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A Geographer Speaks

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Years of This Land: A Geographical History of the United States. By Herman R. Muelder and David M. Delo. D. Appleton-Century Company. $2.50. Atlas of American History. Edited by James Truslow Adams. Charles Scanner’s Sons. $10.00.

This review is written from the point of view of the geographer, a point of view too seldom heard. “Years of This Land” by Herman R. Muelder and David M. Delo has the subtitle “A Geographical History of the United States.” “The Atlas of American History” edited by James Truslow Adams and a distinguished board of advisers, including Lawrence Martin, cartographer-geographer of the Library of Congress, confesses by its use of the word “atlas” to being geographic. That which can be mapped comes always within the field of the geographer; hence my right to review these books.

“Years of This Land” has an epic scope of plan if it does not always assume epic proportions. Muelder is the historian and Delo a geologist with a geographic interest. The book contains two styles of writing: the history has a fine flow of words, the geography is done with simple directness. Kirtley Mather of Harvard insists that the volume is a “magnificent contribution toward a true understanding of the real spirit of America.” If the book does not live up to such heroic statement, it is a contribution and one which many readers will prize, a fine blending of history and earth fact.

The “Atlas of American History” breaks new ground in the cartography of. history. In the spirit of Horrabin’s valuable books, a single fact or group of facts is given on a single plate. Where topography is important, it is included in fine detail. Each map has a supervisor and a group of consultants. Obviously, the book is one of high scholarship. No historical atlas has been more carefully or thoughfully prepared. It is a volume that must be on the shelves of all students of American history.

To review these two volumes in a single space is to treat as a unit books of quite different character. One is concerned with historical detail, the other presents a broad point of view. The geographer values these volumes, values them for what they accomplish and yet finds a lack in each. The lack lies in the breadth of point of view, the limitations, but never the scholarship.

Let us consider the atlas for a moment. History, it would seem from the atlas, is the minutia; of explorations, battles, and boundaries. No one would disclaim this more quickly than Mr. Adams. Perhaps he did not realize that the influence of the sea upon early New England could be demonstrated by a map of the marginal density of population. Likewise, a good topographic map of portions of the Southern Appalachians would have done much to explain the crystallization of cultures there. There is a New England attitude towards democracy, another in tidewater Virginia, and another in the corn belt. Each has an historic and an economic basis. Each may be put on maps and should be in any atlas of American history. Significant in the development of provincialisms in American culture is the twenty-inch rainfall; yet there is a notable lack in the volume of maps illustrating the effects of climate. Here is history without coal, iron ores, irrigation, and a thousand other items. The geographer sets the volume down, fully appreciative of its value and yet with a feeling of regret for its shortcomings.

The failure of the geographical history is of a different sort. The book is too general to be analytical and indeed to live up to its claim of being a geographical history of America. It does involve some general geographical principles, but one feels that the authors have not yet explored the many Americas. Of course, one short volume can hardly be exhaustive, but it should recognize our diversity of culture. There is no one America; there are at least one hundred Americas to be found. There are, indeed, nearly a score of New Englands. Each American provincialism has its individuality and each has made a contribution to our national whole. It takes many tributaries to make a great stream. A geographical history cannot be general if it is to be more than a primer. A many-colored quilt can not be described in a single shade. One does not generalize on European geography; and it is dangerous to generalize on the American scene.

This underestimate of geography, point and counterpoint, is, I suppose, the fault of the geographers themselves. Too few of them know the perspective that history gives. They have specialized on little regions in America and so call themselves chorographers, but they have failed to train themselves in the broad doctrines of environmentalism. Yet it is the philosophy of environmentalism that will give them a feeling of the surge of national history. Too many geographers are articulate only to a point of elaborating statistics. Actually, no geographer has the right of caustic criticism, for none has adequately made his contribution to the understanding of the “real spirit” of American culture.

Both volumes here considered accomplish well what the authors intended them to do. It is the failure of the geographer to enlarge the scope of cultural studies that causes regret.


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