American Author Maps: Informational Texts in the English Classroom

Building Background Knowledge on American Authors Using Maps

The website for the American Writers Museum offers an interactive maps studying American writers. The museum itself is located in Chicago (Opening 2017). The American Writers Museum.

Teachers of American literature in middle or high school classrooms have the opportunity to select from a little over 400 years of writing by American authors. Because each author offers a different perspective on the American experience, teachers may also choose to provide the geographic context that influenced each of the authors taught in a curriculum.

In American literature, geography is often central to an author's narrative.

 Representing the geography of where an author was born, raised, educated, or wrote can be done on a map, and the creation of such a map involves the discipline of cartography.

Cartography or Map Making

The International Cartographic Association (ICA) defines cartography:

"Cartography is the discipline dealing with the conception, production, dissemination and study of maps. Cartography is also about representation – the map. This means that cartography is the whole process of mapping."

The structural models of cartography can be used to describe the process of mapping for an academic discipline. Supporting the use of maps in the study of literature to better understand how geography has informed or influenced an author is made in an argument made by Sébastien Caquard and William Cartwright in their 2014 article Narrative Cartography: From Mapping Stories to the Narrative of Maps and Mapping  published in The Cartographic Journal.

The article explains how "the potential of maps to both decipher and tell stories is virtually unlimited." Teachers may use maps that help students better comprehend how the geography of America may influence authors and their literature. Their description of narrative cartography is an aim, "to shed light on some of the facets of the rich and complex relationships between maps and narratives."

Influence of Geography on American Authors

Studying the geography that influenced the authors of American literature can mean using some of the lenses of social sciences such as economicspolitical sciencehuman geographydemography,  psychology or sociology. Teachers may spend time in class and provide the cultural geography background of the authors who penned the most traditional selections of literature in high school such as Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.  In each of these selections, as in most American literature, the context of an author's community, culture, and relationships is tied to specific time and location.

For example, the geography of colonial settlements is seen in the first pieces of American literature, beginning with a 1608 memoir by Captain John Smith, English explorer and leader of Jamestown (Virginia). The explorer's accounts are combined in a piece titled  A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia.  In this recounting, consider by many to be wildly exaggerated, Smith describes the story of Pocahontas saving his life from the hand of Powhatan.

 

More recently, the 2016 winner of the Pulitzer Prize  for fiction was written by Viet Thanh Nguyen who was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His story The Sympathizer is described as, "A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds'— and two countries, Vietnam and the United States." In this award-winning narrative, the contrast of these two cultural geographies is central to the story.

The American Writers Museum: Digital Literary Maps

There are a number of different digital map resources available to teachers with Internet access to use in providing students background information. Should teachers want to give students an opportunity to research American authors, a good starting place might be the American Writers Museum, A National Museum Celebrating American Writers. The museum already has a digital presence, with their physical offices scheduled to open in Chicago in 2017.

The mission of the American Writers Museum is "to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives."

One featured page on the museum's website is a Literary America map that features American writers from all over the country. Visitors can click on a state's icon to see what literary landmarks are located there  such as author homes and museums, book festivals, literary archives, or even an author's final resting places. 

This Literary America map will help students meet several of the goals of the new American Writers Museum which are to:

Educate the public about American writers – past and present;

Engage visitors to the Museum in exploring the many exciting worlds created by the spoken and written word;

Enrich and deepen appreciation for good writing in all its forms;

Inspire visitors to discover, or rediscover, a love of reading and writing.

Teachers should know that the digital Literary America map on the museum's website is interactive, and there are links to multiple other websites. For example, by clicking on New York State icon, students could choose to be connected to an obituary on the New York Public Library's website for J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye.

Another click on the New York State icon could take students to a news story about the 343 boxes containing the personal papers and documents of the poet Maya Angelou that were acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This acquisition was featured in an article in the NY Times, "Schomburg Center in Harlem Acquires Maya Angelou Archive" and there are links to many of these documents.

There are links on the Pennsylvania state icon to museums dedicated to authors born in the state. For example, students can choose between

Similarly, a click on the Texas state icon offers students an opportunity to digitally visit three museums dedicated to the American short story author, William S.

Porter, who wrote under the pen name O.Henry:

The State of California offers multiple sites for students to explore on American authors who had a presence in the state:

Additional Literary Author Map Collections

1. At the Clark Library (University of Michigan Library) there are a number of literary maps for students to view. One such literary map was drawn by Charles Hook Heffelfinger (1956). This map lists the last names of many American writers along with their principal works within the state in which the book takes place. The description of the map states:

"As with many literary maps, while many of the works included may have been commercial successes at the time of the map’s publication in 1956, not all of them are still acclaimed today. Some classics are included, however, such as Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper."

These maps can be shared as a projection in class, or students can follow the link themselves.

2. The Library of Congress offers an online collection of maps titled, "Language of the Land: Journeys Into Literary America." According to the website:

 "The inspiration for this exhibition was the Library of Congress's collection of literary maps--maps that acknowledge the contributions of authors to a specific state or region as well as those that depict the geographical locations in works of fiction or fantasy. "

This exhibition includes the 1949 Booklovers Map published by R.R. Bowker of New York which features important points of interest across America’s historical, cultural, and literary landscape at the time. There are many different maps in this online collection, and the promotional description for the exhibition reads:

"From Robert Frost's New England farms to John Steinbeck's California valleys to Eudora Welty's Mississippi Delta, American authors have shaped our view of America's regional landscapes in all their astonishing variety. They have created unforgettable characters, inseparably identified with the territory they inhabit."

Author Maps Are Informational Texts

Maps can be used as informational texts in the English Language Arts classroom as part of the key shifts educators can use in order to integrate the Common Core State Standards. These key shifts of the Common Core state that:

"Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge."

English teachers can use maps as informational texts to build student background knowledge and improve comprehension. The use of maps as informational texts could be covered under the following standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.7 Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Conclusion

Letting students explore American authors in their geographic and historic context through cartography, or mapmaking, can help their comprehension of American literature. The visual representation of the geography that contributed to a work of literature is best represented by a map. The use of maps  in the English classroom can also help students develop an appreciation of America's literary geography while increasing their familiarity with the visual language of maps for other content areas.