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About This Project

This research guide was created by students in WR 150, a first-year, topic-based writing and research seminar at Boston University. The topic for this course section was "Outposts of Empire: Between Home and World in Modern British Fiction," and because of that topic, the course was listed as a "Seminar in World Literature." But studying world literature, as we soon discovered, can get a bit complicated—after all, doesn't most literature come from or tell us about somewhere in the world?  Would we be discussing any stories that weren't from this world, to compare them with our examples of world literature? Is the phrase "world literature" a redundant one, or a misnomer?

MAP TEXT: "The Queen's Dominions at the End of the Nineteenth Century. McVitie and Prices Oatcakes & Tea Biscuits. Published by McVitie and Price Biscuit Manufact. Edinburgh."
MAP CREDIT: McVitie and Price, Edinburgh, 1989. Collected in Canadian War Museum, Ottawa (link) and digitized in Wikimedia Commons (link).

We took these questions online and to the library with a central case study: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, first published in a popular magazine in 1899 and then released as a book-length novella in 1902.

On one hand, the web seemed like a strange place to go with a story that is now more than a hundred old. But part of the century-long controversy surrounding Conrad's story is its blurring of the lines between fiction and life, storytelling and history-making, character formation and empire-building. The primary narrator of the story, Marlow, finds his own life disrupted and disturbed by what he sees as a traveler within and between empires, as he sees the building as well as the less reputable activities that make his global traveling possible. But what is it that he sees, or thinks he sees, in his travels through Europe, England, and Central Africa?

The goal of this collaborative digital project, then, was to connect the world of Conrad's tale, its text and contexts, to places that we could see on an interactive timeline and world map. By trying to map Marlow's 19th-century life narrative along with some of the conversations that it started in the 20th century, we were able to see some of the overlap between the world of Conrad's story and our own.

One of the strange things we learned while completing this project is that the technology of the world map itself, and some of the innovations that contributed to it, such as the Mercator projection, were in many cases invented to serve the purposes of imperial expansion by European and other global powers. In the nineteenth century, as Conrad's own story describes, world maps were filled and literally framed with a certain story about the British empire and its place in world history. A further question emerged in our discussions: so what images and stories "frame" the maps that we carry in our pockets—usually on smartphones—in twenty-first-century Boston? 

Imperial World Map

MAP TEXT: "IMPERIAL FEDERATION,—map of the world showing the extent of the BRITISH EMPIRE in 1886. / Statistical Information furnished by aptain J. C. R. Colomb, M.P. formerly R.M.A. ____ British Territories coloured red."
MAP CREDIT: Macclure and Co., Queen Victoria Street, London, 1886. Collected in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. (link)