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Reviewed by:
  • The Age of Projects
  • David Alff
Maximillian Novak, ed., The Age of Projects (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008). Pp. x, 368. $85.00.

This recent collection of essays surveys some of the schemes, enterprises, and contrivances associated with English projecting from the Restoration through the early nineteenth century. Today the word “project” is so ubiquitously inscribed within various professional vocabularies that it’s hard to assign the term a more concrete meaning than a sequence of tasks in pursuit of a goal. However, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, projects carried highly specific connotations not only as delimitable contributions to the work of national improvement, but also through their unsavory affiliations with notorious speculations, implausible ventures, and a class of disreputable gamesters, stockjobbers, and frauds. Edited by Max Novak and drawing from a lecture series delivered at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library between 2003 and 2004, The Age of Projects explores the practices, personages, and documents that comprised a culture of projection in early modern England to convey how “society may be shaped one way or another by inventions or various schemes, from those that attempt to establish traditions to those that endeavour to change or even revolutionize the present” (x).

A strength of this collection is Novak’s broad definition of what constitutes a project: the construction of Westminster Bridge, the design of computational machinery, the quest for physiological immortality, and the repackaging of Chaucerian narrative as Jacobite polemic all fit under a rubric of projecting. Daniel Defoe is a projector because he operated a brick factory. Samuel Johnson, meanwhile, figures as the “great literary projector of his period” (15). In its broadest sense, a project is for Novak something that creatively reappropriates cultural inheritance to produce new industry, insight, and invention, like Defoe’s proposal that England repair its deteriorated roads by recovering a Roman spirit of municipal engineering. Novak’s collection attends to the meaning of project as both a noun (scheme, plan, design) and a verb (foretell, transfer, cast upon) to reveal projecting’s preoccupation with what a present investment of individual physical and cognitive labor in public works could produce for a collective future.

The temporality of projection organizes The Age of Projects into three sections. “Part I: Retrieving the Past” challenges the idea that projecting affronted traditional academic institutions. Paul Hammond shows how even a staunch conservative like John Dryden undertook literary projection in “Palamon and Arcite” by interleaving his translation of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” with a sequence of classical etymologies and contemporary allusions. Not merely the enlistment of medieval topoi to late Restoration political commentary, Dryden’s poem weaves a “macaronic fabric” (68) of worlds in which the Stuart laureate sought repose from the alienating realities of the Williamite settlement. Also working on Dryden, Elliott Visconsi analyzes how Troilus and Cressida excavates and eviscerates Shakespearean drama to stage an ambivalent vision of Trojan originalism at a time when the diasporic myth of a wayward Brutus who founded English civilization seemed “emptied of plausibility” (74). Seeking a politically useful continuity rather than an aporetic disjuncture, the Earl of Clarendon figures in Margery Kingsley’s essay as a social projector whose history of the civil wars reconciled England’s divided populace with visions of a common monarchical history, even as his own royalist family associations undermined this history’s authority. Understanding interregnum [End Page 542] historiography as both public commentary on the royal legacy and a textual inheritance along hereditary bloodlines, Kingsley conceives of Clarendon’s work simultaneously as a family matter and an affair of state.

Projecting stands for more than a motivated reclamation of history. The essays in “Part II: Improving the Present” demonstrate how men and women used new models of scientific investigation to understand their place in a period of social and technological flux. Albert Boime examines the rise of European academies as “visual role models for society’s uplift,” seemingly conservative institutions that made radically utopian claims on the “perfectibility of humanity” (221). Meanwhile, in a study that subordinates consideration of “imaginative literature” to the analysis of “ephemeral writings, company records, mercantile and diplomatic correspondence,” Steven Pincus argues against the commonly held belief that...


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pp. 542-544
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