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B o o k R e v i e w s Surveying the Interior: Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place. By Rick Van Noy. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003. 240 pages, $44-95/$21.95. Reviewed by Kent C. Ryden University of Southern Maine, Portland A review of Rick Van Noy’s Surveying the Interior seems particularly appropri­ ate for the pages of Western American Literature, as it raises important ques­ tions about what we think of as “literature” and about the ways in which Americans have historically conceptualized and related to western landscapes. Van Noy is concerned with figures who have both mapped and written about specific American spaces. While he begins his study with the inveterate New Englander Thoreau, he devotes the central sections of his book to the western explorers Clarence King and John Wesley Powell, men who not only produced or sponsored maps of little-known western territories but also wrote extensively about their perceptions of, and experiences in, those mapped lands. Through extended examinations of books like King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872) and Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (1875), Van Noy aims to bring attention to texts “that have received very little attention from literary critics, in order to see them as part of a con­ tinuum of writing about the land that leads to writers such as Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez” (xvii). He in fact concludes his study with a chapter on Stegner, who, while not a cartographer himself, shared the concerns WAL FELLOWS READ BETWEEN THE LIONS. Inspired by Oliver and David Duggins. Executed by WAL editorial staff. Photograph: Sabine Barcatta. 3 4 6 W e s t e r n A m e r i c a n L i t e r a t u r e F a l l 2 0 0 6 that King and Powell worked out in their pages, particularly the tension they felt between their objective mapping (be it through charts or words) of western spaces and the subjective experience of western places that was not amenable to cartographic expression, that could only be expressed and communicated through narrative means. One of the main impressions Van Noy leaves with his readers is just how difficult it has been for observers to have an unmediated experience of the American West. Sent on survey missions by the American government, King and Powell were charged with fixing the region’s watercourses and landforms on paper; their professional position conditioned them to see the land through the interpretive lens of the survey grid and the surveyor’s transit, to construe and define it as national property and a web of future transportation routes. At the same time, they could not help but respond to the felt aesthetic, emotional, and experiential qualities of the landscape, subjective qualities of place that, in the pages of their books, supplemented and deepened the dispassionate scientific perspective put forward by their maps. In doing so, though, they consistently fell back on the conventions of the sublime, a framework of interpretation that, in its way, was just as systematic and controlling as the mathematical strictures that guided their cartographic work. In King’s case, the sublime allows him to write “an impressionist’s picture of landscape, less stable and more ephemeral than a map, yet for that moment, a narrative also more ‘true’” (78). Powell’s use of the convention, though, leads him to reinforce some common myths of the West, strengthening those popular perceptual filters: he helped “substanti­ ate the image of the West as a place sublime and heroic, images that may have inadvertently helped bolster pioneering pride and optimism about the national landscape” (102). Maps and narratives may seem like inimical modes of communication; indeed, Van Noy’s subjects needed both in order to arrive at a satisfying assess­ ment of landscape. In bringing these modes together, Van Noy both helps us deepen our sense of what constitutes a western writer and demonstrates just how firmly the West has resisted—and continues to resist—definitive understanding. Silko: Writing Storyteller and Medicine Woman. By Brewster E...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 345-346
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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