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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 141-142

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The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950

The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950. By Susan Schulten (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001) 319 pp. $40.00

This book is a set of interlocking essays on a series of histories: of cartography; academic geography; school geography; educational reform (or attempts thereat); the National Geographic Society (NGS); the technology of map making; and such map and atlas makers as Rand McNally, Hammond, etc. It is also a history of the social and political uses to which geography and cartography have been put in the United States. Geography, like most other social sciences—history in particular—is always part of a nationalist enterprise. Robert Mayhew's Enlightenment Geography: The Political Languages of British Geography, 1650-1850 (New York, 2000), makes the roles played by geography in British imperial expansion and the emergence of the various forms of the British state abundantly clear. Schulten applies the same sort of logic to the roles of academic and popular geography and of cartography in the development of the various forms of the American state. Well-illustrated, well-written, often wryly funny, her book is a tour de force.

Schulten starts where so many geographers start in introductory classes, bringing into question the distortion of the world by maps, notably by the hoary old Mercator projection developed in the 1500s to make life easy for navigators. The theme is "the map as text." The first to make this point was British cartographer, John Brian Harley, to whom Schulten makes appropriate reference. Nor does it come as any surprise to political geographers that Americans, raised until Pearl Harbor on wall and atlas maps based on the Mercator projection, developed a "hemispheric" fixation into a "good" west and a "bad" east. Much of American exceptionalism and isolationism can be put down to the routine and unthinking depiction by cartographers of a world in which the two continents of the New World seemed widely separated by the Atlantic from the depraved monarchist/imperialists/socialists/communists of the Old World.

What Schulten adds is a real sense of the central but ambivalent role played by the ngs in the way that Americans view geography. The replacement [End Page 141] between 1880 and 1950 of continental isolationism with liberal universalism was partly a product of the NGS remaking itself as an organ of liberal American imperialism during the early 1900s, and of the NGS's subsequent (sometimes odd, occasionally funny) evolutions of purpose. This theme is the heart of this book, not Schulten's decon-struction of maps.

Maps interest the educated public today just as the polar projections first widely used to explain World War II's geostrategy interested the educated public of the 1940s. In that regard, Schulten's conclusion that "the basic coherence of the Mercator world" has not been displaced is understandable if annoying (242). American historians continually refuse to reconsider their faith in American exceptionalism.

Schulten might also have benefited from knowing more about the origins of commercial geography, which flourished in the antebellum pages of such publications as Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, in which it was rather charmingly called "the geography of the counting-house." The commercial geography of the 1880s that was taught in the new Morrill Act colleges was thus an evolution of the courses taught in the earlier, "for profit" business colleges of the port cities of the eastern seaboard. By the early 1920s, commercial geography had matured enough to get its own academic journal, Economic Geography. Schulten's fixation on the conflict between the old established NGS and the Association of American Geographers, founded by professional, especially physical, geographers in 1904, causes her to miss this part of the discipline's generally confusing origins in the United States.


Peter J. Hugill
Texas A&M University



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