Joel S. Kovarsky. The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson's Cartographic Vision. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. 200 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3558-4.
Reviewed by Jordan Fansler (University of New Hampshire)
Published on H-War (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In The True Geography of Our Country, Joel Kovarsky explores an oft-mentioned, but seldom closely analyzed aspect of Thomas Jefferson's polymathic interests: geography. It is Kovarsky's argument that geography was not simply one of Jefferson’s many pursuits, but the “foundational scaffolding for his varied lifelong pursuits” (p. 3). Jefferson was an archetype for early American science, and geography was a recurring topic throughout his life and career, making it, for Kovarsky, not only a unique but indispensable perspective on Jefferson and Early America.
Kovarsky has tapped into the considerable resources of the special collections at the University of Virginia and the online David Rumsey Map Collection, among others, and the work relies heavily on these primary sources, including both maps and discussions of geographic topics. As one would expect, almost every image in the text, twenty-eight of thirty-two by my count, is a map. From notes and sketches to published works, they appear in black and white, but are otherwise of fine quality and often occupy a full page or two-page spread by themselves. Interestingly, the work also draws heavily on written sources, primarily Jefferson’s correspondence. These range from Jefferson’s recommendations on the most current maps to use on expeditions, to his emphasis on the importance of gathering details about watersheds for economic and political reasons, to his passages describing land and waterways, which stand as textual representations rather than modern map images. The True Geography quotes extensively in block form, sometimes broken up only to introduce the reply or subsequent letter on the topic. This does well to show the frequency of Jefferson’s considerations of geography, but provides less space to analysis of those considerations.
The work shines in reminding us that cartography, and geography more generally, were developing concepts in the late eighteenth century, and that knowledge of the land was an integral prerequisite for its control and mastery by the emerging powers. European empires, and later Americans too, relied on the knowledge obtained through survey missions to shape their holdings and position them as the first points of expansion. The True Geography further illuminates that sense of equating knowledge with control, particularly in chapters 4, "Jefferson as Expedition Planner," and 6, "Foreshadowing Manifest Destiny," two of the longest and most dense. There seems to have been a missed opportunity for further comparing this perspective to that of Native Americans, whose knowledge of the land was well established, but so different in kind from the European styles as to be essentially overlooked by them. However, this is understandable given the work’s focus on Jefferson and his particular geographic interests.
Kovarsky proceeds thematically through Jefferson’s various interactions with geography, looking at Jefferson as a map collector and creator, a surveyor and geographer, and as a politician. While this approach allows for each chapter to be independent of the others and, as the author points out, for general audiences to approach the work as manageable "interrelated essays," it also reveals one of the paradoxes of the work (p. 7). Jefferson was not a practicing surveyor; he created only one map for publication, and geography was not yet considered a unique discipline. While Kovarsky highlights the many intersections Jefferson had with geography, this does not necessarily prove its centrality to Jefferson, as Kovarsky grants it, or Jefferson's centrality to most of the themes discussed. Although Kovarsky recognizes the true importance of geography to Jefferson's activities, it seems possible that Jefferson may have seen the study as auxiliary to other pursuits.
The True Geography does well to establish Jefferson's intricate knowledge of the state of cartography at the time, pointing out his sound advice to seemingly anyone who would listen when it came to choosing the most accurate maps for any given task. It is clear that Jefferson had a strong interest in geography and cartography, and their uses in shaping a growing society and nation. However, in arguing the importance of geography to the society in general, and that Jefferson was not a particularly renowned surveyor or mapmaker himself, the work tends to undermine itself slightly. Instead, it shows more pointedly how such knowledge was indeed not necessarily unique to Jefferson, but was part of the understood useful arts of the time. We see Jefferson here as an accomplished student of the discipline, but not at the vanguard. In this way, the work stands as a look at the state of geography in the period, with Jefferson as the case study. Kovarsky reminds us of the wide-ranging ways to employ and also display geographic knowledge, beyond map creation, in the early American republic and he has created a useful reference for Jefferson’s interests and their underlying connections to geography and the physical world.
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Jordan Fansler. Review of Kovarsky, Joel S., The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson's Cartographic Vision.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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