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Measuring Out A Life in City Blocks–A First Experiment with QGIS

20151013_162312[1]One of my goals for this map is to get students to see not only the limited nature of Old New York, as rendered by Wharton, but to get them think about their own lives–how far have they traveled to get to college? How frequently do they get outside their comfort zones? Do they hope to travel, and why or why not? Where Prufrock “measure[s] out his life with coffee spoons,” Newland Archer, a man with the world at his feet, measures his in a very few city blocks. Here’s a photo of the map we started to create in QGIS today, which demonstrates this clearly: most of Newland Archer’s activities are represented in the polygon in the map to your right. For Wharton insiders, Ellen Olenska’s house is toward the top left (about 10 o’clock from the polygon below) and that dot in the middle of the Hudson marks the lovers’ ferry ride back to New York after Ellen’s arrival from Washington.

Reflections on Mapping Project, Part One

Reflections on Mapping Project, Part One:

Some freewriting I’ve been doing re: The Age of Innocence mapping project:

I came to Duke with a plan about a mapping project on Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence. I had two, maybe ideas in mind– both practical and theoretical–as I developed the idea for this project. I teach at a small college where students are very unlikely to travel. They may have seen NYC, but they certainly haven’t seen it in 1905 or 1920; they’re much less likely to have been to New Mexico, Nebraska, New Orleans, North Carolina, etc—to name just a few sites of local color fiction in the United States. I wanted to convey to them dynamically what NYC in the turn of the century was like.

1925GreenwichVillageWhen I started studying representations of Greenwich Village, I was struck by a comic map drawn by a downtowner marking downtown hotspots, cafes, “Erin” and “Italia: (Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation). Studying this region, part of NYC but highly bounded (due, to some extent, to the lack of a subway line connecting it to the rest of Manhattan until 1917), I became more engaged with issues of urban space, and found myself mapping streets my characters had walked, sometimes traversing them myself (I noticed that Village novels tended to cite streets by name—Mary Austin, 26 Jayne Street, for example; in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, Angela also lives on Jane Street). I realized these writers were trying to evoke something specific in references to urban space, much narrower than just “the city” or even “the Village.” Yu-Fu Tuan’s notion of claustrophilia, the appeal of small, narrow spaces, spoke to me. When I began thinking about a digital project, my mind turned back to Wharton, probably the writer I know the best. She was praised in The Age of Innocence for her depiction of Old New York, yet criticized by some readers for her minor, possibly deliberate inaccuracies. I wondered what I could learn myself and show students by mapping the novel.

Having harvested data, I’ve already made some tentative observations that I think the map can help display. One, we know that ONY was small, parochial, but the map makes this palpably evident. Most of these characters’ lives take place in 20 city blocks or so. When they talk about going uptown to the sketchy locale of Mrs Catherine Mingott, that’s in the 40s. Our vision of Manhattan as a long, thin island is not that of our Old New Yorkers. Second, I think there’s a reason I hit on this topic that stems from Wharton’s style in this text. Archer is pretty obsessed with space, and his imagination, wishes, memories are often filtered through images of space. He imagines, well before his marriage to May, what his library in their house will be like and how she’ll allow him to furnish it; when he thinks of Ellen, he thinks of the Patroon House and of her house on W 23rd Street. Even when he thinks about Beaufort and Fanny Ring, he thinks about the house that Fanny occupies on Lexington Avenue and its windows. His imagination keeps circling back to these settings. Interestingly enough, he has one of his most meaningful conversations with Ellen in the Patroon House—basically, when he realizes he’s in love with her and imagines that she’ s in love with him, he imagines that she “had waited to tell him so till they were here alone together in this secret room” (132). The Patroon House is a symbol of the Anglo-Dutch merchants from which they are all descended, and it’s no accident that Ellen will soon realize that she’s a “real American,” or that Archer and May will be given the Patroon House for their honeymoon. But they don’t conceive there, suggesting, perhaps, that neither is as truly “American” as each of the characters believes. There are many other such examples—I ‘m very struck by the fact that May confronts Newland about the possibility that he’s in love with another woman at the Spanish Mission in St. Augustine—invoking a different colonial history? European exoticism? Simply seeing it makes him think about Grenada and the Alhambra. And it also—no accident here—evokes the Virgin Mary (the Spanish Mission is the first cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the US), with whom May is often associated, with her blue gowns and her air of innocence.

edith_wharton_drivers_licenseI also found myself charting the novel’s many references to transportation: elevated trains, carriages, trains, ferries, herdics. What’s a herdic? A late nineteenth-century omnibus.) Wharton was obsessed with mobility, her own included; she owned her own Packard (her driver’s license, on the left, is in the archives at the Beinecke) and drove around New England and Europe). Mobility, figured in the ability to traverse space, is linked to class, and this I see as a key theme of Wharton’s work that we find in the background of this work. She was facing a world in which everyone would become more mobile—the “strident school-teachers” on the ferry, the immigrants of Boston and NY. And similarly, I was struck by how many characters move house in this novel: Ellen, particularly, is looking for a stable place to live and moves from NYC to Washington to Paris (and is looking for another house in NYC which falls through); May and Ellen will relocate to 39th Street; the Beauforts disappear to one of many locales; Mrs MM has moved uptown, etc. Despite her valuing of stability, Wharton sensed, I believed, that mobility would become a central aspect of the modern condition. It seems no accident that Archer is trapped throughout his life in one of two houses, while Ellen’s narrative ends in an apartment.

And thinking more generally about regional women writers and space—Cather, Jewett, and Chopin, for example—I was even more surprised that this had not yet been done. The regionalists were documenting parts of America still considered other, different, as the US moved toward urbanization, greater mobility and homogeneity. Such great feminist work has been on the women regionalists, some of which does concern space, geography, and landscape; digital mapping approaches seem like a logical next step.