J.B. Harley. The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Edited by Paul Laxton. Introduction by J.H. Andrews. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. xv, 334. $45.00. ISBN 0801865662.

Brian Harley (1932-1991) was one of the formative figures in the still emerging contemporary discipline of the history of cartography. During his career, he was an historical geographer at the universities of Liverpool, Exeter, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee and along with David Woodward was the co-founder of the multi-volume History of Cartography (1987– ) project. Through his various often intentionally provocative writings he contributed significantly to the philosophy of the history of cartography and to how many of us today look at and seek to comprehend maps.

Harley indeed “died at the height of his scholarly career” (p. ix) leaving a number of projects yet to be addressed or unfinished. He originally proposed this book with the seven previously published essays that comprise it to The Johns Hopkins University Press, but his untimely death has left it to Paul Laxton, a professor of geography at the University of Liverpool, to bring to fruition. The lengthy, insightful, but not uncritical introduction is by J.H. Andrews, a distinguished retired professor of geography at Trinity College, Dublin. Andrews regularly questioned Harley’s notions while he was alive, and he was the first reader recommended to the Press by Harley to review the proposed book.

The essays in this volume are “Texts and Contexts in the Interpretation of Early Maps,” “Maps, Knowledge, and Power,” “Silences and Secrecy,” “Power and Legitimation in English Geographical Atlases of the Eighteenth Century,” “Deconstructing the Map,” “New England Cartography and the Native Americans,” and “Can There Be a Cartographic Ethics.” They represent only a small portion of Harley’s work. A complete and informative chronological bibliography of Harley’s writings, compiled by Matthew H. Edney, an associate professor of geography at the University of Southern Maine, appears near the end of this volume. 

These essays may or may not be Harley’s best, nor do they necessarily represent a cross section of his work, but they surely are, as Laxton says in his introduction, “seven important statements in map history” (p. ix). They too reflect some of Harley’s major ideas about maps such as that assumed objectivity in cartography is an absurdity since all maps are influential “social constructions” and that cartographic accuracy is historically relative. Therefore, before it can be made to serve as an historical source, a map should first be understood in the context of its own time. As was often the case with Harley, these essays perhaps also pose more queries than they answer.

The notes and illustrations are as they originally appeared with these essays. At the conclusion of the volume there also is an extensive reference section, assembled by Harley, of diverse works in the history of cartography. But this book is not to be seen as a “Harleyfest” (p. x) or a memorial to him. Those were carried out in the early 1990s after his death. Nor would that have been his intent. This will be an important work for anyone with more than a passing interest in maps, old or new.

Dennis Reinhartz
The University of Texas at Arlington

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