In Apocalyptic Geographies: Religion, Media, and the American Landscape, Jerome Tharaud traces the convergence of American geography with evangelical cosmologies in 19th-century visual culture. He theorizes the “modernization of apocalypse,” arguing that apocalyptic expectation “became the primary lens for understanding the emerging form of modernity known today as globalization” (4). By surveying the production of revelatory geographies in landscape paintings, printed maps, sermons, abolitionist newspapers, tourism literature, fiction, and more, Tharaud shows how popular media reconfigured the American landscape into a “distinctly modern form of sacred space” (5). Apocalyptic Geographies examines how white evangelicals strategically united space with spirituality to orient an increasingly urbanizing nation.
Tharaud compellingly engages a range of fields—including critical geography, media studies, and religious studies—to demonstrate how white evangelicals infused American landscapes with revelatory significance. He writes: “The book’s central case study investigates the efforts of Protestant evangelical publishing societies to teach readers to use the landscape to understand their own spiritual lives and their role in sacred history” (5). Apocalyptic Geographies presses scholars of the spatial turn of the last two decades to take up the religious dimensions of landscapes in American culture and beyond.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the rise of evangelical mediascapes within US national culture. Tharaud surveys how white, middle-class evangelicals drew together Puritan ideas of sacred geography from America’s past, on the one hand, and modern media technologies, on the other. This union produced what he calls evangelical space: “As they mapped sacred geography onto terrain being transformed by modern flows of goods, information, and people, landscape representation emerged as a crucial tool for teaching audiences to inhabit a particular moral geography” (18). Tharaud follows the emergence of evangelical space and its transformation into an American landscape throughout the mid-19th century. It is a joy to read his rich analysis of landscape paintings, such as Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836). The author contends that geography functioned as a script for both personal pilgrimage and global missionary activity. He traces how white abolitionists took up evangelical media strategies to remap the nation’s spatial imagination: “land itself reflected a cosmic contest between slavery and freedom” (71). One of the many strengths of this monograph is Tharaud’s weaving together of both familiar and underexamined primary sources. For example, Tharaud reads Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), as well as illustrations of Uncle Tom and Little Eva beholding the landscape, as an extension of evangelical print culture that aimed to convert and “imbricate [readers] in new systems of information circulation” (143). This fresh perspective on well-trodden sources, combined with the book’s emphasis on visual culture, makes Apocalyptic Geographies a helpful resource for teaching religion, history, or media studies.
Religion scholars interested in secularism will appreciate the second part of the book, which takes up “an archive of ostensibly secular objects” to reveal a mediascape “haunted by a sense of sacred presence rooted in the soil itself” (22, 23). Drawing on Charles Taylor, Tracy Fessenden, Bruno Latour, and Talal Asad, Tharaud challenges dominant understandings of secularized modernity, positing that critics of evangelicalism “reconfigured the relationship between landscape representation, media, and the sacred to produce their own apocalyptic geographies” (24). By taking up depictions of popular tourist resorts in novels and art, he reformulates theorizations of secular public space not as “a sphere from which religion has been evacuated” (151), but instead a landscape that “mediates religious difference” (183). Tharaud revisits Henry David Thoreau’s Walden through the lens of popular missionary memoirs. The author develops an account of what he calls “cosmic modernity” by highlighting “neglected connections between Transcendentalism and evangelicalism” (188). He also turns to sensational fiction that produced the spatial imaginary of the American West as Catholic space: the geopolitical and cosmic conflicts reflected in violent novels “helped readers cognitively map an expanding federal republic and market society” (217). Across evangelical mediascapes and their appropriation in secular contexts, Tharaud convincingly argues that “landscape had become an apocalyptic medium” (150).
The interdisciplinary nature of this project, combined with its narrow focus on a subset of evangelicals (white, highly literate, middle-class Congregationalists and Presbyterians), will undoubtedly leave some readers wanting more: different historical objects, alternative scholarly debates, or engagement with apocalyptic traditions beyond white evangelicals. For instance, I found myself longing for a deeper discussion of how white anxieties about slave rebellion shaped apocalyptic imaginations. However, this desire for more is not a shortcoming of Apocalyptic Geographies. Rather, it indicates the need for new scholarship building on Tharaud’s rich analysis of the convergence of apocalypse, geography, and media in modernity.
Emilie Casey is a PhD student in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.
Date Of Review:
September 29, 2022
Jerome Tharaud is assistant professor of English at Brandeis University.
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