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The Shaping of America : A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol . 1: Atlantic America, 1492-1800 by D.W. Meinig (Yale University: $35; 500 pp., 81 illustrations and 6 tables)

August 24, 1986| Carlos B. Hagen-Lautrup | Hagen-Lautrup, a geographer from Chile, is Director of the UCLA Map Library and Research Associate of the UCLA Latin American Center.

"Geographical perspective"--as used in D. W. Meinig's subtitle--is an elusive phrase, one that echoes with a generation of geographers' debates. Like the German Weltanschauung , it means basically a global perspective, and that broad approach still flourishes in Europe and Latin America. In U.S. academic geography, however, the clear rulers are those advocating well-defined specialization.

Yet, the need for grand syntheses in regional studies, the overall understanding of the interaction between physical environment, the people, their history, culture and economy, has continued to be felt in the United States, with the result that what geographers have abandoned has been taken up by other, perhaps less prepared and more biased scholars. In the United States, the land of specialization, a society experiencing an explosion of information and media, the reluctance of geographers to synthesize is understandable, for their field--unsubdivided--calls for them to become Renaissance scholars, well acquainted with a multiplicity of disciplines, spanning the physical and social sciences and the humanities, territories often jealously guarded by other scholars. Happily, Meinig is indeed a Renaissance scholar; and "The Shaping of America" is a welcome proof that it is still possible, in this country, to provide "geographical perspective" on a grand scale.

Meinig is a geographer with a deep interest in, and knowledge of, history, economy, political science and the arts. His work provides a sweeping, panoramic outlook on one of the most important events in human history: the conquest of the New World by Europeans and the multiple interactions, through three centuries, which this conquest entailed. The work embodies aspects of human and physical geography, economic and cultural geography, and geopolitics.

Using an impressive number of original sources, Meinig offers a clear and concise exposition, complemented with a number of quite original graphs and illustrations. He shows us the very real forces that shaped the destiny of this New World. We see, for example, that Spain, France and Britain were not monolithic societies but aggregates of often dissimilar cultural, religious and social groups, some of whom made their minority values dominant in the New World. He shows that racial attitudes were more the product of social and economic realities in the new lands than they were the result of rigid attitudes transferred from Europe.

Meinig gives a less than romantic view of explorers, pilgrims and settlers. By and large, the New World fell to a motley group of adventurers, brigands, speculators, and gatherers (fishermen and hunters) seeking new territories unencumbered by restrictive laws or regulations. Religious refugees fleeing persecution in their European lands often engaged in the New World in even harsher religious oppression. Meinig also gives us an amazing picture of the geopolitical imperatives of those three centuries, such as the areas of contact and friction between the empires of Portugal, Spain, France and Britain, and the underlying economic and human realities involved. We see those empires constantly testing each other, expanding where they detected weakness.

One of the most engrossing sections is the last one dealing with the emergence of the United States. We see it at its fragile beginnings, surrounded by hostile empires and buffeted by the many human, cultural, economic and political forces of its first days. Independence from Great Britain was not necessarily a popular cause. Many in the Colonies were strong loyalists. Most of the Indian population were also on the British side, as they felt that the British could protect their interests and territories better than the settlers.

We are shown that one of the greatest concerns for George Washington was how to establish an equitable peace and a territorial division between the settlers and the various Indian nations. Frontiersmen are today glorified and romanticized as the backbone of early America. Yet Washington felt a deep dislike for these people with their militia engaging in constant clashes with the Indians. He referred to them as "parcels of bandits." He felt that these "land jobbers, speculators and monopolizers" should be kept under tight control. Yet the young nation had no effective means--political or military--to cope with the activities of these frontiersmen seeking constant expansion into Indian lands.

With Meinig, we see the United States as from the beginning a pluralistic society where strong, often dissimilar individual and state rights had to be respected. Thus, federation was the only viable and practical system of government. And yet, as the author points out, very early we see "a pervasive 'Americanness' of society, culture, and landscape in the new republic." Even diet and foods--e.g., something as mundane as the American predilection for corn--are basic elements of this new "Americanness."

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