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  • Infrastructures of Enlightenment: Road-making, the Public Sphere, and the Emergence of Literature
  • Greg Laugero (bio)

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Figure 1.

The turnpike road network in 1750. Source: Eric Pawson, Transport and Economy: The Turnpike Roads of Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Academic Press, 1977).

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Figure 2.

The turnpike road network in 1770. Source: Eric Pawson, Transport and Economy: The Turnpike Roads of Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Academic Press, 1977).

Between 1750 and 1770, the landscape of England was transformed by the building and improving of roads on an unprecedented scale. As visually articulated by Eric Pawson’s maps (Figures 1 and 2), the result was simultaneously an apparent fragmentation—a landscape literally divided by administrative units called turnpike trusts—and a new unification—the linking together of parts into a new national whole. In this essay, I will examine this material and conceptual event of “unification” through “fragmentation” in relation to the making of roads and the emergence of Literature in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. My argument is that the arrangement of those parts and wholes was not only geographical: the circulation of individuals, commodities, and information through new channels of communication and exchange, particularly the literary, brought about new kinds of individuals for a new kind of society.

The turnpike trusts facilitated both this fragmentation and consolidation of the landscape while dealing with its attendant problems. Enacted on local initiatives by individual Acts of Parliament, turnpike trusts allowed a designated group to set up tollgates at various locations on a stretch of road. The tolls collected were used to pay for the improvement of the road. Upon encountering a gate, one would pay the toll and receive a ticket that would allow further passage through the other [End Page 45] gates controlled by the trust. Each trust issued its own tickets. As the turnpike trusts became increasingly interconnected, the tickets became more inconvenient for travelers.

Thomas Paine, speaking on behalf of the “corresponding societies” proliferating across Great Britain in the 1780s and 1790s, referred to this “wilderness of turnpike gates” to describe connections between individuality, political authority, and the circulation of people, objects, and information:

It is not among the least of the evils of the present existing governments in all parts of Europe, that man, considered as man, is thrown back to a vast distance from his Maker, and the artificial chasm filled up by a succession of barriers, or a sort of turnpike gates, through which he has to pass. . . . The duty of man is not a wilderness of turnpike gates, through which he is to pass by tickets from one to the other. It is plain and simple, and consists but of two points. His duty to God, which every man must feel; and with respect to his neighbor, to do as he would be done by. If those to whom power is delegated do well, they will be respected; if not, they will be despised; and with regard to those to whom no power is delegated, but who assume it, the rational world can know nothing of them.

At issue for Paine, as we will trace in more detail later, is a public sphere in which writing effects social and political change by circulating to increasingly wider audiences. In this passage, the turnpike trust ticket bears Paine’s concerns for this effectivity of writing. What Paine is calling for, figuratively, is a universal ticket—one that would be recognizable and acceptable at each and every point in the network. Central to Paine’s political agenda is a quite literal call for a kind of writing that would communicate across every part of the network. Paradoxically, therefore, the phenomenon that had facilitated and expanded the circulation of objects, people, and information is here offered as an image of an inefficient and even damaging circulation.

Paine’s use of the turnpike gates as a metaphor simultaneously highlights and obscures the relation between road-making and the effectivity of writing under consideration in this essay. It does work as a metaphor, but the connections, I will argue, are more than metaphorical. Just as roads allow...

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