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A Literary Map of the United States

Literary maps connect information about authors, works of literature, and geographical locations. They can focus on the entire body of work of a specific author, the variety of works that took place in a particular city, region, or country, or provide a map of locations described in a literary work or even an entire genre. Literary maps, as a subgenre of pictorial maps, tend to represent geography in a simplified way by showing important borders and relevant locations while generalizing scale and largely ignoring the physical and political features that would be included on a reference map. They present a subjective and selective interpretation of reality and can be designed to advance a viewpoint or agenda, such as one of patriotism or encouragement of reading.

The creation of literary maps dates back to before the seventeenth century, though most of the maps that have survived until the present day were created during the twentieth century. Especially beginning in the 1920s, literary maps became popular for their visual appeal and were often used in classrooms. Later, in the 1950s, an explosion of literary mapmaking occurred in the United States in conjunction with the increased prosperity and patriotism that occurred after the end of World War II. Literary maps from this time often portrayed a deep pride in American literature, which was particularly notable considering British literature’s generally uncontested prominence in the world of education up to this point.

The portion of the Stephen S. Clark Library’s collection of literary maps displayed here focuses mainly on literary maps of the United States and the regions within it. Many of these date from the second half of the twentieth century, namely those that are based on specific authors such as Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. There are, however, also several examples of maps from the 1930s and 40s, such as The Booklover’s Map of America, published in 1938.

Today, literary maps seem to be making a comeback of sorts by utilizing the tools available on the World Wide Web. Many of these maps are characterized by an interactive user interface and an aspect of crowdsourcing. Libraries, newspapers, and schools are using resources such as Google Maps to allow patrons and students to plot the locations included in famous works of literature. Databases such as “Placing Literature” aggregate information from users who plot the locations described in their favorite novels and allow visitors to the site to explore various parts of the globe through their literature. With tools such as Google Maps and various social media outlets, libraries and other institutions have a great opportunity to create dynamic literary maps for use in schools and by book enthusiasts alike.

Curated by Lisa Lorenzo and Corinne Vieracker, Reference Assistants at the Stephen S. Clark Library