The Most Interesting Place: the Eastern Mediterranean and American Cultural Knowledge

2012 June

This study addresses how nineteenth-century Americans perceived the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. The project rests upon a detailed examination of American primary school geography textbooks that enjoyed widespread circulation during the century. The lack of an effective education apparatus in the period rendered American students incredibly reliant on their textbooks. These texts reflect the general common knowledge of the region shared by most educated Americans. Additionally, this study draws support from a thorough analysis of travel accounts that were extraordinarily popular during the period. These works offered Americans a chance to explore vicariously the most interesting lands of the Levant.

Nineteenth-century Americans sought to locate their essential place, meaning and mission within a universal system of world processes. Geography authors fulfilled this social need by providing students with a systemized structure of knowledge about the Eastern Mediterranean. This framework enabled students to address the complex realities of the region in a simplified and palatable manner – a process that also used to satisfy various social pressures. This episteme of the Eastern Mediterranean provided the context for Americans to regulate their self-meanings and cultural missions in the nineteenth century. Often, the concepts of this knowledge structure took the form of dichotomies which acted as defining antitheses. Students located themselves within these oppositions which became constructs of Sameness and Otherness. The structured framework of knowledge about the Levant provided the setting in which these processes played out. Thus, the people, places, and practices of the region were marked as aspects of “us” and “them” – of heritage and Otherness.

Unplublished master's thesis.

The Most Interesting Place: the Eastern Mediterranean and American Cultural Knowledge [PDF] - 3.42 MB