- Purchase/rental options available:
American Quarterly 55.2 (2003) 295-302
[Access article in PDF]
Worlding the Archive
Hsuan L. Hsu
University of California, Berkeley
JUDGING BY ITS TITLE, AMERICAN GEOGRAPHICS SEEMS TO FIT RIGHT INTO THE BY now familiar catalogue of conferences, critical works, and special journal issues concerned with "worlding," "globalizing," or at least "post-nationalizing" American studies. 1 While such meta-critical projects are both theoretically and practically effective in combating American exceptionalism and helping to change the way in which the field is framed, studied, and taught, their appeals to contextualize U.S. culture on a global scale are often daunting. For the implications of such a reframing would involve retraining ourselves linguistically (to read non-Anglophone U.S. literature or the literature of the Americas), methodologically (to do comparative work between U.S. and other literatures), or historically (for those of us who have not mastered the history of the rest of the world, let alone that of the U.S.) and re-designing our courses to reflect the expanded field of American studies. 2 Perhaps that is why few critics have been willing to get their hands dirty by undertaking extended studies that directly engage with the newly globalized field. 3 In American Geographics, Bruce Harvey does just that, foregoing theoretical statements of what (by now) we know very well we don't know in favor of meticulous historical research amid a truly post-nationalist archive. [End Page 295]
When, in his conclusion, Harvey presents a discussion of antebellum treatises on universal history as "a sort of opposite bookend to my first chapter on the abstractions of geographical textbooks," his metaphor rightly suggests that in between the bookends lie an entire shelf of books (248). For a heroic amount of archival research lays the foundations for his chapters on antebellum geography textbooks by Jedidiah Morse, Samuel Goodrich, and Arnold Guyot; Melville's Typee and documents concerning the importation of U.S. law into Hawaii; texts set in the Holy Land by John L. Stephens, William F. Lynch, Maria Susanna Cummins, and Melville; Ephraim G. Squier and John L. Stephens's archaeologically obsessive accounts of Central America; and Martin R. Delany's various writings on black nationalism. Harvey's very presentation (not to mention his nuanced readings) of the wealth of attitudes, genres, and tensions in these "polygeographic" and interdisciplinary texts makes a concrete contribution to opening up the field by broadening its archive.
Of course, the study's immense scope—even when confined to a thirty-five year time period, and even in an unusually lengthy monograph of 331 pages—requires a methodological compromise that inevitably leads to some uneven moments: with the exception of the commentary on Typee, Harvey's chapters do not present directed arguments so much as thematically coherent sequences of "case studies." This thematic organization of the chapters generally prevents the study from becoming too diffuse, but at times it makes for too general a principle of selection: the chapter on Tahiti, Hawaii, and Typee effectively analyzes the fraught distinction between written law and the unwritten "law of the heart," and the discussion of Delany traces his not always contradictory ambitions for his people and for himself, but the other chapters seem merely to showcase themes like anxiety about miscegenation, the impossible quest for archaeological origins in Central America, and the lack of fit between Old Testament, New Testament, and modern landscapes in the Holy Land. But the strength of such an approach also lies in its diffuseness—in its resistance to general theories of "otherness" in favor of looking at how different geographical regions gave rise to differently inflected "national narratives."
In addition to the themes that organized ideological narratives about the nation's superiority over foreign lands, Harvey's book pursues a larger problem: the diverse ways in which different authors or "discursive communities" alter the ideologically presumed view of a region in [End Page 296] the very act...