Blog Entry 4: ‘Geography Matters’ from ‘How to Read Literature like a Professor’ by Thomas Foster.

Initially, Foster asks ‘what, in other words, does geography mean to a work of literature?’ And then he sketches the concept, as in Hemmingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ the place, or geography, brings with it ‘history, interaction between American and Cuban culture, corruption poverty, fishing and of course baseball.’ Foster then asks the question somewhat bluntly, ‘so what’s geography then? And he writes, I usually think of hills, creeks, deserts, beaches, degrees latitude. Stuff like that.’ However, does ‘geography’ really prompt the consideration of a satellite image, documenting lines and tropics, mappings and degrees? For literature, perhaps this kind of static rendering is evocative of the modernist understanding of ‘setting.’ It is a limited, static backdrop, somewhat like the stage design in a piece of amateur theatre. It is this uninspired understanding of the idea of ‘geography’ that Foster wants to pull apart.

Foster unpacks the common approach to the idea of geography: ‘River’s, hills, valleys, buttes, steppes, glaciers, swamps, mountains, prairies, chasms, seas, islands, people.’ But then goes on to specify that it is perhaps people which are mostly relevant in poetry and fiction. To clarify, he writes ‘literary geography is typically about people inhabiting spaces,’ but then more interestingly ‘and at the same time the spaces that inhabit humans. Who can say how much of us comes from our physical surroundings?’ Foster thus emphasises the psychological component of geography, as it seeps into the construction of characters, but then goes further to assert that geography can in fact sketch out any facet or layer of a text- such as ‘setting, psychology, attitude, finance, industry- as it is a process, an enactment, allowing the exploration of human experience as it is being documented by the writer, and thus documents the construction of theme, symbol and even plot. Evidently, geography is intimately essential to the unravelling narratives of literature, and not just the placid backdrop of a languid trout stream.

Characters can have the aspects of their personalities knitted and sculpted through the spaces they inhabit. Foster uses the example of Barbara Kingsolver’s Bean Trees with its ‘big horizons,’ ‘clear air,’ brilliant sunshine’ that reflect the open expansiveness of the narrators unfolding possibilities and opportunities. Foster goes on to affirm in fact, that geography can in fact be character and that it can play quite a specific plot role in literary work- because ‘when writer’s send characters south, it is so that they can run amok.’ To ground this assertion Foster notes Conrad, Lawrence, Hemmingway, Kerouac, Bowles, Forster and Durrell. After documenting the specific occurrences of geography and its intimate and crucial function in the very texture and structure of literature, Foster makes perhaps his most important point- Geographies evocation of the sublime. This philosophical point illustrates how through intertwining a character’s journey with a glacier- a writer can reflect on the condition of their existence, whether transcendent, immanent, hopeful, despairing or flawed- the concept of the sublime is pertinent to literature and could be extended much further in Foster’s analysis. However, crucially, Foster emphasises nicely the fundamental importance of geography, which is inclusive of the sublime, and prompts the whole idea of mapping, which is deeply pertinent to contemporary literary analysis, as it moves away from its literal physical setting, and rather emphasises the affective and psychological implications of space, that is ‘geography.’

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