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Sun Dec 27, 2020, 08:48 AM

765 maps that drew Americans together

Outlook • Perspective

765 maps that drew Americans together

A massive 1970s atlas shows a country more united than divided, a lesson for today.



(Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

By Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer is distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. He edited the two-volume set "American Speeches” for the Library of America. His next book, “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington,” comes out in the spring.

Dec. 24, 2020 at 11:26 a.m. EST

Fifty years ago, the federal government published an enormous book. The National Atlas of the United States was a tome for the ages, from its girth (12 pounds) to its generosity (765 maps). Had it come with legs, it might have doubled as a coffee table. But there was a lyricism, too, as this bulky publication sang its love song to America. It arrived at the right moment, reminding a divided nation just how much there was to celebrate in the land (and water) itself.

Everything seemed to be falling apart in 1970, mostly having to do with the war in Vietnam. A gulf had widened between Americans over what their country should stand for. But back then, politicians from both sides of the aisle could talk to one another, and as hard as it is to imagine today, nothing brought Republicans and Democrats together like the environment. In December, the Nixon administration was going gangbusters: Earlier in the year, the president had planted a tree at the White House to celebrate the first Earth Day. On Dec. 2, the Environmental Protection Agency came into existence, and on Dec. 31, the president signed the Clean Air Act. In every sense, the atmosphere was improving.

Liberals prefer to recall the dark deeds that led to Watergate, and Republicans have trouble remembering the word “environment” at all, but Richard Nixon’s commitment was genuine. The atlas’s dedication page, which he signed, promised that the book would stir “a better understanding of our environment and man’s impact on it.” The maps told that story, with attention to both the natural realm and the ways generations of Americans had acted upon it, delineating the subtle connections that tied Americans together, from electricity to energy to the shared experience of voting.

The atlas was a great federal achievement, when that was still a point of honor — 84 agencies, led by the Interior Department, contributed. Only 15,000 copies were printed, but they found their way into school libraries and made a difference. They remain a boon for historians, teasing out subtleties of the nation that existed in 1970 and the one that was coming into being. Perhaps today, in another divided time, the simple act of looking at these gorgeous maps can bring us back onto the same page. The gallery here is a sampling; the entire atlas is at the Library of Congress website.

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Ted Widmer
Ted Widmer is distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. He edited the two-volume set "American Speeches” for the Library of America. His next book, “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington,” comes out in the spring.

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