. It is hard to determine the extent to which his conclusions reflected reality.