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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Corlis Benefideo

Topics/tags: Grinnellians

This October appears to be a month in which people introduce me to Grinnellians I should know (or know about). Not only did I learn about Claire Patterson a few weeks ago, but a friend just wrote to ask if I’ve heard of Corlis Benefideo; he’d just heard about him on the radio and thought that Benefideo was a Grinnellian I should know.

Particularly as Grinnell extends its reach through the Global Grinnell program, Benefideo is a name you should also know. He’s one of the few Grinnellilans with an award named after him [1], one awarded by the North American Cartographic Society. The primary criterion for the award is The potential of their work to transform our ways of seeing and understanding the world. Isn’t it great that a Grinnellian is associated with such an approach?

Benefideo was a creative cartographer and an author (under various pen names) of deeply thoughtful and carefully mapped books about Bogotá, Cape Town, Djakarta, Perth, Lagos, Tokyo, and Venice. His maps inside and outside the book showed creative and innovative approaches. Here’s what one commentator notes about some of Benefideo’s maps of Tokyo.

Even without language to identify information in the keys, even without titles, I could decipher what a mapmaker was up to. One designated areas prone to flooding as water from the Sumida River backed up through the city’s storm drains. Another showed the location of all the shops dealing in Edo Period manuscripts and artwork. Another, using small pink arrows, showed the point of view of each of Hiroshige’s famous One Hundred Views. Yet another showed, in six time-sequenced panels, the rise and decline of horse barns in the city.

I’ve had difficulty learning much about Benefideo’s career at Grinnell. The one biographical note I found says that,

Benefideo was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1912. He went to work for the federal government straight out of Grinnell College during the Depression and by 1940 was traveling to various places—Venice, Bogotá, Lagos—in an exchange program.

I must admit that everything I know about Benefideo comes from a single source, an article by Barry Lopez entitled The Mappist [2].

And, well, I’m pretty sure that The Mappist is fiction. The story appears to be an homage to Borges, at least in my reading. It has the rhythm and tone of a Borges story. It has the slightly fantastical and slightly scholarly approach of a Borges story, or at least stories like Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius [3].

But the Corlis Benefideo award? It’s real, and is awarded for imaginative cartography. NACIS says that

Mr[.] Benefideo is a fictional cartographer, the central character in Barry Lopez’s short story, [T]he Mappist, which is printed in his short story collection Light Action in the Caribbean. We’ve adopted his name for our award with Mr[.] Lopez’s blessing.

Should his reality, or lack thereof, make a difference? I think not. We claim as Grinnellians famous people who attended Grinnell, but never graduated. Why not claim fictitious graduates, too?

In any case, I’d recommend that you read [4] the story. I’m thankful that a friend pointed me toward it. As you read it, consider the ways that maps can be used not only to inform, but also to lead people to think about things in new ways [5].

Postscript: Someone should create a Wikipedia page for Benefideo. And it would be cool to see someone generate some of the maps that Lopez describes.

[1] There is, as one might expect, a C.C. Patterson award. SIGCSE has a Henry Walker travel award. Grinnell has awards named after alums, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t know of others, but I look forward to hearing from my readers.

[2] You can also listen to The Mappist on an episode of Selected Shorts on Ways of Seeing.

[3] I’m pretty sure that that’s the Borges story that comes to mind.

[4] Or listen to it.

[5] I suppose I do need to include mapping in the FunDHum course.

Version 1.0 of 2018-10-21.