First published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.
Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.
Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.