Andy Doolen’s Territories of Empire: U.S. Writing from the Louisiana Purchase to Mexican Independence is forthcoming later this year. I read the book in manuscript for the press to write an endorsement. It’s a really interesting work that looks at the interrelation of geography and literature in the making of US territory.
Practically speaking, nineteenth-century American literary history really refers to writings from the East seaboard of the United States. In fact, no author from the West prior to Mark Twain has been admitted into the canon of American literature, a longstanding bias that continues to define the narrative arc of U.S. literary nationalism. Western authors are absent from the canon and classroom largely because their “regional writings” are assumed to be second-rate in comparison with the ostensibly more complex literary cultures of the eastern states. Andy Doolen’s monograph reorients literary history, turning to the neglected Western writings that shaped the distinctive process of U.S. expansionism in the years following the Louisiana Purchase. As Doolen shows, these “cartographic texts” legitimated U.S. occupancy of contested border zones and justified the nation’s move westward. In five chapters, Territories of Empire surveys an under-studied archive of these texts, ranging from exploration narratives, novels, oratory, and natural histories, to autobiographies, travel narratives, poetry, and periodical literature. In writings as dissimilar as protest petitions from white Louisianans, Kentucky newspaper accounts of the Burr conspiracy, the explorer Zebulon Pike’s 1810 account of the upper Rio Grande, and Timothy Flint’s 1826 novel about a young New Englander who fights in the Mexican independence struggle, Americans were expanding the national imagination into new continental dimensions. Ultimately, these texts show how literature reflected and fed the expansionist ideology of the U.S. by linking national greatness to the urgent necessity of territorial and commercial growth.