Reading the reception of Ellen Churchill Semple’s Influences of geographic environment (1911)
Keighren, Innes M
This is a thesis in the historical geography of textual reception and meaning. Its focus is Influences of geographic environment (1911), by American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple (1861–1932). Semple’s book, a treatise on environmentalism, coincided with the emergence of geography in North America and Britain as an independent academic discipline, and it exerted an important but varied influence on generations of geographers. For those who considered it a monument to Semple’s scholarship and erudition, it was a timely manifesto for a scientific approach to geographical research. For others, Influences was conceptually flawed—a text which might damage geography’s emergent academic legitimacy and disciplinary credibility. Accepted by some, repudiated by others, Influences was lauded and criticized in almost equal measure. By attention to archival records, personal correspondence, published reviews, provenance, and marginalia—the material traces of its reading—the thesis examines the different reactions to Influences, and shows that it is possible to trace a geography of the book’s reception: to identify why it was encountered differently by different people, at different times and in different places. Informed by work in literary theory, book history, and the history of science, this thesis outlines the contribution that geography, or a geographical sensibility, can make to understanding the way knowledge and ideas in the guise of the printed text are conceived, transmitted, and received. By exploring the particular characteristics of Influences’ diffusion, the thesis offers a broader perspective on the different means by which scientific knowledge circulates; how its credibility is assessed; and how judgements as to its acceptance or rejection are made. In reading thus the different receptions of Semple’s text, the thesis proposes ways in which geographers might usefully engage with the cultural study of print in historical and geographical context.