Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier (Religion and American Culture)
Columbia University Press, 2003
256 pp., 173.0
David N. Livingstone
A Mapping Mission
Adjectival geography is flourishing. Even a casual perusal of recent works by geographers discloses an imaginative array of modifiers appended to the noun. To take a random sample, geographies are variously "hybrid," "malevolent," "phobic," "consuming," "embodied," "virtual," "sensuous," "extraordinary," "dissident," and "lost."1 Literary critics, cultural historians, cognitive psychologists, poets, and many more are likewise attracted by the newfound fertility of the geographical lexicon. So in recent years we have been introduced to geographies that are "tender," "cosmopolitan," "fabulous," "neural," "romantic," "distracted," "imperfect," and "Gothic."2 It's all a long way from physical, or regional, or economic geography. Yet however much some of it may smack of postmodern faddism, the recent work that has been done to elucidate the geographies of identity, or genetics, or art, or writing has raised new and important questions about the role of space and place in human life.3
Now we have an exploration of 19th-century Protestant missionary expansionism along the American frontier couched in the language of yet another species of adjectival geography—"moral geography," a suite of related ideas already well-established in the modern geographical vernacular whose history discloses a number of distinct threads. For some the rubric of this novel discourse is largely derived from the interventions of Michel Foucault, for whom surveillance, discipline, and punishment are inherently spatial projects. In Foucault's telling, such venues as asylums and clinics, prisons and hospitals, confessionals and courtrooms give spatial expression to the moral management of society, and it is for this reason that he insisted that the analysis of power is the analysis of spaces.
There is certainly much to this diagnosis. Medical, legal, and ecclesiastical venues have the power to draw boundary lines between the sick and the well, the mad and the sane, the innocent and the guilty, the saved and the lost. In another key, moral geography describes how various spaces on both local and global scales have been depicted in the language of pathology. Tropical climates, for example, have routinely been staged as zones of moral and mental peril where European colonists had to be on their guard against the inflammation of the passions and other climatically induced evils, and were commanded to practice abstemiousness and circumspection.
Genealogies of this sort serve to call attention to only a very few of the ways in which the moral and the geographical have been sewn together. Here, the quarry is Ohio's Western Reserve and the 19th-century projects of Protestant home missionaries. The establishment of moral orderliness through the management of spatial arrangements is the motif that snakes its way through the compelling narrative that Amy DeRogatis has pieced together from society records, personal journals, private letters, and published texts. The result is an engaging tale in which the fundamental impulse of frontier missionaries is revealed as the desire to shape space, to curb immorality through spatial ordering, and to recreate the ideal of Puritan village life on the western margins. DeRogatis' analyses are rich in detail and move from the early designs of the Connecticut Missionary Society and its models of piety along the frontier, to interdenominational rivalries, the moralistic tincture of early American geographical and travel literature, and the spatial stratagems of the Oberlin Colony and Institute.
Beginning with what she calls the imagined geography of the frontier in the outlook of the Connecticut Missionary Society, which connected the western lands to biblical stories of Eden and Zion, DeRogatis reviews the mapping strategies of the missionaries and how these hooked up with the cartographic ventures of the Connecticut Land Company. Together, she suggests, these projects constituted an exercise in "spatial nostalgia" marked by a longing to remake the West in the image of the typical New England township.
Her next port of call is the models of piety that dominated frontier missions, and in particular the efforts of home missionaries to project the values of humility, self-denial, and moderation onto the physical landscape. The management of public space, domestic life and human bodies was central to this undertaking, and DeRogatis devotes considerable time to elucidating the various ways in which these domains of life were brought under disciplinary supervision. Appropriate behavior in appropriate places required the elimination of risk in an environment where everything from Sabbath observance to the mixing of the sexes was thought to require regulation.
What gave further impetus to these surveillant inclinations was a widespread reading of geographical conditions and landscape appearance in moral categories. So, for example, Jedidiah Morse's multiple geographical texts and the travel writings of various individuals interpreted the environment through the lens of moral judgment, while the Oberlin Colony sought to establish itself as a "beacon in the wilderness" through "plain-style architecture, strict moral habits, and carefully planned landscape." In all of these cases, DeRogatis writes, home missionaries were governed by "the moral imperative of cultivating the landscape as a first step in creating a godly community." This principle, of course, was double-edged. It expressed the conviction that "shaping the physical landscape" promoted moral values; but at the same time it gave voice to the fear that "nonstructured spaces" oozed immorality.
The particulars of each of these moments could be elaborated in further detail, but even a condensed resumé would only serve to obscure the powerful message that the specifics collectively convey—namely, that controlling space was itself a spiritual practice and that the landscape was the site of moral engagement. Instead I want to extract just a few of the motifs that wend their way through the plot, which seem to me to be of much wider import. First, the simple point that space is an arena of spiritual engagement is worthy of reinforcement. To this end DeRogatis' observation that whether "the region was described as a new Zion or as a new Connecticut, the Western Reserve provided a place for sacred history to unfold on American soil" calls to mind Old Testament litanies of locations, mapped into the psyche of the children of Israel, where desperate deeds were done and glorious grace encountered. That refrain has echoed down through the ages. Whether in the ancient Middle East or the latter-day Midwest, Heilsgeographie—salvation geography—has been no less foundational than Heilsgeschichte—salvation history.
Second, the linking of moral discipline with spatial order that DeRogatis detects as a dominant mission motif was not restricted to early New Connecticut. British missionaries in Africa, New Zealand, and elsewhere were routinely exercised about the irregularity of local architecture. David Livingstone, for example, no doubt conscious of Isaiah's assurance that the crooked would be made straight, recorded his impatience with Tswana peoples who had "a curious inability to make or put things square."
Third, DeRogatis' reminder that the control of space is routinely connected with the management of the body alludes to conventions that have not been limited to the moral codes of Christian missionaries. After a rather sumptuous guest dinner that Maurice Drury put on for Ludwig Wittgenstein in rural Ireland in 1934, Wittgenstein—evidently ill at ease—remarked: "Now let it be quite clear that while we are here we are not going to live in this style. We will have a plate of porridge for breakfast …. and a boiled egg in the evening." This indeed was his own pattern. When he lived in Dublin he repaired daily to the (now sadly closed) Bewley's for precisely the same midday meal: an omelette and coffee.4 For Wittgenstein, searching for the truth meant denying the belly; clearing the mind required controlling the body. So it was for Western reserve missionaries who sought to construct ecclesiastical spaces characterized by sobriety, moderation, and discipline.
Finally, a dominant feature of Western missionizing was the impulse to maintain spatial and moral boundaries between saints and sinners, between safe and hostile space. This inclination toward what might be called the creation of purified space is deeply rooted in the human species. Whether expressed in efforts to attain the New Jerusalem in the New World or retain the Old Jerusalem in the Old World, the passion to keep space pure has persistently obtruded. As I know from decades of segregation in my own city, Belfast, ethnic identity and street purity have gone hand in hand—with altogether terrifying consequences.
Amy DeRogatis' sketch of moral geography on the American frontier has opened up a rich and fertile vein of scholarship on the mindset of Protestant home missionaries in Ohio's Western Reserve. But the study of moral geography cannot be restricted to the idiosyncrasies of the Connecticut Missionary Society during the 19th century. The making and maintaining of moral geographies remain fundamental in a 21st-century world where the practices of ethnic cleansing and social segregation, and talk of axes of evil and the clash of civilizations, continue to deliver their own cartographies of fear and violence.
David N. Livingstone is professor of geography and intellectual history at the Queen's University of Belfast. He is the author most recently of Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Univ. of Chicago Press).
1. Thus, for example, Sarah Whatmore, Hybrid Geographies: Natures Cultures Spaces (SAGE, 2001); Glen Strauch Elder, Hostels, Sexuality, and the Apartheid Legacy: Malevolent Geographies (Ohio Univ. Press 2003); Joyce Davidson, Phobic Geographies: The Phenomenology and Spatiality of Identity (Ashgate, 2003); David Bell and Gill Valentine, Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat (Routledge, 1997); Elizabeth Kenworthy Teather, ed., Embodied Geographies (Routledge, 1999); Mike Crang, ed., Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Space and Relations (Routledge, 1999); Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense and Place (Routledge, 1994); Lewis Holloway and Phil Hubbard, People and Place: The Extraordinary Geographies of Everyday Life (Prentice Hall, 2000); Alison Blunt and Jane Wills, Dissident Geographies: An Introduction to Radical Ideas and Practice (Longman, 2000); John Allen, Lost Geographies of Power (Blackwell, 2003).
2. Joan DeJean, Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France (Columbia Univ. Press, 1993); Vinay Dharwadker, ed., Cosmopolitan Geographies: New Locations in Literature and Culture (Routledge, 2001); Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories (Univ. of California Press, 2004); Elizabeth A. Wilson, Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition (Routledge, 1998); Amanda Gilroy, ed., Romantic Geographies: Discourses of Travel 1775-1844 (Manchester Univ. Press, 2000); Sudeep Sen, Distracted Geographies: An Archipelago of Intent (Wings Press 2004); Michael Hogan, Imperfect Geographies: New and Selected Poems (Q Trips 1999); Glennis Byron and David Punter, eds., Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography (Palgrave, 1999).
3. Thus, Patricia Yaeger, ed., The Geography of Identity (Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996); Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton Univ. Press, 1994); Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004).
4. These details are recorded in Steven Shapin, "The Philosopher and the Chicken: On the Dietetics of Disembodied Knowledge," in Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin, eds., Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 2150.
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