Coclanis, Peter A. (2019). The Geography of the (Southern Historical) Imagination. Southeastern Geographer, 59(4)
This note originated several years ago with a paper I presented at the opening plenary session, entitled “Framing Southern History” at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association. The goal of the session was to bring together a variety of people with different interests in order “to consider ways of situating the South—and southern history—in broader geographical contexts.” Because I work a lot in global history as well as in southern history, the organizers presumably believed that I would call for reconceptualizing the South along more “global” lines. Although I did so to some extent at the session and do so to some extent in this note as well, my organizing conceit is not primarily the imperative to go global in framing southern history, although that is certainly one conceptual and research strategy that can prove advantageous at times. Rather, what I am mainly selling is something else, the need for expansion of what the brilliant novelist-poet-critic Guy Davenport—from Anderson, South Carolina, I hasten to add—referred to, first in a 1978 lecture at the University of Kentucky, as “[t]he geography of the imagination.” For it is in the imaginative realm that spatial restructuring originates, albeit rather infrequently. My theme in a sense then is in the realm of what Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen famously called metageography in their 1997 book, The Myth of Continents. That is to say, the always subjective ways in which structures or places are represented epistemologically. Here I will discuss some ways in which the South and its history in my view can usefully be re-represented, so to speak, but utility is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, so readers will be the judge of that. Caveat emptor, then. Although I myself am most comfortable—and happiest—when embedding the South in broader contexts, particularly global contexts, I shan’t make a case that this is the only, much less always the best way to go. Indeed, I would argue that what we need more than anything else in our epistemological representations of the South is more modulation, different angles of refraction, and varying registers.
Coclanis, Peter A.