- Nation and Region in Modern American and European Fiction
The content of Thomas Beebee's book certainly meets the charge of this journal's title. The literature he compares ranges from Goethe's Italienische Reise (1816-1817) to Euclides da Cunha's account in Os sertões (1902) of late nineteenth-century tramping and battles in the caatinga of northeast Brazil to the contemporary Quebecois novelist Nicole Brossard's depictions of the homoerotics of the Arizona desert in her Le désert mauve (1987). One would be hard pressed to think of a more wide-ranging geographical and historical literary comparison. The book is impressively scholarly, based on an immense amount of reading, much of it not written in English, visits to archives, and field research, that is, "being there" and with grainy black and white photos to prove it. I found the writing sometimes strained (it was too self-conscious and fussy in places). And the seeming tic of sandwiching large chunks of foreign-language prose (in German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and at one point Russian) between the main English-language text was annoying. But of course it may not be a tic at all. Rather it might be the rules of the game for writing comparative literature.
In contrast, I write in geography. Beebee significantly draws on the subject. His argument is that the various authors he examines—apart from the three already mentioned, he discusses (in chronological order) Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Juan Benet, William Faulkner, José Lins do Rego, Mary Austin, and Joy Harjo—make geography central. He means that in two [End Page 252] senses: that geography is part of the literary project of each author and that each author strives to create a geography. For example, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is inseparable from the "postage stamp of soil" that is Yoknaptawpha (Lafayette) County, Mississippi, where the plot of the novel unfolds. At the same time Faulkner uses the novel to persuade readers to think of Mississippi in a different kind of geographical relation. He tries to construct a new geographical imaginary in which Mississippi is both a distinctive region within the United States (challenging the centralized hegemony of a unified nation) but with cultural and historical commonalities with places outside (as a region it geographically resonates with plantation economies distant from it in, for example, the Caribbean and Central and South America).
Beebee draws explicitly upon at least two geographical ideas (although in both cases not invented by geographers): mental maps and heterotopia. Mental maps, coined in 1960 by the MIT urban landscape designer Kevin Lynch, refer to a technique to improve city "legibility." By comparing the maps that residents of different cities carried around in their head, Lynch was able to distinguish features of the urban landscape that were distinctive and memorable and those that were blah. The imperative for the urban designer was to use the distinctive features and discard the blah ones. Heterotopia comes from Foucault, although he was never happy with the idea. It became prominent only after Foucault died and is associated with proselytizing works of some geographers and architects. Heterotopia is the notion that some geographical sites possess the potential to rupture the old order, replacing it with the different order found at such sites.
I am not entirely clear how in Beebee's mind mental maps and heterotopia are related. He uses mental maps much more than heterotopia, but neither seems foundational to his book. Mental maps have an instrumental function on Lynch's view; they are the means by which to improve city design. Beebee presumably wants to discard that instrumentalism. Instead, for him, a mental map is more like the cultural imagining of a place, or a nation, or even the globe. In this sense, each of his authors through their works try to shift that imaginary. I think "geographical imaginary" is a better term than "mental maps," which comes with the baggage of instrumentalism, even social engineering. There are also conceptual...