Digital Mapping and Travel Narratives

My response to this question begins with my initial foray into the GIS world as an English Ph.D. candidate working on narrative structures and the 19th-century American city novel.  At the beginning of fall semester, I signed up for an ArcGIS class, offered through the Geography Department, in order to learn the necessary skills for a digital project I’ve wanted to complete for some time now: mapping a nineteenth-century American author's trip abroad from 1839-1840. After researching other DH map projects, I embarked on this project with two central research questions: How would mapping Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s travels reveal the way she (and to a greater extent antebellum America) imagined Europe? And, within those “Old World” cities, what spaces does she spend time writing about (for example, in London, she draws a lengthy comparison between London’s parks and New York’s boulevards)?

I’ve spent the last few months compiling data for my Arc GIS map, and I’ve been particularly struck by the way my reading focus and analytic strategies have changed as I attempt to “mine” this text for data.  I realized that during my first reading of Sedgwick's Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841), I paid close attention to her impressions and descriptions of the social and literary circles in which she moved while on the continent. However, now using the digital version of this text on Google Books to track her trip from city to village to historic site, etc., I'm forced to consider this narrative in several new ways so as to more effectively organize my data for a digital map that will give significance to both the historical timeline of the trip and the narrative space she devotes to different stops along the way.  

For example, the letters are sometimes dated inconsistently, and while a four-day journey may be described in a single paragraph, an afternoon excursion down the Rhine in a steamer may be described over several pages--changing the representation of narrative spatial time. As a result, I’ve been wrestling with new research questions such as how to convey, through a digital map, that greater physical distance traveled may actually occupy very little space, or text-time in the narrative itself. As well, place-names take on far greater importance in the text now than they did before.  As I attempt to locate the exact longitude and latitude position of 19th-century hotels (some no longer in existence), I rely on Sedgwick’s description of city sites visible from her rooms (and mentions of these hotels in other 19th-century travel narratives) in order to approximate a location within the city.  

I believe digital media and narrative studies can intersect in interesting and exciting ways, but, at the same time, I don’t necessarily know what these different intersections look like.  More importantly, I’m still learning how these digital tools can change not only the way we read and digest narratives, but what we perceive to be the narrative(s) of a particular text.  I hope through this project I can discover even more ways to represent and imagine narratives with the help of digital tools.  I’m really interested in how others have experimented with incorporating narratology and spatial studies in their own projects. In particular, how have digital tools or technologies changed the way you read narratives; and how have you effectively researched and presented narratives through these kinds of tools and technologies? 

Image on front page by Eric Fischer and available on Flickr. 


I find the proposed digital maps to be a fascinating tool for conveying a large variety of information about a text.  Of course, you could make a static map within a print medium, but I can imagine a great number of ways in which digital media can expand that presentation.  For example, in depicting the path of this journey, you could vary line thickness or colour in order to provide visual clues on the divergence between narrative and discourse time with thicker lines or "warmer" colours showing the places where a greater amount of discourse time is devoted to that location.
    Depending on the coding skills put to use in constructing such a project, a digital map could have additional features which a viewer could hide or display.  This would allow you to display the frequency of words or phrases which affect the narrative, such as moments of retrospection.  Using your example of the Sedgwick's comparison to New York, you could use digital tools to search for and graph references to American locales, perhaps in contrast to the narrator's own historical imagining of what the local would be like.  Also, you could use such a digital map to mark which locations provoke moments of reminiscence, using the digital text to search quickly for words like "remind" and "remember."  There are definitely many avenues in which a digital map allows you provide visual clues of the varying narrative moments within the work

I think varying the line thickness or color to symbolize the difference between narrative and discourse time is a fantastic idea.  I agree that this project could be done with multiple static print maps, charting the author's journey, but you're right that a digital map offers so much more in the way of layers and visualization tool.  I've been playing with adding layers to the base map, and I like the freedom it gives users to isolate certain features on the map or see multiple elements at once.  I'm still so new to ArcGIS and the digital mapping world that I have to remind myself to think beyond the static map and instead imagine the interactive possibilities of a digital map. Thank you for your suggestions.

Jordan, as you have been in the process of learning ArcGIS, I was wondering if you have seen Neatline. I was at UVA for a THATCamp and they were discussing it there. It seems like a tool made for the kind of work you are doing. It's hope is to narrativize spatial data. Maybe, though ArcGIS is better at the coding/backend work and Neatline is better at visualization. I plan to play more with it when I have some free time. 

Jamie, Thank you for the suggestions. I've heard of Neatline, but I haven't explored its capabilities for this specific project yet. I think you're right that it could help me address some of the issues I ran into with imagining the space of the narrative.  I'll check it out!

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