Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.

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I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?

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Two Early Americans


Continuing my early American kick, I read The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper.  I’ve also taken out a volume of Washington Irving so I can finish Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which I started listening to on a long trip.

The Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York, so I was surprised to encounter local names I remember from my elementary school days in South Jersey, notably those of the Lenni Lenape and Unami tribes.  The eponymous hero of the novel is one of them, far from his homeland and caught up in the wars of the British, French and Iroquois that I only dimly remember, if at all.

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The woods (my photograph)

As a reminder of those times when the upper Hudson was practically the edge of the Anglo American world, The Last of the Mohicans was interesting.  It’s fascinating to think that when Cooper published this in 1826, the native people and landscapes of the Southwest, now such an integral part of our literature, were a different country.  The appearance of an old chief named Tamanend, said to have negotiated with William Penn and to have later attained to the status of the patron saint Tammany, is another welcome reminder that American history has been going on for a lot longer than I sometimes remember.  Otherwise, Cooper’s plotting is clunky and the 1992 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis seems to me to make some improvements.

Knickerbocker’s History of New York is similarly reorienting, with the added complication that it’s also outrageous satire.  Dietrich Knickerbocker is Irving’s invented Dutch historian, harking back with pompous nostalgia to the days of sleepy patroons, smoking, dozing, growing fat on oysters and donuts, and founding the greatest city on Earth while the Yankees closed in around them.

I’m confident that Irving will merit another post; whether I can put it together is another question.  I’ve begun to read the newly published course on English literature by Jorge Luis Borges and I’m an insignificant sixty pages into Tony Judt’s huge Postwar.  On the other hand, the spring warbler migration should be tapering off, so maybe I’ll spend more time writing.