MAPPING AMERICAN WRITERS

Cartophilia: maps can show much more than topography. Simon Garfield puts the literary greats in their place...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

There are several reasons why you might want to be E. Annie Proulx, mostly to do with her talent as a writer of elemental novels such as “The Shipping News”. But now there is another one: being E. Annie Proulx means having practically the whole of Wyoming to yourself.

If you were Emily Dickinson or John Cheever, you would have to contend with being squeezed alongside fellow east-coasters such as J.D. Salinger and Anne Sexton. If you were Norman Mailer, you would have an even bigger problem—thanks to a British bookseller with a sideline in cartography called Geoff Sawers. “I was never really a fan of Mailer,” Sawers says. “And if I had put in Mailer then I’d have had to sacrifice someone else, so he didn’t make it.”

Ah, the cruel realities of writerly fame. One minute you’re the talk of the town, the next you’re not even on the map. Sawers’s Literary Map of the United States of America includes more than 200 novelists, poets and cartoonists, and the selection process, as in all literary contests, had an element of the arbitrary. First, Sawers and his co-artist, Bridget Hannigan, drew up a list of names they felt had to be on there, a combination of prizewinners and personal crushes. Thus F. Scott Fitzgerald was an early inclusion, but so was Charles M. Schulz, creator of Snoopy. Then there was the placement issue: where a writer appeared was only sometimes determined by birthplace. So while Tom Wolfe stretches up towards his hometown of Richmond, Virginia (above), Herman Melville appears whaling away north of Nantucket with “Moby Dick” (below). “People from all over the world are buying the maps,” Sawers says, “and they can get quite angry when their favourite writers don’t appear where they expect them to.”

Sawers’s literary map is part of a vibrant artistic genre. These days technology permits all manner of digital mash-ups: you can take statistical information and lay it on almost any cartographic framework. But there is something appealing about such exercises being conducted by a caring hand. Calligraphic maps are as old as the hills they often depict, and now they have been given new life as an authentic and time-consuming alternative to things that could be rendered more swiftly in pixels. The artistic wing of this trend is led by Grayson Perry, whose emotional renderings in pencil and tapestry lead the viewer to question the reliability of official maps.

Mind you, maps have seldom just been things that plot a boundary. George Cruikshank and his fellow Victorian caricaturists showed the globe as a plaything, while individual countries have long been tableaux for useful and unlikely information: France mapped according to its cheeses, Africa by its imperialist rulers. Maps have long been representations of power and politics; increasingly they are also representations of more overtly playful and cultural things.

The literary map—the plotting of those who plot—has a long tradition, with the Library of Congress keeping more than 225 examples locating authors and their creations in the landscape. This isn’t even Geoff Sawers’s first calligraphical-geographical adventure. In 2008, he was running his secondhand book business in Reading when he and his wife created the Literary Gift Company. Its first map—of literary Britain—proved instantly popular.

In creating the American map, Sawers’s pen moved from north-west to south-east, starting with Alaska and ending up in Florida. The project exposed literary trends: a tight concentration of old-school stars in the east, and of younger, more experimental writers spreading, pioneer-style, westwards.

Where next for Sawers? Having completed Literary Wales, he is now considering Literary Ireland. He’d like to do Australia, but thinks France is probably out, because Paris would be too crowded. And Scandinavia? How would dear old insular Ibsen fare among the full-blooded promontories of Mankells, Larssons and Nesbos? 

Simon Garfield is a journalist and author of “Just My Type”. His new book is “On the Map”

Picture courtesy of theliterarygiftcompany.com