"A History of America in 100 Maps," Susan Schulten, University of Chicago Press, 256 pages, $35.
A map does not merely illustrate the lie of the land, said Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver who unearthed a data trove for “A History of America in 100 Maps,” a lavish and fascinating atlas studying U.S. history through its geography. A map also is an instrument of persuasion and sometimes of conquest.
The book is a brilliant rebuttal to the myth of “manifest destiny,” replacing the idea of a single historical narrative with something messier and more true: the sheer contingency of events that might easily have gone another way. History, it shows, is as malleable and fluid as the meanders of the Mississippi River.
Alongside the curiosities, Schulten weaves in eye-popping facts of sharp contemporary relevance. For example, the United States was fortunate to capture California from Mexico just months before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Maps of the colony of Virginia help to show the centrality of enslaved Africans to the growth of the tobacco economy.
Schulten is a historian, not a geographer. Her aim, she said, is to amplify seldom heard voices, particularly those of black Americans and native peoples silenced by the headlong rush of westward expansion.
But neither does she shortchange the United States’ fabled can-do spirit, spotlighting the engineering audacity of the Erie and Panama canals and the voyage to the moon. Strikingly, the cleavage between North and South runs like a fault line through the development of slavery and women’s suffrage to the politics of today.