Literature and Land Surveying

Authored by: Sarah Luria

The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138816350
eBook ISBN: 9781315745978
Adobe ISBN:


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Land surveying, a subtopic of mapping, has become increasingly interesting to literary studies. Land surveys take measurements for maps and divide land into property. The verb “to survey” derives from the Latin “to look upon, or over.” Today, much land surveying is done from the air and satellite imaging, but surveying has a grounded, bodily tradition of epic endeavors carrying chain and compass across swamps and mountains to bring landscapes under firmer control. Particularly suggestive is how the practical work of surveying inspires more literary representation through field books, travel literature (e.g., William Byrd’s Histories of the Dividing Line (1728)), fiction (e.g., Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (2005)), and cultural critique. Henry David Thoreau, who worked as a land surveyor, exemplifies this entire range. Thoreau made property surveys and recorded measurements in his field book, and then later reflected on the work and the landscape in numerous journal entries. While not a land surveyor herself, poet Susan Howe focuses intently on the meaning of our property-making and land divisions in her poem “The Secret History of the Dividing Line”; she goes so far as to claim her own written lines are connected to the lines we draw on the land: “these lines are certified by surveyors chain-bearers artists and authors walking the world keeping Field Notes” (Howe 28). Such congruities have literary critics studying the lines of land surveying for the stories they offer of place-making, self-making, colonialist expansion, and environmental change.

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