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Book focuses on geographyıs link to early American history

Martin Brückner

4:56 p.m., April 4, 2006--When writing about the early settlement of America, some historians focus on events, wars, leaders and politics. Martin Brückner, associate professor of English, views history through a different lens in his book, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy and National Identity, published by the University of North Carolina.

Brückner focuses on the effects of geography as a form of literature and how a geographically literate population shaped early American history. In his introduction Brückner writes, "From its beginning in surveying manuals and property maps, geographic literacy enabled British Americans to quite literally get their feet on the ground, granting them a sense of place and entitlement, engendering a process that led to the Revolution. In the early Republic, geography helped the country to come together and mature...[I]n the context of western expansion, geography became a language for instilling, expressing and enacting the new imperial dynamic of the Eastern states."

The book examines the period from 1690, when the British Parliament revoked land charters, which brought about extensive surveying or resurveying of the land, to 1825, “the verge of the Indian removal policy.”

“I became interested in Colonial America and how a culture invented itself from scratch,” Brückner, who specializes in American literature and culture from the 17th to 19th Century, said. “As I studied different authors, such as James Fenimore Cooper, I began peeling away the layers and discovered the influence of geography upon their writing.”

According to Brückner, now we take geography for granted, calling it a “quasi-linguistic code through which we structure our daily perception of and relation to land, variously calling it country, place or space.”

For early Americans, however, geography was central to their lives. Geography books and maps were very popular, and textbooks played an important role and taught many Americans not only about the land but also how to read and write.

Brückner said cartography and maps and what they reveal (or what they don't reveal) about a culture have always interested him. “Maps tell their owns stories and have their own secrets,” he said. “For example, in Germany, I studied Corps of Engineers maps, showing rocket launch sites that occupied very large areas known only to the locals, which never appeared on conventional maps.”

In The Geographic Revolution, Brückner discusses the role and influence of maps. For example, in the chapter entitled “Native American Geographies and the Journals of Lewis and Clark,” he writes how Thomas Jefferson used an incomplete map sent to him by William Clark to muster Congressional support for the expedition. In Jefferson's presentation, Brückner wrote, “the Lewis and Clark map became the bureaucratic blueprint for what would follow: other expeditions, more detailed accounts, the Indian removal policy, the Homestead Acts, the violent encounter with and erasure of the Native American population.”

The actual mapping of that early Lewis and Clark document ended at the upper Missouri and the rest depended on older maps and on testimonies from Native Americans. Native American mapping, based on oral tradition, differed from European mapping--distances and directions were not important, Brückner pointed out. “Routes, landmarks, sacred sites and historical events all appear at once,” and the Native American map “functioned as a documentary narrative, weaving together geography, history and mythology.”

The Geographic Revolution in Early America has attracted scholarly attention, and Brückner gave a lecture at the Early American Cartographies Conference in the Newberry Library in Chicago in March and will speak at the Free Library in Philadelphia in September and be the keynote speaker at a conference on historical cartography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in November.

Born in Germany and a graduate of Mainz University, Brückner came to the United States in 1992 and received his doctorate from Brandeis University in 1997 and an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., in 2001. At UD in 2002, he received the Francis Alison Young Scholars Award.

He is coeditor of a recently completed book, American Literary Geographies: Spatial Practice and Cultural Production, 1500-1900 and is currently working on a book on translation, material culture and performance in early America.

Article by Sue Moncure

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