- Why Maps Matter: New Geographies of Early American Culture
Maps are all the rage. Though we may spend less time with Rand McNally and more on Google Earth, the basic principle—reducing three-dimensional space to flat text or screen—remains the same. The thrill of marking, separating, and naming (see the streets appear, let’s color the different countries!) plays into a primal urge for self-definition according to location. The idea that knowing where we are will help us understand who we are is, surely, as old as maps themselves. From medieval T-O (terrarum orbis) schemes, which set Jerusalem [End Page 1073] squarely at the center of the world, to modern satellite imagery, which renders even familiar neighborhoods maze-like from above, maps have always represented unwieldy territories as tidy, governable units and, in so doing, functioned as primary political and ideological tools of empire. The story of the mapping of America plots, unsurprisingly, the history of colonization, westward expansion, and hemispheric hegemony. It also charts other issues of interest, such as early representations of national identity, the problems of property rights and race, and how soil supposedly creates character. This piece describes how America was mapped and why that matters, while reviewing the six books listed above. First, however, a look back to the time before Europeans arrived and the landmass was “found,” when there were maps with only one hemisphere and globes without America.
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There are two ways of visualizing the earth without Old or New Worlds: the first is to think like Ptolemy; the second is to think like an Aztec. In the second century CE, Claudius Ptolemy had the brilliant idea to project a sphere onto a plane using two variables known as longitude (360 degrees from an arbitrarily chosen “prime” meridian) and latitude (180 degrees between the [End Page 1074] poles). This scheme allowed places to be mapped according to their coordinates, of which Ptolemy positioned some eight thousand across the inhabited earth or oikoumene, according to the Greeks. The Romans, true to form, were less interested in communities than in empire, and introduced the concept of imperium ad termini orbis terrarum (empire to the ends of the earthly sphere), also known as “let’s map all we own.” Islamic scholarship sustained Ptolemy’s influence for centuries, blending it with Aristotelian and Persian cosmologies. These traditions, in combination with the aforementioned European medieval maps, led to today’s collector’s items: the charmingly incomplete overviews with monsters and angels at the margins. Even before Columbus, however, times were changing: a particularly famous monk’s map from 1459 (fig. 1) leaves out all celestial elements, depicting a big pancake of land in an image that, as Denis Cosgrove points out in his essay in Maps, “in its secularism and emphasis on earthly power (denoted through flags and enthroned rulers) anticipates an emerging purpose for the world map” (81).
At the same pre-Columbian moment, Mesoamerican codices featured characteristics similar to Eurasian maps such as...