Category Archives: Historical Geography Reading Group

The Paper Road

The Paper Road

The Paper Road, by Erik Mueggler.

Earlier this year, the Historical Geography Reading Group discussed a book by anthropologist Erik Mueggler, entitled The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (University of California Press, 2011). Erik Mueggler, a specialist on ritual, landscape, religion and nature in southern and western China, has conducted extensive ethnographic research in the field, as well as historical research in archives in the UK, USA and China. The Paper Road connects directly with recent work on landscape and nature within geography, although its points of reference are mainly to anthropology and history. Felix Driver has written a review of the book for the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History: a draft appears below.

There are some books that stick in the mind from the moment you first encounter them. Perhaps it is the way they are written, perhaps the intrinsic interest of the story they tell, perhaps their ramifications way beyond the subject at hand: very rarely it is all three. The Paper Road is one of those books. At one level, it is a scholarly history of the work of two early twentieth-century botanists – the Scot George Forrest and the American Joseph Rock – whose travels took them over large distances in China, Tibet and Burma gathering botanical specimens. There is more than enough in their biographies to attract the historian and the reader. Yet more, much more is accomplished here. The focus is less on these individuals than on their relationships – with local (and not so local) collectors and authorities, with the disciplinary and political fields in and through which they worked, and above all with the landscape itself. In its allusive and reflective style, as in its substantive concerns with landscape, archive and knowledge, this book deserves a wide readership across the humanities.

The Paper Road is not an easy work to encapsulate in a few sentences, though the cover blurbs certainly make for enticing reading: exhilarating, breathtaking, eloquent, haunting…. A good place to begin is with the author’s own description of the two-volume Ancient Na-Khi Kingdom of Southwest China, by Joseph Rock, published by the Harvard Yenching Institute in 1947: ‘It was a strange text, in no established genre: awkward, haphazard, badly edited, brilliantly illustrated, and brutally unreadable…Rock’s editors despaired of his prose’ (pp. 278-9). Thankfully the same cannot be said of Erik Mueggler. The Paper Road may be in some respects strange – its voice a distinctive and sometimes unsettling amalgam of historical narration and philosophical reflection – but its prose is nicely pitched, and the contents are artfully constructed, well—illustrated and consistently absorbing. This is saying a lot for a large book on a potentially daunting topic, which involves digressions into some pretty scholastic issues around, inter alia, the dongba script of the Naxi people, or the writings of Merleau-Ponty.

The Paper Road weaves historical narrative, landscape description and philosophical reflection into a compelling whole. It combines ideas from a number of disciplines with an impressive knowledge of a huge region boldly described in the title as ‘West China and Tibet’. Stylistically and conceptually, the book is in fact much more than a regional study and is evidently written with a wider audience in mind: in this respect it stands comparison with Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay, Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language or Graeme Burnett’s Masters of all they Surveyed, all works which share Mueggler’s interest in texts and in the encounters through which exploration and empire were produced. While Carter is mentioned briefly as one of the sources for the kind of ‘spatial history’ in evidence here, The Paper Road is arguably closer to the ground and closer to the experience of encounter than this would imply. Mueggler’s concern is essentially with the texture of encounters and interactions between very different ways of inhabiting and traversing landscape. This may reflect the author’s disciplinary background in anthropology, but it also greatly enhances the reach of a book that in general wears its theoretical colours more lightly than many comparable works. Overall, The Paper Road is more concerned with affect than discourse.

Mueggler’s phenomenological concerns with landscape and embodiment are reflected in his treatment of practices of walking, talking, reciting, narrating collecting and travelling. And his historical imagination draws him increasingly towards reflections on the nature of archives – less as the imperial archive, more as different (yet intersecting) forms of archive and memory, from the letters in British and American collections to the dongba script which is presented here as a distinctive form of social memory. The relations between western and ‘local’ forms of memory, as between the botanists and the local collectors who enabled their collections to be produced in the first place, lie at the core of a fascinating book. This is a history in motion and of motion; a profound and far-reaching meditation on the relationships between individuals who found their place and made their mark by turning landscape into paper.


On Defoe

Bill of Mortality (1665)

Bill of Mortality (1665). From the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (L0030700).

On 19 September 2012, the Historical Geography Reading Group met at Bedford Square to discuss Daniel Defoe’s A journal of the plague year (1722). The book, which was introduced by Amy Cutler (Ph.D. candidate), offered up several interesting points of discussion, ranging across the significance of testimony and credibility, literary genre and pseudo history, the regulation of space (both public and private), and the tricky question of determining Defoe’s literary and political intentions. Although not superficially a work of geography, Defoe’s exploration of the 1665 plague in London addresses what me might now regard as important geographical themes: mobility (and the lack of it), networks and rumour, and the politics of space. At once a grim and fascinating read.

The Group—Caroline Cornish, Amy Culter, Felix Driver, Carlos Galviz, Innes M. Keighren—will next time tackle Ian Hacking’s The taming of chance (1990).


The Passage to Cosmos

Alexander von Humboldt

In June the Historical Geography Reading Group discussed Laura Dassow Walls’s 2009 The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press). One Group member, Innes M. Keighren, has recently contributed to a roundtable discussion of the book for the H-Environment discussion network (part of the H-Net organisation). Other contributors to the discussion include Felipe Fernández-Armesto (University of Notre Dame) and Michael F. Robinson (University of Hartford). The roundtable is available for download.


On Humboldt’s influence

The Passage to Cosmos

On 20 June 2012, the Historical Geography Reading Group met at Bedford Square to discuss Laura Dassow Walls’s 2009 The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press).

Walls’s book is concerned with the ways in which Humboldt—both personally and through his writing—shaped American intellectual, literary, political, environmental, scientific, and aesthetic life in the nineteenth century. Her attention is to those whom she calls “Humboldt’s American children” (p. 267), and specifically literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau. It is Walls’s argument that, among much else, Humboldt helped to shape American environmental thought and the emergence of transcendentalism.

Walls’s book engendered an interesting set of discussions about historiography and the ways in which we can trace (or make claims about) the influence and circulation of ideas. The trajectory of Walls’s text is one which, quite understandably, places Humboldt’s Kosmos (1845–1862) as an intellectual and stylistic terminus, but it was felt that rather greater emphasis could have been placed on Humboldt’s wrong turns and lucky breaks as a way of demystifying his genius and highlighting the social contingency of his work.

It was agreed that, for next academic year’s meetings, one book per term would be selected, representing three categories: “Classics” (i.e., texts we should have read, but haven’t yet); “Contemporary” (i.e., recent scholarship); and “Primary” (e.g., historical diaries and letter collections).

The Group—Amy Culter, Felix Driver, Carlos Galviz, Liz Haines, Harriet Hawkins, and Innes M. Keighren—was joined by Katherine Johnston, a visiting doctoral student from Columbia University (in London at the Institute for Historical Research with a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities).