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In 1823, at a small school in western Vermont, Frances Alsop Henshaw, the 14-year-old daughter of a prosperous merchant, produced a remarkable cartographic and textual artifact. Henshaw’s “Book of Penmanship Executed at the Middlebury Female Academy” is a slim volume containing – in addition to the expected, set copy-texts of a practice-book – a series of hand-drawn, delicately-colored maps of our nineteen United States, each one paired with a geometrically-constructed and embellished prose passage selected from the geography books available to a schoolgirl in the new American republic. A sampler in codex form, it constitutes a set of interrelated pedagogical and personal exercises in geospatial and textual graphesis, or subjective knowledge-production through the creation of images and texts-as-image. This essay builds outward from Henshaw’s lovely and deceptively naïve constructions to an analysis of the present state of geospatial scholarship in the humanities – particularly spatial analysis and practice as it relates to fields like literary and textual criticism, where geographic specificity may prove less important than interpretive possibility. Attention to the processes and products of Henshaw’s exercises can be as fruitful for modern scholars, grappling with the integration of geospatial technologies into the interpretive humanities, as geographers and literary historians demonstrate the exercises themselves to have been for meaning-making among an increasingly literate populace in the early years of the American republic.
Henshaw’s maps also form part of a Neatline exhibit drawn from this article, here: http://henshaw.scholarslab.org/