The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730

The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730

The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730

The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730

Synopsis

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain saw the proposal of so many endeavors called "projects"--a catchphrase for the daring, sometimes dangerous practice of shaping the future--that Daniel Defoe dubbed his era a "Projecting Age." These ideas spanned a wide variety of scientific, technological, and intellectual interventions intended for the betterment of England. But for all the fanfare surrounding them, few such schemes actually materialized, leaving scores of defunct visions, from Defoe's own attempt to farm cats for perfume, to Mary Astell's proposal to charter a college for women, to countless ventures for improving land, streamlining government, and inventing new consumer goods. Taken together, these failed plans form a compelling alternative history of a Britain that might have been.

The Wreckage of Intentions offers a comprehensive and critical account of projects, exploring the historical memory surrounding these concrete yet incomplete efforts to advance British society during a period defined by revolutions in finance and agriculture, the rise of experimental science, and the establishment of constitutional monarchy. Using methods of literary analysis, David Alff shows how projects began as written proposals, circulated as print objects, spurred physical undertakings, and provoked responses in the realms of poetry, fiction, and drama. Mapping this process discloses the ways in which eighteenth-century authors applied their faculties of imagination to achieve finite goals and, in so doing, devised new ways of seeing the world through its future potential. Approaching old projects through the language, landscapes, data, and personas they left behind, Alff contends this vision was, and remains, vital to the functions of statecraft, commerce, science, religion, and literature.

Excerpt

In 1652, an anonymous London pamphlet proclaimed the end of famine. the twenty-four-page Designe for Plentie reasoned that England could secure “food in the time of want” by forcing its landholders to plant twenty apple, pear, walnut, or quince trees on every “five pounds per annum” of arable soil. According to this treatise, a law for compulsory arboriculture would restock the Commonwealth in the wake of civil wars that ruined tillage and emptied larders. “Woodwards” would patrol nurseries, fine defaulters, and schedule “common dayes” when parishioners would harvest the trees. These statutory labors would supply produce, timber, firewood, and juice, which could be fermented into cider. “Universal plantation” promised to barrel so much cider that England could stop brewing beer, a beverage that devoured bread barley while seeding “drunkennesse, disorder, and dangerous plots.” Fruit groves would transform “waste and wilde places” into a veritable “Garden of God” that could fill stomachs and dazzle eyes. Beauty, abundance, civility, and even a taste of prelapsarian bliss all seemed within the grasp of this single law.

Despite its euphoric imagery and breathless reasoning, Designe for Plentie concedes that its vision may not materialize. the author bemoans the “sluggishnesse” of his countrymen, likening them to a cat who hungers for fish, “yet her foot in water will not weat.” He simultaneously fears detractors who would dismiss communal orcharding as a “vain and trifling” notion, a specious enterprise unworthy of state support. To shake apathy and forestall censure, Designe characterizes itself as a practical measure for the benefit of all Commonwealth citizens: “we have thought it our dutie to present an Assay of Plenty, which we call (A Designe or Project for Plenty) yet not a project of any private advantage to us; but of publique good and plenty unto this Nation.” Designe anchors its self-justification to three nouns—assay, “designe,” project— that in the seventeenth century denoted both kinds of writing and modes of . . .

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