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  • The Reinvention of the World: English Writing 1650–1750
  • Lisa Blansett
Douglas Chambers. The Reinvention of the World: English Writing 1650–1750 (London: Arnold, 1996). Pp. 218.

Evidence that our disciplinary boundaries are being recharted can be seen in recent studies that trace intersections of such spatial practices as geography, cartography, architecture, and gardening with literary productions. Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood ([1994] particularly his essay, “The Land Speaks”), Lawrence Manley’s work on London, the collected essays in Writing Worlds (1992), work by John Barrell, W. J. T. Mitchell, Mary Louise Pratt, Stephen Greenblatt, and others mark new and revised ways of looking at literature in a cultural context. Two forthcoming issues of journals to be devoted solely to spatial studies ( Early Modern Literary Studies and Eighteenth-Century Fiction both to be published in 1998) seem to suggest that this area is now a growth industry.

These new works are themselves in dialogue with recent work by cultural geographers and historians of cartography. It was the late J. B. Harley’s essays, “Deconstructing the Map” and “Maps, Knowledge and Power” (both in Writing Worlds, 1992) that brought literary criticism, particularly appropriations of Derrida and Foucault, to the history of cartography. Geography, cartography, and their discourses now offer literary critics and historians archives full of cultural productions to examine with and against literature.

The best of these recent studies work away from earlier analyses of setting or background and instead compare the discourses of space (and often power) bound up in literature as related to similar, or dissimilar, discourses played out in geographic texts and cartographic productions. These studies suggest that the individual, as a cultural category, both shapes and is shaped by surrounding spaces and representations of those spaces. These studies, too, depart from Raymond Williams’ examinations of material space and culture, by arguing for a more complicated vision of the world than the a priori nature-we-have-lost that was bounded, corrupted, and exploited by capitalism. That is to say, to my mind, an excellent spatial study would treat all space as historically and culturally constructed and constructing. [End Page 247]

Douglas Chambers’ book, The Reinvention of the World, makes a claim for historical and cultural specificity as it “traces the rise of the mechanical model of the world” (ix). He suggests that the British came to reimagine themselves, their social order, and particularly their spatial order over the period 1650–1750. His evidence for this transformation is a vast array of primary texts, both literary and historical, from writers great and small. Indeed he (and the “Writing and History” series in general) graciously provides an impressive selection of maps, agricultural treatises, travel descriptions, and educational texts in an appendix that will no doubt help many more scholars. Moreover, his texts cross a variety of genres (the novel, drama, essay, poetry), lending credence to his claims of both a large shift in epistemology and something of a resistance to the forms of universalization the transformation effected.

The first of the eight cleverly titled chapters gives us an overview of the period, of course, but runs rather quickly through the history and at times, seems to elide some of the major changes one might find between the posts of the period. In many instances, the reader is called upon to compare works published in 1599, 1693, 1730, 1765, and the mid-nineteenth century. The reader of course wants the signposts along the way, but Chambers’ discussion sometimes errs on the side of covering too much too quickly. In terms of coverage, too, his evidence from every genre imaginable admirably demonstrates his thesis, and yet, on the other side, gallops across many fields. One wonders, for example, whether his claims for a narrative process of reimagining might have significance for the genre of the novel. Had he been able to linger on a genre or two, he might have developed a theory of the novel that relies less on Ian Watt.

While Chambers takes on what now seem to be such highly theoretical subjects as the production of space, configurations of domination and subordination, practices of resistance, he prefers to avoid the “impenetrable verbiage” through which...

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