Literary Map of the US

April 27, 2011

Now that our US literary map is out, I thought I'd say a word or two about how I did it. The first one (the UK map) was quite eclectic in its' selection of authors; it was just my personal favourites, although it covered most of the big names. If anyone were to ask 'Where is so-and-so?' I could just say, 'I'm sorry, I've never read them.'

This time, however, on the USA map, although we have not attempted to be definitive - I think that's impossible - we have tried to be a little more representative. We worked with our old friend Bridget Hannigan who produced long lists of possible names, partly from her own knowledge (she is an American herself) and partly by going through lists of Pulitzer prize-winners and so on. I added mine, and Matthew in the office supplied several more. There are still one or two high-profile ommissions; Ayn Rand and Norman Mailer for instance are both writers who have sold hugely and been widely influential, but at the end of the day you cannot please everybody and to include them would have meant leaving out someone else about whom we felt more strongly.

Once I had chosen an orthographic projection of the contiguous states that cinched in the north a little so that it would all fit on the paper, we divided up the names we had, state by state. They all have some kind of connection to where they are placed; it might be where they were born, lived and died, but in other cases it is just from a single book or poem. Very few people could only be placed in one location. The state boundaries are still visible in some places, although California has spilled over into Nevada, for instance, and New England is so crowded that the names for Maryland, Virginia, and a couple of other states have been displaced to the West and South. Hawaii and Alaska would not fit graphically, so I chose to just draw them at the extreme North- and South-West. Finally, on the East, I included a spray of names coming out from New York who are largely Americans who have made their name in Europe (James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein) or immigrants.

I love the way the relative density of the coasts and interior tells its' own story about America; the Native American names that crop up in the mid-West, the Hispanic names further south. And then I settled down to ink it all in; a process that took some weeks. I amazed myself by doing it all without a single correction; on the UK map I mis-spelt the very first word!

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