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Approaches to American Studies: Maps and American National Identity


Space has been a relatively neglected topic in the study of narrative and narrative structure, mainly because of the wide range of phenomena that can be considered spatial. Narrative spaces are not confined to the individual objects described in the narrative. Rather, they extend to the universal and cosmic order in which the story takes place. Many narratologists view space as a kind of backdrop, a background that lies behind the plot. Literary specialists never really sought to investigate how space works in narrative and how narratives work in real space. It was not until recently, in 2016, that Marie-Laure Ryan's book Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet brought to the forefront the important, yet under-explored, role of space in the narrative: a supporting medium, a concept of an organization, a way of strategic planning, an item of emotional exploration, a focus of attention and a bearer of symbolic meaning. Through a unique, relatively rare type of collaboration between a narratologist (Marie-Laure Ryan) and two geographers (Kenneth Foote and Maoz Azaryahu), the book emphasizes “the complementarity of their concerns” (p. 5) by showcasing what the writers see as the central point of contact between these two fields. This article will further explore the dialogue that Ryan started between scholars of narrative theory and geography, by focusing on its intersection with American Studies.


Figure 1: Narrative Structure and Mapping (Lucarelli, 2012)
Figure 1: Narrative Structure and Mapping (Lucarelli, 2012).

Just as narratology and geography are interdisciplinary fields, so are American Studies. Etymologically, the term "interdisciplinary" indicates being at the boundary of individual disciplines, where, in the words of Neil Campbell, they “begin to merge and intermingle, clash and jar” (2012, p. 12). In this case, American Studies is the meeting place or the "crossroads" (Shelley Fisher Fishkin, 2005, p. 20) of a number of disciplines including sociology, history, art, music, films, literature, and theater. Similar to the vast borderland of America where cultures, systems of rituals, and beliefs clash and meet, American Studies becomes the contact zone of various disciplines which interlink and compare their lines of inquiry, aspiring to create a resulting understanding that is better than the sum total of its interdisciplinary parts.


Although this field focuses on the history and culture of the United States, it does not intend to exceptionalize America or project a romanticized version of it (as in the case of John Winthrop’s political rhetoric City upon a Hill). Rather it suggests its fluid and unified relations with other fields of study and nations. Since the '60s and '70s, two decades characterized by the explosion of political movements (Civil Rights, Feminist, Gay, and Lesbian Rights movements), scholars have adopted a New Model of approaching American Studies, from the point of view of diversity and multivocality. In this New Model, they advocated actions beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries such as pro-American, arrogant nationalism, and strived to establish more unified and collaborative projects among academic areas. In their effort to expand the field’s use abroad and to correct reductive visions of the studied culture, they focused on Americans’ diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. According to celebrated historian Elizabeth Fox Genovese, Americans are “[…] female as well as male, black as well as white, poor as well as affluent, Catholic or Jewish as well as Protestant” (1982, p. 5). Their identities are themselves multifaceted or, analogous to the field of American Studies, "interdisciplinary" because they are comprised of various different cultural and historical elements. These layers are reflected in a number of traditional and modern texts.


Figure 2: Kandinsky’s ‘Composition IV’ (1911), showing the free-floating compositional structure
Figure 2: Kandinsky’s "Composition IV" (1911), showing the free-floating compositional structure.

The relationship between text and space is central to any interdisciplinary enterprise. However, there are two main issues to examine. The first concerns the concept of "text". How exactly can "text" be defined? Typically, a text is a body of (written) words that conveys a certain meaning to the reader. According to a prominent literary scholar, Yuri Lotman, it is “a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message” (1977, p. 95). In literary theory, there is an established canon of works, for example, The Scarlet Letter (1850) or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), that are deemed appropriate for an in-depth examination. Conventional and often old-fashioned approaches in the study of politics, history, and mainly literature prefer these kinds of texts at the expense of other, more contemporary, literary works. According to Ryan (2016), however, this approach toward the concept of "text" is quite limiting. The nature of the concept of "text" per se and the way a particular text is received and used has dramatically changed over time. In particular, a standard text is traditionally associated with written materials such as books, magazines, newspapers, or online content. In the Internet Age, people communicate and express ideas and beliefs through multiple forms of media (e.g., social networking platforms) and a text does not merely appear on paper; it can also take the form of a movie, a song, a painting, an advertisement or even a map.


So, any assumptions about what a text is have clearly changed in the last few years. The second issue concerns the nature of "space". Jeremy Hight, a locative media writer, and artist defines space as “an open area, place of storage, an area to be filled or be a vacuum or the endlessness of space” (2012, p. 322). This is a rather generic definition that helps to anchor an abstract concept that can neither be seen nor felt. When it comes to the relation between space and narratology, Ryan, Foote and Azaryahu define three types of space, each of which plays a major role in shaping narrative content. In particular, the introduction of distinct types of space is an essential starting point for understanding the general use of space in narratology (2016).


Narrative Art (Rivera, n.d)
Figure 3: Narrative Art (Rivera, 1925).
Narrative Space

Narrative space refers to the space of the Storyworld. The Storyworld can be visualized as a story space that is entirely completed by the reader’s imagination on the basis of the actions and thoughts of the characters as well as the location in which they find themselves. In Ryan's terms, this type of space is “conceived by the imagination as a coherent, unified, ontologically full, and materially existing geographical entity” (2016, p. 24). It constitutes the places that "make up" or compose the physical environment where the characters of a story live and move. This type of space is also often called “symbolic space”, meaning that certain places function symbolically for the characters. For instance, in the classic 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the major fictional characters is a black man who tries to flee slavery. Along with the protagonist, they travel on a raft down the Mississippi River, planning to reach Cairo and gain their freedom. In this narrative, the river becomes the ultimate liberator and a symbol of freedom for the runaway slave who hides in it and uses it as a means to escape the cruelty of slavery. It is a place that portrays two types of journeys: the physical journey and the symbolic journey. The first includes the characters’ physical transition from the fictional small town of St. Petersburg to the free state of Illinois. The second embodies the characters’ allegorical movement from the American South’s slavery to the American North’s freedom.


Strategic Space


In strategic space, the environment surrounding the character is inextricably associated with movement (Ryan, 2016). Through direct landscape descriptions, the writer presents the protagonist as a "player" on a chessboard who positions things around them strategically with the aim of fulfilling their goal. The control of particular objects, the relation of objects with each other, and the actions that the space allows the character to perform are of major importance in strategic space. According to the independent scholar and critic Ryan, space acquires strategic significance when there is a specific object that needs to be controlled in order to achieve a particular goal (2016). For instance, the raft in Mark Twain’s novel functions as a tool that not only moves the story along, but, more importantly, that carries the heroes down the river, away from slavery and adventure. In other words, it serves as an object that helps the main characters fulfill their goal.


Figure 3: The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Figure 4: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Emotional Space


While strategic space is best represented or symbolized by a chessboard, emotional space takes the form of an appealing or frightening landscape (Ryan, 2016, p. 39). The squares on a chessboard are important to the character because they allow them to perform specific actions and achieve particular goals, but do not have inherent emotional value. On the contrary, in emotional space, the surrounding spatial objects inspire special feelings, either positive or negative, in the character. They “[…] matter for what experiences they afford, for what aesthetic feelings they inspire, and for what memories they bring to mind” (Ryan, 2016, p. 39). In this type of space, which is constructed out of the experiences of the characters, people build emotional relationships with their environment. Legends are typically related to a particular landscape and people, even those who do not believe in legends, construct an emotional attachment to this place. So, where strategic relations to space need freedom of movement and planned actions, emotional relations to space are embedded in particular landscapes and spatial objects.


An example of space invested with emotions is the sense of freedom that the characters attain while traveling through the United States, in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). In this novel, the American road reflects the author’s unconventional lifestyle and is closely associated with the freedom of the West. It is a place where he can escape the conservative American society of the 1950s and build an emotional relationship with the Western wilderness. As the novel progresses the author depicts multiple traversals of the United States by car, treating space like a tour. Ryan observed that, in tour structure narratives like this one, space functions as an expanse to be traversed (2016). It expresses the diversity of human experience and, according to Kai Mikkonen, professor of comparative literature, the tour literalizes the widespread spatio-temporal metaphor “life is a journey” (2007). As the protagonist moves from place to place, he discovers new cultures and customs, meets new people, he experiences adventures, he travels through diverse landscapes and he learns more about himself along the way. The readers follow his movements and visualize the landscape by translating textual information into visual representations.


Figure 4: Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn map (1957)
Figure 5: Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn map (1957).

This type of visualization is not achieved through the narrative alone. The writer’s hand-drawn map plays a crucial role in the readers’ construction of the Storyworld. In particular, the map illustrates his travels in the summer and fall of 1947. Kerouac drew it as part of the writing process and this is why it reminds a sketch not intended to be published. Despite its levity, this map significantly guides the story. The fact that he uses real-world locations (e.g., Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, etc.) instead of inventing fictional places, helps the reader locate the story in a specific spatial setting. This way, the author invites the readers to fully immerse themselves in the Storyworld and makes it possible for them to reach a better understanding of the story. Visual modeling of the setting, which is constructed both through narrative and space depiction, is a crucial factor of narrative immersion. The map, says Ryan, enhances memory and allows “readers to attach individual descriptive statements to specific areas or landmarks” of the space (pp. 58-59). This gives the readers the opportunity to become visualizers, fantasize about themselves as travelers, and develop a personal interpretation. Based on the locations described by the author, they develop in their minds a personal cognitive, mental map that deepens their understanding and helps them create and shape personal interpretation.


The dual modalities of map and language in a narrative express what the "other" is unable to do alone, or is able to do, but only ineffectively. Spontaneous map-making belongs to the type of strategic space and is a powerful catalyst of imaginative activity. However, a map cannot express the character’s lived experience in a landscape because, as explained by the philosopher Thomas Nagel (1989), it portrays a vertical, disembodied perspective, “a view from nowhere” (p. 45). Language, on the other hand, cannot convey a mental image of strategic space, that is the relation holding between objects, because it relies on a temporal medium (Ryan, 2016), and thus it cannot express what the map can. When the map and language-based narrative combine, they complement each other and allow space to appear in both its strategic and emotional dimensions. This way, the readers gain a global view of the insular "geography" of the story and then they start to mentally simulate the evolution of the Storyworld.

Bibliographical References

Brasher, J. (2017). Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. The AAG Review of Books. 5. 180-182.


Campbell, N., Alasdair K. (2012). American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture.


Fox-Genovese, E. & Burner, D. (1982). An American Portrait: A History of the United States. Print.


Hight, J. (2012). Narrative Archeology. Accessed January 26, 2023. https://www.academia.edu/203311/narrative_archaeology


Lotman, I.M., Lenhoff, G., & Vroon, R. (1977). The Structure of the Artistic Text.


Mikkonen, K. (2007). The "Narrative is Travel" Metaphor: Between Spatial Sequence and Open Consequence.


Nagel, T. (1989). The view from nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Ryan, M.-L., Foote, K., & Azaryahu, M. (2016). Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. Ohio State University Press.

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