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Reviewed by:
  • The Making of the American Landscape
  • Chris Wilson (bio)
Michael P. Conzen, editorThe Making of the American Landscape, second edition New York: Routledge, 2010. 568 pages. Numerous black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-415-95006-0, $155.00 (HB) ISBN 978-0-415-95007-7, $79.95 (PB)

Since its publication in 1990, The Making of the American Landscape has remained the best single-volume introduction to the country’s cultural landscape mosaic. The original edition began life as a twelve-part series in the Geographical Magazine in 1979–80 edited by Michael P. Cozen, who subsequently solicited additional essays to round out the eighteen-chapter first edition of this book. The revisions made by the author and publisher for this second edition seek to extend the useful life of the volume. How well they succeed is the pivotal question.

To update the book’s coverage, one of the original chapters has been dropped, three essays have been replaced by new contributions on the same topics, and three new chapters have been added. The texts of the fourteen remaining original chapters remain essentially unaltered, modified only with some subsequent scholarship in their endnotes. Wherever possible, color photographs have replaced the previous black-and-white images, and color has been added to the existing maps and plans.

Most of the authors are members of the Association of American Geographers, and the considerable strength and cohesion of these essays stem from their shared methodology. This approach to historical, cultural geography begins, of course, with a grounding in the regional conditions of climate, topography, and natural resources. Pre-industrial cultural traditions are seen as emerging (or being transplanted from Europe) in cultural hearths, and over time diffusing through migration into larger cultural domains. By the mid-nineteenth century, the technological, economic, social, and political forces of modernization increasingly produce shared national landscape patterns.

An overview of the natural environments of the United States (chapter 1) sets the context for discussions of Native (2), Spanish (3), and French (4) landscape traditions, as well as the largely English imprints in New England and the Mid-Atlantic (5) and the South (6), which emerged as the primary strains of the national, American culture. The township survey grid (7), forest clearance and logging practices (8), the settlement of the Great Plains (9), and irrigation of the arid West (10) each shaped large expanses of the county. Amid a strongly commercial and officially secular culture, many groups have nevertheless inscribed their ethnic subcultures (11) and religious beliefs (12) on the landscape.

The development of industry (13), the rise of cities (14), the growing importance of government (15), and the emergence of a civil society first chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville (16) represent major currents of modernization. The landscapes of the rich, writes Conzen in the Introduction, “sit like islands amid an ocean of ordinary residential and recreational landscapes” (17)—landscapes shaped over the last century first by the automobile (18) and more recently by megacorporations through large-scale consumer environments (19). A concluding chapter speculates on the possible continuing landscape impacts of core American preferences for individuality, mobility, and consumerism (20).

The art of writing overview essays such as these hinges on the ability to provide a balanced, concise synthesis of an often large body of scholarship, and on presenting the big picture without lapsing into overgeneralizations. The best of these essays, and in fact the majority of them, open with overviews of major environmental, cultural, technological, and other factors (academic discourse of interest primarily to scholars is placed in the endnotes). Each deftly summarizes the tangible imprints of these forces on the landscape by characterizing their recurrent components and patterns of spatial organization.

A graphic hierarchy organizes the various spatial scales of a topic: from a map of the regional or national spread of a particular landscape culture; to a map or generic diagram of organization at the township or metropolitan scale; and, finally, to a finer-grained plan of a representative farm, village, or suburban subdivision. Comparative diagrams showing a landscape type in different periods—of successive kinds of logging camps, plantations, or shopping malls, for instance—provide a powerful visual distillation...


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