- The Geographic Imagination of Civil War-Era American Fiction
Space is important in literary studies. This was true even before postmodernism’s spatial turn a generation ago, and our collective interest in spatial issues has only grown in recent years. Of course, what we mean by space varies widely across the discipline. We have studies of the relationship between literature and geography at scales ranging from the local to the global. We’re also interested in the smaller scales of built space and the lived environment. And then there’s the longstanding problem of mapping between space and time as organizing principles of narrative and other forms of cultural production.1
This variety doesn’t imply that we’ve made a hash of things. On the contrary, I think we’ve done well, considering the scope of the problem. But in nearly every case, we work in a way that makes some questions much easier to ask and to answer than others. By this I mean that our need to work with individual texts (and other cultural objects) has led us to study first and foremost specific representations of space and geography, which we’ve then used as symptomatic indices of larger social configurations. So we’ve become very good at, for example, determining what Kate Chopin’s stories reveal about the nexus of sexuality and Cajun regional culture or, in a different register, how the Las Vegas strip reveals the symbolic function of commercial built space. At the same time, it has often been difficult to assess the extent to which these symptomatic readings apply to larger groups of texts and objects, simply because we’ve lacked the capacity to apply our methods sequentially across, say, all of the fiction written in the nineteenth century. [End Page 803]
It should be clear that for the most part this is an indictment neither of any individual study nor of literary-critical methods in general, but instead an identification of a horizon of scholarly possibility to which our attention is rarely drawn. We tailor our work to the kinds of questions we can answer straightforwardly and well, which as a practical matter has meant those that yield to close readings of a few texts. This means in turn that potentially interesting questions with which we don’t have the ability to grapple haven’t been merely ignored or set aside, but have remained largely invisible to us. How contemporary authors—all of them, as a group—make use of interior space, for example, is an issue so far outside our realm of practical engagement as to appear, I suspect, less farfetched than simply absurd.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, at least not in the case of geographic space and the limitations imposed by close reading. We now have methods by which to work with large bodies of text and to extract at least some types of spatial information from them. These methods, which involve computational data mining of hundreds or thousands of books, make it possible for us to address large-scale spatial questions, questions of the type that once seemed unthinkable, in new and robust ways. This is especially true because in many cases we can then combine the evidence produced through these new approaches with our well-established critical judgments.
What follows is an example of such hybridized, computationally assisted scholarship. It begins with a question: how can we define and assess the geographic imagination of American fiction around the Civil War, and how did the geographic investments of American literature change across that sociopolitical event? It is, at first order, an intervention in existing debates about space, regionalism, and the dynamics of large-scale cultural change. To preview quickly the most important direct results, we find that there is significant national and international dispersion of geographic reference in American novels written between 1851 and 1875; that the distribution of place references within the United States tracks closely but not perfectly with population; that changes in literary investment in specific places and regions tend to lag changes in population; and that although there are important shifts in the geographic distribution of literary...