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On the map
For most of us, a map is a Rand McNally highway atlas or an indexed grid of city streets. We use it simply as a straightforward, factual reference work. But the making and using of maps wasn’t always so neutral and objective back when the Old World was learning about the New World and overseas empires were rising and falling. Depending on the agendas of their creators and readers, maps reveal a lot about prevailing geopolitics, commercial ambitions, and attitudes toward familiarity and strangeness.
The back stories of old maps are at the core of research by Skidmore historian Jordana Dym, who’s preparing a book based on travel narratives by Westerners visiting the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. (Her own career travels are noteworthy too. With an MA in Russian studies and history from Stanford, she joined the US State Department in 1990; but no Russia postings were open at the time, and she was sent to Honduras instead. “I discovered that the Latin American culture—and climate!—were a much better match for my personality,” she says. After five years, she enrolled at New York University for a PhD in Latin American history. During the ’90s she also served as an election monitor in Cambodia, El Salvador, and Bosnia.) Dym’s map research was inspired by a course she taught on travel writers in Latin America from 1500 to 1900. Fascinated by the array of amateur and professional maps included in some travelers’ journals, Dym took a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar on historical cartography. That “shot in the arm,” she says, gave her the confidence to pursue a book about the evolving uses of travelers’ maps.
Well supplied with patience and passion, Dym is digging up first-person travelogues—published and private; by diplomats, missionaries, and businessmen, as well as by the idle rich—in US libraries, the French National Archives, the Vatican’s archive, and other collections. In the 1600s and early 1700s, she reports, people making the well-defined Grand Tour of Europe had little need to attach maps to their writings, whereas most Western visitors to Asia prepared or procured maps to introduce their audiences to these unfamiliar lands. But later, even accounts of Europe began including maps, reflecting the growing popular appeal of exploration, natural-science study, and cultural observation off the beaten track. According to Dym, “travel writers succeeded in making all destinations unfamiliar,” piquing a new appetite for maps and geographical description. Dym has also found eloquent examples of mapping as marketing—from nineteenth-century charts that de-emphasize the difficult mountain terrain of proposed Central American canal sites, to a 1959 Esso road map of Honduras that pictures broad highways “with modern service stations run by European men in pristine uniforms.”
Dym admits her new book is “a huge project, both interdisciplinary and transnational.” But that multilayered mix suits her fine. Professionally she’s active in the growing field of “Atlantic history,” which she says crosses boundaries to study “the many interactions (economic, political, philosophical, military) among North America, Latin America, Europe, and West Africa since the sixteenth century or so.” Last fall, Dym and Spanish professor Paty Rubio co-taught a first-year interdisciplinary seminar, “Cities of Dreadful Delight,” about urban history and culture in Latin America; its peer mentor was a student who’d attended a Mexico City program with her last summer. Says Dym, “I love all these interconnections in teaching and research—they’re one big happy mess.” —SR