Steven Seegel. Map Men: Transnational Lives and Deaths of Geographers in the Making of East Central Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. xv + 346 pp. Illustrations. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-43849-8.
Reviewed by John McCannon (Southern New Hampshire University)
Published on H-SHERA (February, 2019)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)
In A Young Doctor’s Notebook, Sky TV’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s fictional reminiscences of country medical practice during the Russian Civil War, the hospital’s map-loving Feldsher laments how quickly and confusingly armed conflict can cause place names—in normal times, reassuring markers of objective reality—to change. “You have a passion for the old atlas, do you?” asks his interlocutor, a colonel in the White Army. “Aye,” the Feldsher sighs. “But war is unkind to the rigorous cartophile.” The same unkindness can be attributed to the entire twentieth century, and in few places more so than in East Central Europe, where any attempt to define anything meaningful, from ethno-linguistic authenticity and historical narrative to economic statistics, carries with it all manner of political hazard and cultural baggage. To set any such judgments down on paper—for instance, as place names or lines on a map—raises the stakes even higher.
It is to this complicated terrain that Steven Seegel, author of Mapping Europe’s Borderlands (2012) and Ukraine under Western Eyes (2013), returns in Map Men: a “collective biography of five prominent geographers” whose “transnational” ties proved instrumental to the “making” of East Central Europe. Seegel proves a sure-footed guide; Map Men is impeccably researched and consistently thought-provoking. That said, readers may find the book, preoccupied as it is with biographical methodology, less engaged with the region itself, or the actual enterprise of mapmaking, than they might expect. (Eight color plates handsomely illustrate some of the more important maps mentioned in the text, but maps themselves feature less prominently in Map Men than in Seegel’s earlier books.) Arguably, Seegel overstates the innovativeness of his approach, and some, depending on taste, may find his prose a trifle high-flown in places. Nonetheless, Map Men has useful things to say about an intriguing subject.
Seegel’s “map men” comprise a “confraternity” of influential geographers who became professionally and personally entangled with each other between the 1910s and the 1930s. Most senior, and briefly a mentor to the entire group, was the distinguished geomorphologist Albrecht Penck (1858-1945) of Germany. The others included the Canadian American Isaiah Bowman (1878-1959), future president of the International Geographers’ Union (and of Johns Hopkins University); Pál Teleki (1879-1941), who went on to serve twice as Hungary’s prime minister; Eugenius Romer (1871-1954); and Stepan Rudnyts’kyi (1877-1937). The last two hailed from Galicia, where, as Seegel points out, “no choice of identity was simple” (p. 20). Romer identified as Polish, Rudnyts’kyi as Ukrainian, one of the many factors that tore this cohort apart as the twentieth century’s devastations lumbered on. Not counting the introduction and conclusion, seven chapters trace the interwoven lives and careers of Seegel’s protagonists to the end of World War II.
Seegel chooses two epigraphs to spell out Map Men’s core assumptions: Czesław Miłosz reminds us that “biographies are like seashells; not much can be learned from them about the mollusks that once lived inside them,” while Wisława Szymborska tells us that “I like maps because they lie" (p. v). In other words, it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover completely the bare facts, much less the full meaning, of any life story—and the instruments on which we rely to measure “objectivity” turn out all too often to be more riddled with subjectivity than we know or care to admit. Points well taken, although perhaps not so novel as to require the elaborate methodology Seegel introduces next. This he calls “epistolary geography,” “a spatial strategy for charting out the biorhythms of mobile professionals’ lives, a place-sensitive, transnationally source-based means of historical study. By delving back into this kind of subjugated knowledge, the intimacy of geography is shown in a new way” (p. 7).
A cynic might view this as a glamorous repackaging of more straightforward ways to read texts carefully. Still, Seegel raises a compelling point when he asserts that earlier analyses of how “objective” geographical knowledge is “socially constructed” remain incomplete (p. 8, emphasis mine). These, in Seegel’s view, focus too narrowly on political and imperialist agendas that, while they taint so-called fact with bias, reflect “rational” concerns. A deeper and understudied layer of distortion is present as well: maps, Seegel insists, are embedded with the highly particularized elements of their creators’ personalities. They become “moody, messy Rorschach blots, trace psychological evidence left behind of transnationally based emotional worlds” (p. 4). This makes for a potentially exciting line of inquiry. The challenge, of course, is whether the historian can recapture a subject’s emotional life and personal quiddities with sufficient fullness and accuracy to establish useful causal links between them and the subject’s tangible actions. Seegel expends a great deal of energy to convince his audience that “epistolary geography” allows him to do so. How far he succeeds is for each reader to determine.
We meet Seegel’s “map men” in chapter 1, as they come together in 1912 to take part in the American Geographical Society’s Transcontinental Excursion, a cross-country survey that united the scholarly efforts of forty-three European geographers and their American hosts. Bowman served as one of the excursion’s marshals and grew close to Albrecht Penck, a friend of his Harvard mentor, William Morris Davis. Romer, Rudnytsk’yi, and Teleki attached themselves in due course. Each of these “map men,” Seegel proposes, possessed an imperfect understanding of himself as an individual and as a professional. Though their careers peaked in the twentieth century, all five were products of the nineteenth century’s Wissenschaft culture, which idealized objective knowledge gained through systematic research, and viewed themselves accordingly as fact-driven men of science, free of national prejudice. This was, of course, self-deceiving; ideological and emotional blind spots kept them from seeing that, in fact, “their grasp of maps and geography was largely antimodern, anti-urban, and, in some cases, anti-Semitic,” and that much of their mapmaking work would constitute “a defense of privilege and Europe’s grand explorer tradition in East Central Europe, on top of colonial fantasies on frontiers” (p. 3).
The twentieth century’s vicissitudes accentuated further the unsavory elements of this worldview. Chapter 2 splinters Seegel’s “transnational” cohort, with Penck and Teleki caught on one side of World War I, and Bowman on the other with Romer and Rudnyts’kyi (and these two subdividing bitterly over the mapping of Poland and Ukraine). Chapter 3, which deals with the Paris Peace Conference and the early 1920s, breaks the group irreparably, and the shattered remnants drift farther apart in chapters 4 and 5, which cover the later 1920s and the 1930s. Dedicated revisionists after Versailles and Trianon, Penck and Teleki veered sharply into nationalist extremism, the former embracing Nazism as a fellow traveler of sorts, the latter peddling a “half-baked” idealization of Magyar Eurasianism (p. 84) and accepting posts from the hyperconservative Horthy regime. Both inscribed their irredentist prejudices and their agitated personal states of mind into their scientific work, as seen in Penck’s 1925 Volks- und Kulturboden map and the “Ethnographical Map of Hungary According to Population Density,” or Carte Rouge, produced by Teleki in 1918-19.
Bowman, who rose to the greatest professional heights of the five during the interwar years—becoming a “court geographer” under Franklin Roosevelt (p. 182)—had “the most illusory sense of his influence” (p. 133). In typical Wilsonian fashion, Bowman saw himself “as a guileless” and fair-minded “peacemaker” (p. 133). But benign neutrality proved merely a mask, and Bowman’s “imperious streak” showed through on many occasions, particularly during his post-World War I work on the International Boundary Committee for Polish Affairs (p. 145). Here, he arbitrated between the competing maps drafted by the Romer and Rudnyts’kyi camps, overwhelmingly in favor of the former, to the point that Seegel speaks of a Bowman-Romer “bromance” (p. 97) during much of the 1920s. And yet Bowman was as fickle a partner as he was dominant; when Nazism threatened East Central Europe in the 1930s, he argued for US detachment out of “a muddle of … anticommunism … racial anti-Semitism … and 1930s-style appeasement” (p. 170). He pulled away from the importunate Romer by the end of the decade.
Chapter 5 details Bowman’s short-lived attempt to restore the cohort’s former amity at the 1934 International Geographical Congress. But “the redemptive joys of summer 1934,” such as they were, “did not last long” (p. 153), and numerous tragedies unfold in chapter 6, on the late 1930s and World War II, and chapter 7, which wraps up the five biographies. Rudnyts’kyi departed first; arrested in 1933 as part of Stalin’s crackdown on Ukrainian intellectuals, he was killed in the Soviet purges of 1937. Romer, whose son beseeched Bowman in vain to help get the family out of Europe, survived World War II by taking refuge in a Catholic monastery, but watched helplessly as his wife died of cancer. Teleki became prime minister for a second time, from 1939 to 1941, helping in the process to draft Hungary’s wartime anti-Semitic laws, then killed himself in the spring of 1941. Penck, well into his eighties, died in German-occupied Prague, in March 1945, only weeks before the war ended.
Map Men’s conclusion poses this final question—“What can we really learn from studying Professor Penck’s pupils, the homo geographicus of the 1870s to the 1950s?”—and enumerates “four takeaway points” (p. 227). Maps “are not modern,” and they “are made powerful by mobile and transnational, not merely geopolitical, men” (p. 227). Maps “alert us to confraternal bonds that run deep, very deep,” and “beyond literal interpretation, maps are texts, moods, and graphic sagas in which messy multigenerational plans and affairs of life and death are laid out” (p. 228).
All valid arguments, although one can ask whether as much needs to be made of them as Map Men does. Seegel has attempted to pack a great deal of material and an ambitious theoretical program into a slender book, which, as a result, comes across as overstuffed. (Map Men clocks in at 346 pages, but notes and bibliography leave only 230 or so for the main text.) Much of what is fascinating in Map Men feels obscured or squeezed out by material that some readers may regard as less essential or overdone. Rhapsodic metacommentaries are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, and whatever one may make of them, they repeat points stated perfectly well in the introduction and conclusion, taking up space that might have been put to better use. More seriously, I finished Map Men not always convinced that it had evoked its subjects’ inner lives thoroughly or richly enough to support the evidentiary burden Seegel asks them to carry. Seegel tells us over and again what his “map men” felt and how those feelings manifested themselves in their work, but when he uses source material to show us what they felt, his interpretations strike me as sometimes forced or overextended.
This, of course, is subjective judgment, and others may disagree. In the end, Seegel demonstrates an admirable passion for his subject, and Map Men can be seen as a bold experiment that touches off many bright sparks. It will find its warmest reception among specialist readers.
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John McCannon. Review of Seegel, Steven, Map Men: Transnational Lives and Deaths of Geographers in the Making of East Central Europe.
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