- The Art and Science of Literary Geography:Practical Criticism in "America's Wasteland"
A few years ago, while John Beck was analyzing the literature of the military's dark acts in the American desert (including the internment of Japanese American citizens, the confiscation of tribal lands for military use, and the toxic landscapes created by nuclear testing), geographer Trevor Paglen was tracking the mysterious comings and goings of unmarked planes to secret military sites in the Southwest from a hotel room overlooking Las Vegas' McCarran Airport. A literary scholar, Beck sought to create a "counterhistory" to the mythic history of the American West as a vast open land of American freedom (7). Beck sought to tell the "erased" stories of people who have been the targets of America's "dirty wars" (that is, "not fought by the rules"; the often illegal covert acts of violence by the US) that have turned the American West into a perpetual battleground (13). For his part, Paglen sought to create what we might call a counter-geography to reveal that covert world. Indeed, such efforts by Paglen and others helped to expose the CIA-backed "rendition" flights from Southwest military bases that moved captives to remote prisons around the world (Blank Spots 33-46).
Beck and Paglen were studying two sides of the same fence, as it were: life inside and outside the cordoned off areas that protect the huge, secret, military bases that cover over 30 million acres in California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico (Beck 34-35). In books published in the same year, 2009, both Beck and Paglen argue that those sites have come to define the modern US. Of particular interest to each is the flagrant secrecy that has [End Page 189] protected the US as a militarized state: those "blank spots on maps"—marked by dashes and labels such as "U. S. Military no entry"—that so loudly "announce the fact that there's something hidden" (Blank Spots 17). From Beck's literary point of view, it is a "purloined landscape, a space that, like Poe's letter, is hidden in plain sight" (22). As Paglen notes, "more often than not their outlines are in plain view" (Blank Spots 17).
Given the overlap in their interests, indeed, of their conclusions and their very wording, the spellbound reader of both these extraordinary accounts can't help but wonder: shouldn't these two guys meet?
That simple question, however sentimental, is at the heart of this essay. I argue here for a more deliberate conversation between the fields of literature and geography. It is a logical next step, one already being taken, even, for the rapidly growing fields of critical regionalism, the New West or post-West studies, and more largely environmental criticism. Literary historians who work in these fields can engage geographers' work still more deeply. We can get inspiration from the way their field moves more freely between science and art. We can draw upon the rich geographical vocabulary to describe the land we study as a way to refresh our tired metaphors. We can even collaborate with geographers.
Geographers and literary historians have been moving closer to each other for some time.1 We can see this in the way our work cites more extensively geographers such as Edward S. Casey, Yi-Fu Tuan, and D. W. Meinig. Geographers for their part have long drawn upon literature as a way to better understand place. At times it is hard to tell us apart. The following passage, from geographers Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, could easily appear in a work by someone from either field: "From such a post-modern...