Sayre takes Presidential Research Lecture audience on historical journey

University of Oregon professor of English Gordon Sayre delivered the Spring 2014 Presidential Research Lecture on Tuesday evening, exploring often-forgotten role of French explorers in American history.

Sayre spoke about “Lines and Voices: Maps and Narratives in 18th-Century Middle America," to a crowd of students, faculty and community members in Lillis 182.

“Tonight, I want to help you imagine North America before the United States,” Sayre said, opening his lecture. “I delight in studying the many stories, histories and literatures written and told in North America, and I try to acknowledge the many languages of this land, both native and colonial.”

A specialist in colonial American literature from the 16th through early 19th centuries in French and English, Sayre also studies Native American culture, literature and environment.

He incorporated historical maps and narratives into his lecture, including a map of the world from 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller showing an elongated North America that is the first known map to use the word “America.”

Sayre told the story of four different cartographers, showing how maps and narratives often contained elements of fiction. As maps with hypothetical oceans and waterways flashed on screen, he spoke of historical maps representing a “geography of desire,” and likened the evolution of maps to myths that changed with each retelling.

“These explorer-mapmaker-writers are each obscure, and they are not covered in American history survey texts — they did not speak English,” Sayre explained. “But, they demonstrate how map and narrative, history and literature, have been closely intertwined in North America.”

Sayre’s talk was the fourth Presidential Research Lecture. The lecture is sponsored by the office for Research, Innovation and Graduate Education, and is delivered twice a year by the recipients of the Outstanding Research Career Award — one of the UO’s Research Excellence Awards.

The next lecture, to be held in the fall, will feature James Tice, professor of architecture in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts.

A guest commentary by Sayre on Oregon's French pioneer history appeared in Sunday's Register-Guard.

- by Lewis Taylor, UO office of Research, Innovation and Graduate Education