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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.
David Alff teaches English at the University at Buffalo.