“An Exchange of Territory”: Geographic Nationalism and the American Civil War

“I did not deem that Planetary forces annulled, but suffered an Exchange of Territory, or World.” Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 1863

My project takes its title from the striking first sentence of a letter that Emily Dickinson wrote to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson during the Civil War when he was stationed in South Carolina: “I did not deem that Planetary forces annulled – but suffered an Exchange of Territory, or World.” In this February 1863 letter, Dickinson captures the feeling of being distant from the war that consumed and threatened the existence of the nation, a feeling that she shared with many of her countrymen and women. Henry James, for instance, fretted over his “indirect and muffled” contact with the war, a lack of direct experience of the sights and sounds of war that threatened his capacity to write about the greatest single event in American history. Yet Dickinson, James, and others did write about the war, however oblique their relation to it, using the conflict as an occasion to meditate on the constitution of their country. Dickinson’s phrase “an exchange of Territory” indicates how territory becomes synonymous with the nation, and how that territory justifies war. Dickinson was one of many writers who sought to complicate the synecdochal relationship between territory and the nation, using the Civil War as an occasion to conceive space along local scales that might counter the hegemony of the nation.

An Exchange of Territory follows Dickinson’s insight on a grander scale, charting the role of the American Civil War in transforming the national spatial imaginary. It argues that the war generated an existential, yet often generative, instability through which the idea of the nation and its space could be reformed. Following from Dickinson’s assertion in the same letter that “war feels to me an oblique place,” I seek to understand how the war was experienced by those who were distant from it, arguing that the experience of place was renegotiated to emphasize sensory and affective responses that did not require “being there.” My texts survey sites of spatial negotiation both literary and geographic that I call contested places. Contested places—which range from the cemeteries of Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces to the neighborhood of a ruined plantation in Charles Chesnutt’s conjure stories—retain a contingent status from a time when the nation’s fate was undecided. Thus, contested places allow for the imaginative restructuring of national hierarchies including race, gender, and time. The texts and materials I examine archive a range of diverse reactions to the Civil War, but they share an investment in negotiating what and how national places mean while imagining other forms of relation apart from the nation. In this study, then, the Civil War provides a focal point for historicizing the uneven development of the nineteenth-century American geographical imagination. In constructing this history, I ask broader questions about how people shape place and how place, in turn, shapes people. An Exchange of Territory thus contributes to ongoing scholarship on the development of the geographical imagination throughout the nineteenth century while also insisting that national interiors and margins offer specific models for replotting the reach of national control. By attending to the impact of the war on the geographical imagination this research offers new avenues for cataloging nineteenth-century nationalisms, while also adding new texts to add to the nexus of Civil War literature.


Journal Articles

“Melville’s Epitaphs: On Time, Place, and War.” The New England Quarterly. Vol. 87.2 (June 2014): 292-318. Print.

“Words of War.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. Vol. 4.2 (Fall 2016): 228-237. Print.

Book Chapters

Near Andersonville: Place and Race in Early American Regionalism.” Literary Cultures of the Civil War. Ed. Timothy Sweet. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 2016. 225-243. Print.


Truth be told” [Review of the National Museum of African American History and Culture]. Apollo: The International Art Magazine. Feb. 2017: 84-85. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s