The Geographic Imagination of Civil War Era American Fiction



Pre-publication manuscript draft of “The Geographic Imagination of Civil War Era Fiction,” American Literary History (25.4, 2013, pp. 803-40).

What follows is an example of such hybrid, computationally assisted scholarship. It begins with a question: How can we define and assess the “geographic imagination” of American fiction around the Civil War, and how did the geographic investments of American literature change across that sociopolitical event? It is, at first order, an intervention in existing debates about space, regionalism, and the dynamics of large-scale cultural change. To preview quickly the most important direct results, we find that there is significant national and international dispersion of geographic reference in American novels written between 1851 and 1875; that the distribution of place references tracks closely but not perfectly with population; that changes in literary investment in specific places and regions tends to lag changes in population; and that although there are important shifts in the geographic distribution of literary interest occasioned by the Civil War, such shifts are smaller than established theories would lead us to expect.

Beyond presenting this new, broad-based information about the distribution of literary-geographic attention in the mid-nineteenth century, my specific claims are three: First, that the New England-centered understanding of American literature and culture that grows out of foundational studies such as F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance and Sacvan Bercovitch’s The Puritan Origins of the American Self is misleading and ultimately unsustainable when applied to the full literary field of the midcentury. Second, that literary regionalism, as measured by any large uptick in the actual use of regionally dispersed locations, does not arise in the decade following the Civil War, though certain of its roots can be traced at least as far back as 1850. In both cases, our view of the era’s literary production should be revised to reflect its significant investment in urban and international locations, as well as the wide range of those locales. Third, that we must rethink significantly our theory of periodizing events in light of the striking continuity of literary-geographic usage across the outbreak and conclusion of the Civil War. This last point isn’t an attack on periodization as such, but we do need, I think, to pay much closer attention to the substantive continuities that underlie our narratives of historical evolution, even when those narratives are built around such seemingly obvious breaks as the event of national insurrection.


Attribute NameValues
  • Matthew Wilkens

  • Fiction

  • United States

  • Natural Language Processing

  • Named Entity Recognition

  • Literature

  • Digital Humanities

  • Self

Date Created
  • 2014-09-12

Bibliographic Citation
  • English

  • American Literary History

Spatial Coverage
  • United States

Temporal Coverage
  • 1851-1875

Record Visibility Public
Content License

Digital Object Identifier


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