From Maxwell Perspective...

National Geographer

Volume four of The Shaping of America caps a quarter century of effort and makes Donald Meinig’s magnum opus complete.

National Geographer image
Geographer Donald Meinig and his four-volume, comprehensive history of American geography.

People often express amazement that one can actually get through this kind of thing,” says Donald Meinig, research professor of geography, holding the newly published final volume of The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (Yale University Press). This four-volume work, which John Hudson of Northwestern University calls “the most ambitious writing project of any American geographer, ever,” engaged Meinig for 25 years. “I grew up on a wheat farm in Washington state,” he says with a smile, “so just plugging along day after day in the same row comes naturally to me.”

The Shaping of America is, by any measure, a panoramic work. Meinig traces American history and geographical development from Columbus’s arrival, through continental and transcontinental expansion in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the emergence of contemporary “global America.” Volume 4 covers 1915 to 2000, eerily concluding with photos of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a discussion of their symbolic power.

“My whole writing career could be seen as a geographer’s version of the search for the self.”

Meinig tells this epic story with a graceful, accessible style that has won many admirers inside and outside academia. “I resisted social science–ese,” says Meinig. “A lot of academic work in recent years seems to me almost unreadable by anyone outside a little clique.” Over the course of his 55-year career as a geographer, Meinig’s work has not only reached a broad readership but has made its mark in the fictional world. In James Michener’s Texas, one character found Meinig’s book Imperial Texas “so ingenious in its observations and provocative in its generalizations that from the moment [he] put it down, he knew he wanted to be such a geographer.”

The same kind of ingenuity goes into the maps that depict key themes in Meinig’s books. “The maps are not incidental illustrations,” he says. “They are locked into the narrative and the analysis and the perspective.” (In the 1980s, some of Meinig’s work—a series of thematic regional maps called “The Making of America”—reached more than 10 million National Geographic subscribers, thanks to a collaboration with former student John Garver ’66 M.A. [Geo.]/’81 Ph.D. [Geo.]. At the time, Garver was chief cartographer for the National Geographic Society.)

Meinig composed all parts of The Shaping of America by hand: drafting and revising the words in longhand on yellow pads, and sketching out maps in pencil. Once he pared down the maps to their essential details, cartographers rendered them for publication—in recent years, working on computers.

With the completion of The Shaping of America, Meinig, a youthful 80, is retiring after 46 years on the Maxwell faculty. In April, the Association of American Geographers presented Meinig with its Presidential Achievement Award, the association’s highest honor, as well as the J. B. Jackson Prize for the best book interpreting the geography of America. The book prize committee noted that the publication of Volume 4 of The Shaping of America provided an occasion “to express, on behalf of the geographical profession at large, our admiration for and our congratulations . . . on the prodigious accomplishments that the full four volumes represent in the annals of American geographical scholarship.”

Meinig himself, with a modesty and reserve befitting his rural roots, describes his life’s work in more personal terms. “My whole writing career could be seen as a geographer’s version of the search for the self,” he said in “A Life of Learning,” a lecture he presented in 1992 to the American Council of Learned Societies. “For the geographer that means close attention to where one is, what that place is like, and what the summation of the localities of life might reveal.”

For Meinig, that search began on a Depression-era farm in Palouse, Washington, and expanded into larger regions until it encompassed nothing less than an understanding of “what the United States of America is like and how it got to be that way.” Fortunately for us, Meinig had the skill and perseverance to map out that remarkable journey.

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
This article appeared in the Spring 2005 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2005 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.