- The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity
"Send those on land that will show themselves diligent writers." So ran the Sailing Directions prepared for Henry Hudson in 1609. Four hundred years later, we are still coming to terms with what this postulated link between writing and land—discourse and empire—has meant for the United States and other colonial and postcolonial nations. Clearly, language was perceived in 1609 (and indeed in 1492) as a means of containing and controlling space and the events unfolding in it. Our question today might be: how, then, are we to read—to comprehend—the meanings of this link between expression and possession, texts and places?
Of course, language performed such functions at earlier times and in other locales. Tacitus thus wrote of the Germans not simply out of curiosity but also in the belief that writing them up might help keep them down. Caesar fought the Gauls in order that he might write, "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres" (De Bello Gallico, book I, ch. 1), with the emphasis on divisa. To be able to describe something is to own it, and the same may be said of people. Witness the descriptions of slaves by reference to their various bodily marks and markings.
Martin Brückner explores these and other themes with regard to the great corpus of geographical documents surviving from North America from the later seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. He argues, powerfully and insightfully, that the reshaping of the English state after the Restoration had, as a kind of secondary consequence for England's American colonies, the neatening up of the landscape, both the already occupied parts of it and those that would subsequently be incorporated. Almost all early land grants were very sketchy in the description of what territory they actually encompassed. After 1690, the Crown insisted that new grants, and old ones too, be described on the basis of newer, more accurate survey techniques. As a result, the landscape was increasingly rationalized. The [End Page 147] paper instruments by which ownership was codified, including maps and descriptions, deeds and tax records, became more precise. It therefore became easier to locate individual parcels and their bounds, as well as to control the larger articulated landscape. Since Native Americans had not understood or described (or conveyed) land in this manner, the very imposition of the new scheme effected, in one more way, their ejectment from the continent.
With this part of Brückner's argument there can be little quarrel. And when he extends his concerns into the means by which the geodetic obsessions of the empire stimulated inordinate interest in geographical facts and fancies, especially once the eviction notice of the Revolution was delivered to the Crown, one can only admire the reach and stimulus of his ideas. He is due equal praise for the ways in which he studies the manifold forms of literacy incident to these cultural and legal practices. My only hesitation derives from my sense of the slippage between surveys and the things, places, people—and indeed historical topics—they aim to cover. Surveying, a technical practice in which Brückner has more competence than I, is not, I think, as seamless a means of engrossment as we may think. It does not so much cover space as create an artifactual substitute for it. Residents (and realtors) thereafter relate to the substitute as if it were the place itself. Thereby are released all kinds of inadvertently amusing consequences.
Here are two instances. In the late eighteenth century, William Cooper (father of the novelist) surveyed a sizable tract of land in south-central New York, which he grandiloquently named "The Manor of Feronia." He then sold farms in the tract to largely impoverished farmers on very good terms. Many of those farmers, unable to meet even the small interest payments on the property, defaulted and moved on. Two decades later, after Cooper's death left Feronia and many other...