I enjoyed reading through Matthew Wilkens’s “The Geogrpahic Imagination of Civil War-Era American Fiction” (2013). As an essay that uses cartography to think about American literary regionalism, topic modeling, and the literary investments of the mid nineteenth century, there’s certainly a lot going on here!
As an amuse-bouche, Wilkens’s project is primarily a topic modeling endeavor that examines American novels and novel-like texts published between 1851 and 1875 (the selected texts were ones cataloged by Lyle Wright in his American Fiction, 1851-1875: A Contribution toward a Bibliography). The topic being modeled, as evident by the title, is the geographic imagination of afforded by nineteenth century texts.
For many reasons, and ones that Wilkens readily acknowledges, I am hesitant about deriving conclusions or arriving at any particular thesis from corpus-level research. To be fair, judging from the essay itself, it’s hard to say whether or not Wilkens has any particular fidelity to the conclusions presented in this study. Which is a healthy exploratory habit. It might suffice to say that while I do not care much for the conclusions, I greatly appreciate Wilkens’s juxtaposition of topic modeling and cartography (primarily through ArcGIS) as a way of validating the explicit and implicit assumptions inherent in conceptions of literary regionalism.
As will be elaborated in future posts, I sympathize with Wilkens’s premise that cataloging place-name references in a corpus of texts and representing those references in a structured cartographic manner has the potential to produce meaningful validation for questions on literary geographic imagination.
For Wilkens, this endeavor crystallizes in his team’s case-study of Civil War-era texts as a way of checking longstanding scholarly assumptions that American literary regionalism was: a) defined by an intensely national sense of geographic place b) there was an increasing amount of literature that was geographically invested in rural frontiers rather than centralized urban sectors.
For many reasons, it makes sense to start here, but the question I’m left with is: Aren’t our narratives of literary regionalism a product of the geographic investments of late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century texts? When I think of the intense literary focus on authors such as Sarah Orne Jewett, I do think of literary regionalism as a product of a particular historical moment that might not necessarily be reflected in the mid 1800s. In other words, if we want to validate scholarly conceptions of literary regionalism, and we accept that they might be the product of a particular subset of writers, do we need a different corpus?