Sarah Luria

Associate Professor, Department of English

When young Thomas Sutpen in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) comes down from the hill country, where his family has lived as squatters, to Virginia’s tidewater river plantations, he sees private property for the first time: “[W]here he lived the land belonged to anybody …and so the man who would go to the trouble …to fence off a piece of it and say ‘This is mine’ was crazy; …he didn’t … know there was a country all divided and fixed and neat” (Absalom, Absalom!). My current book project traces the strange alchemical process by which land is turned into property as told through literature and photographs. My purpose is to help people to look afresh at their environments with something like the astonishment that Sutpen feels, but in reverse: instead of seeing land turned into property, to see the land mass obscured by structured neighborhoods and built environments. As part of this work I use digital imaging to “unsee” property lines and use literature to help reflect upon these new views. The film on this website’s homepage provides an example of such work.

The Art of Surveying draws upon the rich trove of literature and photographs that not only comment upon but participate in the work of land division. Examples include William Byrd’s Histor[ies] of the Dividing Line (c. 1730s), Henry David Thoreau’s land surveys and related writings, Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photographs for two of the “Great Western Surveys” led by Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler (1867-71 and 1871-74), Gordon Matta Clark’s Fake Estates project (1970s), and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997).


Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"