Literature, Geography, and the Spaces of Interdisciplinarity

L. D. Walls
2011 American Literary History  
Some years ago, while we were driving to the Grand Canyon, my husband flipped on the car radio. Out of it came not the usual bluster of pop-rock and car-lot commercials, but a dulcet voice speaking a language neither of us understood or, for a moment, recognized. It was Dine ´, of course, more widely known as Navajo. Deep in the heart of the United States of America, we had crossed the border into another nation altogether: simultaneously inside, and outside, the map of "America." The American
more » ... ica." The American map, which lies so apparently flat and solid, is in fact yeasty with such heterogeneous spaces. This may seem counterintuitive: US Americans grow up thinking of "America" as an iconic shape with clear boundaries separating home from abroad, and indeed, my trusty national map stops crisply at those boundaries, pushing even our fellow Americas, Mexico and Canada, off the edges of the known world. According to this map, America expanded to its present shape like water poured onto a table, spreading smoothly outward, flooding all in its path until, suddenly, for reasons left unsaid, it simply stopped-as if geography were blind to history. But this cannot be true: at its onset, modern geography was defined by virtue of historical processes. In the words of Alexander von Humboldt, both landforms and languages could be understood only as a function of their development through time: "Their form is their history" (1.72). In Humboldt's vision of the Cosmos, human history itself was no less than geo-graphy, earth-writing, landforms and languages interacting in a reciprocal and unfolding dynamic with no traces of a beginning and no end in sight. This profound insight could have been the foundation of something new, a deeply interdisciplinary *Laura Dassow Walls is the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century American literature and in literature and science. She has published widely, including books on Thoreau, Emerson, and most recently, Alexander von Humboldt.
doi:10.1093/alh/ajr040 fatcat:lc3ypsnhwzbc3mf76c23z5yzki