An overview of literary mapping projects on cities: literary spaces, literary maps and sociological (re)conceptualisations of space


The status of literary mapping projects as applied to national capitals or large cities invites fascinating modes of exegesis. The use of literary maps, now one of the main tools in spatially-oriented literary studies, reveals, among other phenomena, the relationship between real and imaginary spaces. This essay proffers two options: maps used in literary studies in a limited fashion and in tandem with spatial studies—i.e., geographical analyses—or a renunciation of maps when literary imageries of cities are determined to be fictional and unreal. The latter possibility is supported particularly by modern sociological (re)conceptualisations of space, which, prior to the spatial turn in post-modernist studies, advocated the view that (city) space is a result of specific material features and of the social dynamics and practices of the users of that space. All considered, it is time perhaps that literary studies reconsider these models and the (appropriate or inappropriate) use of maps.

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  1. 1.

    More on this project that was presented by the project coordinator, Marko Juvan (Research Centre of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts) and I can be found at:

  2. 2.

    This is the first project in Slovenia that tries to connect literary studies and geography through the Geographical Information System (GIS). The main goal is to study mutual influences of space and the development of Slovene literary culture with regard to writers’ lives and literary locations between 1780 and 1940, with the help of maps.

  3. 3.

    Most links are collected on Wikiversity under the heading “Literature and Space.”

  4. 4.

    One such project is the British UCL Bloomsbury Project, which is related to the Slovene one in the fact that it focuses on cultural and educational institutions, such as libraries, museums, schools, societies, academies, etc. that in the nineteenth century were important in the development of the historical London district of Bloomsbury as an intellectual centre. One of the project goals is to provide a historical and cultural map of London. More at: The REED (Records of Early English Drama) project centres on early English theatre and is interested in theatres, locations and audiences. It tries to trace theatre actors and performers, their tours around English, Scottish, and Welsh districts and around the rest of the kingdom, as the goal is to map medieval and Renaissance events. More at: An Icelandic project tries to locate the creation of manuscripts from the Middle Ages onwards. More at: Another project that could be mentioned here is Mapping the Republic of Letters, which studies correspondence and supra-national intellectual communities that formed between the Early Modern Age and 1800, in which technologies like book printing played a key role, such as cultural and educational institutions (libraries, associations) that were also conveyors of knowledge.

  5. 5.

    The project Digital Literary Atlas of Ireland, although dealing with a short time period (1929–1949), tries to provide a unique view of individual places and locations precisely through the mapping of the lives of authors and their works. It deals with 14 authors, including Samuel Beckett. It incorporates an interactive map around which the user moves by clicking, and presents a town in a particular period through the eyes of authors and their work. More at: Digital Literary Atlas of Ireland. A similar project is the Grub Street Project: Early Modern London’s Literature and Publishing, as it is an attempt to present textually constructed urban spaces such as eighteenth-century London, whilst the maps serve as a presentation of the printing tradition so that attention turns to other literary actors. Maps function as recognition tools in the understanding of the literary communication, life, trading patterns and topography of the city.

  6. 6.

    The Lancaster University project Mapping The Lakes is limited to two texts (Thomas Gray, Samuel T. Coleridge). The main aim is to study influences between literature and landscape, i.e. show the landscape’s influence on the literary presentation of space. We must also mention here the project A Literary Atlas of Europe (the website was last edited in 2009), which was financed for 3 years (project coordinators: Lorenz Hurni and Barbara Piatti). This deals with three regions (Lucerne/Gotthard in Switzerland, Prague and North Friesland). The project Cultural Atlas of Australia (CAA), from the University of Queensland, is multimedia oriented and has certain similarities with some of the projects listed above. It tries to examine locations presented in theatre, literature and films.

  7. 7.

    Here I am relying on what is probably the best known representative of the postmodern movement in geography, Soja (1996), who uses the terms real and imaginary spaces.

  8. 8.

    I would like to mention Eco’s lecture The Strange Example of via Servandoni (1995), where he talks about the combination of the fictitious and real world and indirectly answers questions about the use of literary maps. Rue Servandoni appears in Dumas’s Three Musketeers, although in 1625 the street was called Fossoyeurs (Eco 1999, pp. 95–113). This complicates what occurs on a map of Paris from that year, when Servandoni street did not exist. If we insert the street, the map would be problematic in an urbanistic and onomatological sense. In his lecture Possible Forests (pp. 75–94), Eco reports how in his novel Foucaults Pendulum, where he otherwise refers to real spaces in the French capital, he led the reader to believe that the story takes place in real Paris. This example seems less problematic for mapping, but there is again the question of what is the point of using the map for those places where fictitious events do not match real ones. Although it is possible to show the streets and spaces that are mentioned, through Casaubon, who does not see the actual fire, Eco disconnects the Paris of his book from the real Paris.

  9. 9.

    The same applies to the Canadian and American project, where emphasis is on the material features in space, but the symbolic sphere is neglected.

  10. 10.

    More at:

  11. 11.

    On the website of the spatial project, Sarah J. Young agrees with doubts about what is the point of connecting topographic aspects of cities and the concepts of individual locations that are the result of individual construction processes and may be far removed from actual reality. She is referring to Gogol and Dostoyevsky, where we are dealing with rather different texts. If Dostoyevsky is precise in his description of locations and there is enough co-textual information even when locations are not explicitly stated, the image of Saint Petersburg offered by Gogol is different. He frequently refers to public spaces that are not always described in detail and it is therefore difficult to ascertain where exactly something is taking place. Young is thus interested how in such cases it would be possible to mark on a map the movements of the characters or how we could include topographical data that are not precisely defined, and she agrees that the mapping in such cases has to be imprecise. With regard to the usefulness of such a map, it would mean that it has to be viewed with a certain distance and not as exact data. This raises additional questions: for example, how to show different aspects of time when the experience of the same locations by the same characters is changing in time, or how to map a geographical location from different perspectives and with multiple foci or how to visualise movement. This consideration lends additional support to the assumption that there is no universal rule for literary mapping and that it is necessary to take into account the special features of the texts we wish to map and decide on the usefulness of the use of literary maps.

  12. 12.

    Moretti’s “maps” are really diagrams—and the author even says this—that show the mutual dependence of or relationship between two or more forces within a space.

  13. 13.

    In connection with Lefebvre we cannot entirely overlook the fact that his ideas also criticise capitalism since he develops them on the assumption that capital and state, both of which control space, ensure their ruling status in this way.

  14. 14.

    Reproductive relations include, for example, bio-psychological relations between the sexes, each individual organisation of society, whilst production relations include, for example, the division of labour (Lefebvre 2006, p. 331).

  15. 15.

    In addition to buildings and monuments, Lefebvre also mentions works of art.

  16. 16.

    Among the numerous examples in the essay I found particularly interesting the example of “the negative form of spatial projection” based on authoritative relations in a society; it is the example of a depopulated village in which the dissatisfaction of the community with the head of the family is manifested. The author gives a number of examples from which it is clear how different social energies can be localised (Simmel 2006, pp. 307–308).

  17. 17.

    Michel de Certeau differentiates between a space and a place. A space is determined by vectors, speed and variability of time, so that it is a kind of a combination of mobile elements or a result of the activities of historical subjects that give it direction and temporise it. In other words, space is a place with which man does something. To use de Certeau’s (2006, pp. 345–346) example, a street changes into a space through the movement of people along it.

  18. 18.

    Social space is modelled in the same way as the distribution of social groups, with regard to economic and cultural capital.

  19. 19.

    The notion of habitus is connected to this. It is hard to avoid when Pierre Bourdieu is mentioned, though I do not believe it is vital in the present context. Habitus is seen in the complex of tendencies and susceptibilities that an individual in a society internalises and that influence his activities, making the individual strongly socially determined. This also applies to spatial configuration.

  20. 20.

    The author explains the constitution of space on two mutually connected processes—“spacing” and “Syntheseleistung”. Whilst in the second process spaces appear due to people actively connecting elements involving perceptual, presentational and other processes, “spacing” means the construction and placement of elements in space (2007, p. 64). With this, Löw affirms the thesis that in the appearance of space material aspects are involved that cannot be separated from traditionally constituted meanings and the behaviours and activities of their users.

  21. 21.

    In the early 1970s the Russian structuralist Yuri Lotman analysed literary texts by drawing semantic spaces. He showed how the use of signs can be culturally conditioned and how a text’s signs and semantic fields point to extra-textual relations in space.

  22. 22.

    Altnöder, for example, illustrates this very clearly with the metaphor of a city as a palimpsest body.


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Perenič, U. An overview of literary mapping projects on cities: literary spaces, literary maps and sociological (re)conceptualisations of space. Neohelicon 41, 13–25 (2014).

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  • Capitals
  • Cities
  • Real and imaginary spaces
  • Literary maps
  • Modern sociological (re)conceptualisations of space