Geocriticism and Classic American Literature
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“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man in America.” At the beginning of Call me Ishmael, Charles Olson categorically established space as a key concept for American Studies. Yet, for the most part, this concept has not been central to studies of nineteenth-century American literature. Space has made a timely reemergence in literary and cultural studies in recent years, as the discourse of postmodernism has especially emphasized its importance, and excellent work on cartography and literature is being done in early modern studies, especially in the history of colonization and conquest of the Americas. Right in the center of these two moments of modernity, the early and the post, the mid-nineteenth-century United States faced critical changes to its imaginary and real social spaces, typified by industrialization and urbanization, the emergence of a world market, the breakdown of traditional communities, westward expansion, and a looming national catastrophe. As in the baroque and postmodern eras, these crises called for new ways of seeing the world and of representing oneself in it: new narratives, new maps. The texts of so-called “classic” American literature are such literary maps. I argue that geocriticism – a critical framework that focuses on the spatial representations within the texts, specifically looking at the overlapping territories of actual, physical geography and an author’s or character’s mental mapping in the literary text – makes possible a productive reading of classic American literature in light of the spatial peculiarities of the age.