- Mapping Wonderlands: Illustrated Cartography of Arizona 1912–1962 by Dori Griffin
The title of Mapping Wonderlands promises a fun-filled adventure. Reading this volume is indeed a pleasant intellectual journey, but, like so many vacations, it is not quite as thrilling or meaningful as the traveller hoped. On the opening page, author Dori Griffin dials down our expectations, explaining that her book does not map a magical trip down a rabbit hole but, rather, aims to show how Arizona “was imagined and promoted during its first half-century of statehood” (p. 1) through the genre of the cartograph. The book makes a noteworthy contribution in calling attention to an understudied genre of visual culture. Griffin has assembled a fresh archive of rich material; few of the examples included here have been discussed in previous scholarship.
The first two chapters define and survey the book’s key term, tracing the place of the cartograph within the history of visual and textual representations of Arizona between 1912 and 1962. Griffin builds on illustrator Ruth Taylor’s 1929 use of the term, on an image of the Grand Canyon, to refer to “illustrated, narrative, not-to-scale maps intended for popular audiences” (p. 7).
The heart of the book is in the next four thematic chapters. Chapter 3 zeroes in on the representation of map-makers, map users, and tourists on cartographs. Two sections look to the past: chapter 4 focuses on mythologizing images of timeless, romantic landscapes, while chapter 7 examines exotic icons of the state’s Native American and Spanish colonial history. In between, two chapters move forward: one narrates the process of “filling in the map” to depict the state’s growing urban centres, transportation networks, and leisure industry, while the next explores depictions of Arizona as alternately garden, desert, and bustling metropolis.
The book’s tight focus on these specific types of cartographs of Arizona within a 50-year period makes for a tidy object of study but in the end proves limiting. Although the thematic groupings are compelling, we are left to wonder how representative they are. It would have been helpful if Griffin had estimated what percentage of the examples she knows about fall into each of these sets and provided a sense of the range of other motifs that appear on cartographs. More broadly, the reader is left hungry for an understanding of the larger, international genre of pictorial maps. For example, how does the work of British artist MacDonald Gill, who began producing pictorial map posters in 1914, fit into this history? Within her study’s own terms, I wish that Griffin had delved into how these images may have shaped Arizona’s history and how the state’s history, in turn, may have inflected the form and development of the cartograph. Comparative examples – showing how cartographs of Arizona differ from those of Maine or Paris, for instance – might have helped put the Arizona case study in perspective while giving readers a wider sense of the genre.
The cartograph’s appeal as an object of study owes much to its potential for interdisciplinary cultural analysis, synthesizing information, ideas, and methods from the fields of geography and cartography, art history and visual studies, history and anthropology. Mapping Wonderlands, however, relies mainly on the traditional tools and tropes of art history, reflecting the author’s training in graphic arts and design history. Most of the book is an extended series of close readings of individual illustrated maps, approached the way formalist art historians typically approach paintings. These miniature visual case studies are often enlightening, but the repetitive formula becomes numbing as the book progresses. It is especially regrettable that so many of the examples are not illustrated and that the sole colour reproduction is the one on the dust jacket. Because Griffin concentrates her attention on individual examples, a coffee-table book, featuring large illustrations with the related text underneath or on the facing page, might have made more sense...