In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Lessons in Geography: Maps, Spellers, and Other Grammars of Nationalism in the Early Republic
  • Martin Brückner (bio)

Touring the northern regions of the United States in the 1780s and 1790s, the genre painter Ralph Earl captured some of its citizens in similar poses. 1 His portraits display, with subtle coloring and facile brushwork, stately men, beautiful women, and healthy children. Each painting situates these new Americans within a materially rich and decorative environment, showing in a keener kind of realism clothes, carpets, chairs, windows, and domestic spaces. Most poignantly, in these paintings Earl meticulously calibrates the sitters’ individual poses with the material props of a common print culture: a Boston merchant holds a typographed document; a Massachusetts matron pores over a Bible; a New York girl clasps an open novel; a Vermont tavern-owner looks up from a pamphlet; and a Connecticut shop-keeper poses in front of a lavishly filled bookcase. However, lest these paintings lead to the general suggestion that economic capital and literary competence are indicators of sameness among a group of emergent middle-class patrons, the iconography of these portraits also describes a people who are identified by regions and whose self-portrayal is conspicuously predicated upon the discursive materials of geography. Apart from posturing next to books and bookshelves, these citizens frequently posed with geographic instruments. Earl’s paintings display gray-haired men and fashionable young women handling compasses and charts. They show how globes and atlases entered the [End Page 311] intimate spaces of both sexes, adorning the male study and the female dressing room (figs. 1 and 2). Geography books are consulted by the common and the mighty, by farmers and merchants, gunsmiths and ministers. Geographic maps become the privileged texts in these paintings; while they give texture to the individual’s appearance and settings, they are the only distinctly readable texts among the otherwise indistinct representations [End Page 312] of printed materials. And with the symbolic inclusion of an American youngster who proudly unfolds a book map of America, this painter ultimately points to the print discourse of geography as the literary container of a socially unified but spatially divided citizenry. 2 (fig. 3).

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Ralph Earl, “Sherman Boardman, 1796.” Courtesy of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, MA.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

Ralph Earl, “Portrait of Anne Whiteside Earl, 1784.” Courtesy of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, MA.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 3.

Ralph Earl, “Mrs. Noah Smith and Her Children, 1798.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1962.

In this essay I will show that after the Revolution many Americans self-consciously turned to the discourse of geography to negotiate and [End Page 313] transform the representation of personal, regional, and political difference into material figures of national consent. By geography I mean the written materials and reading instructions that Americans were using to “write the earth.” Rather than looking at the figurative uses of the geophysical environment, my aim is to recover the ways in which the textuality of geography, its geodetic coordinates and numeric figures, graphic maps and pictorial images, descriptive narratives and pedagogic textbooks, constituted a literal reading practice for early republicans.

The conspicuous display of geographic writings, of course, takes place in the context of the constitutional debate of the 1780s and 1790s, and its larger concern with the notion that a single model of writing could at once accommodate and mediate between a local, multifarious, and sectionally fractured people who were clamorously voicing personal and immediate dissent. 3 The painter’s detailed show of specific geographic writings, moreover, must be viewed in the context of a cultural contest over the proper tools for representing the new American subject and identity. In the first decades of nationhood, American citizens discussed the traditional form of a republican, that is, a white male, identity that was concerned with self-effacement, the common good, and the unlocalizability of the personal and the body. 4 At the same time, however, this identity was undergoing redefinition in a culture in which power relations involving public...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 311-343
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.