Literary geography: what is it?

Updates: see also the reading from RHUL’s GeoHumanities’ introductory workshop: Geography within the humanitiesEditorial from the first issue of the GeoHumanities journal | What might GeoHumanities do? | Narrating space /Spatializing narrative (review; has a chapter on streetnames)…Creating earth futures commissions

At the Poetic Places launch event David Cooper gave a good introduction to the topic, starting with Willam Sharp’s 1904 Literary geography (review), referring everyone to De Certeau and subdividing #litgeogs into inter alia mapping a text, big data across a corpus, deep mapping and (broadly) field trips, plus just going for a walk. Shout-out too for Nottingham’s Centre for Regional Literature and Culture. See also the special issue of Humanities on Deep mapping edited by Les Roberts, a typology of geohumanities from the launch of the RHUL Centre for the GeoHumanities, and Sheila Hones’ Literary geographies: narrative space in Let the great world spin.

See also Robert Tally’s Routledge handbook of literature and space and the Palgrave handbook of literature and the city, both 2017.

Sightings of Danish literary geographers – Elisabeth Skou Pedersen (AUPhD abstract), have come across her writing here and there. Martin Leer (Geneva), nothing else traced.

The first issue of Literary Geographies (blog cum bibliography) is out! Lots of litcrit, which I’m a bit sniffy about when it appears på dansk, plus a couple of useful articles exploring what we are actually talking about here.

The editorial sees litgeogs going beyond human geography to embrace literary criticism, literary cartography, geocriticism, comparative literature, and the digital and spatial humanities, situating it in the intersection of literary studies, geography and cartography. The journal takes the general position that literary geography is essentially a way of reading, “an approach to literary texts, a geographically-attuned way of reading fiction or poetry or drama” but also “making connections while reading scholarly work in geography and literary studies”.

Up to the 1980s the term was generally taken to refer to the kind of literary gazetteer aimed at reader-tourists discussed by Virginia Woolf in a 1905 review for the Times Literary Supplement. It was not until the ‘spatial turn’ took hold in literary studies nearly a century later that a contrastingly critical literary geography started to gain traction. More recently, the division between academic and creative work on literary geography has also started to be broken down, while literary geographers working on different national canons have also begun to collaborate.

Taking this a step further, Neal Alexander writes in Thinking Space that litgeogs might be regarded as one specific articulation of the cultural turn in human geography. The term can be traced back to 1904, when it meant “little more than the particular places, landscapes, or regions associated with individual writers…a kind of literary geography [which] continues to manifest itself in the form of literary tourism ventures and coffee-table books”, oh dear. In a more academic context he cites Moretti, Andrew Thacker and Sheila Hones, who “offer[s] a model of the literary text as a ‘spatial event’, produced ‘at the intersection of agents and situations scattered across time and space’” (see Narrative space in Let the great world spin). Interesting…

Literary geography is often carried on under other names (imaginative geography, literary cartography, geocriticism, geopoetics, geohumanities) and takes many forms drawing on ideas from a range of disciplines:

  • generating maps from quantitative data as a means of correlating genre with geography or charting the lineaments of a narrative trajectory
  • the nature of the relationship between material and metaphorical spaces
  • literary representations of places and spaces
  • the histories and characteristics of specific genres, such as landscape writing
  • the spatial properties of the text itself as a material object
  • literary geographical readings of early modern drama, realist novels, modernist poetry, and contemporary science fiction

Not quite sure where my ventures might fit in!


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