Monthly Archives: July 2007

New eighteenth-century blog from the ASECS Graduate Students Caucus

[taken from C18-L]

I am pleased to announce that the ASECS Graduate Student Caucus is launching an online reading group blog where graduate students in eighteenth-century studies will lead regular online discussions of eighteenth-century works.


Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling will be the first text featured on the blog, and discussion of The Man of Feeling  will begin on Monday, August 13th. Graduate students Sarah Cote (Cornell), Michael Gavin, (Rutgers), Shayda Hoover (UC-Irvine), Laura Miller (UCSB), and Zak Watson (University of Missouri) have all agreed to contribute short essays to the blog that are sure to get dialogue going, and everyone who visits the blog is invited to participate in the discussion via the comments section.


I hope listmembers will have a chance to stop by the week of August 13th and join the online conversation. Additionally, if you are a graduate student on C18-L who isn’t signed up for the ASECS Grad Student Listserv, drop me a line at – especially if you’re interested in being one of the main contributors for the reading group’s next text, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (discussion of which is set to begin October 15th).


Looking forward to seeing you on the blog!



Crystal B. Lake

ASECS Graduate Student Caucus Chair

University of Missouri-Columbia



This looks like it will be interesting.  DM


Goodbye, Streatham


 ‘Mr.Thrale’s House’, Streatham Park, situated off Tooting Bec Road, facing the common.The house was made famous by the family’s association with Dr.Samuel Johnson, who was a frequent visitor here between 1765 and 1782.

[image and caption courtesy of Ideal Homes, at]

Well, I’m packed and ready to leave Streatham tomorrow morning.  Then I’ll be winging my way back to Houston, which is just as rainy as England, only not so cold.

In the meantime, why don’t you look at the Wikipedia entry for the history of Streatham, described there as a ‘multicultural inner London suburb South of Brixton,’ and which had a few worthy visitors during the 1770s:

In the 1730s, Streatham Park, a Georgian country mansion, was built by the brewer Ralph Thrale on land he bought from the Lord of the Manor – the fourth Duke of Bedford. Streatham Park later passed to Ralph’s son Henry Thrale, who with his wife Hester Thrale entertained many of the leading literary and artistic characters of the day, most notably the lexicographer Samuel Johnson. The dining room contained 12 portraits of Henry’s guests painted by his friend Joshua Reynolds. These pictures were wittily labelled by Fanny Burney as the Streatham Worthies.

Streatham Park was later leased to Prime Minister Lord Shelburne, and was the venue of the negotiated peace with France that lead to the Treaty of Paris (1783). Streatham Park was demolished in 1863.

Not many traces of the fashionable spa-town remained where I was staying.  It was also amusing to see that Lord Thurlow, the beetle-browed, bullying, and unlovable attorney beloved by George III, had had an estate there, memorialized now only by an ugly apartment building, Thurlow Towers, down my street.


Exotic Shoes


London was sunny for once, and so I decided to visit the British Museum’s Enlightenment room, which is an amazing physical space designed to evoke the acquisition and classification of knowledge.  Two-story bookcases, elegant cabinets of curiosities, row upon row of things stacked up or set in long lines for visual comparison.  Whether it was seashells or portrait miniatures, they all had their place, at least until the museum got too small and the objects dispersed or rearranged.

Here is something I didn’t manage to see, but wish I did:  Hans Sloane’s collection of exotic shoes:

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collection helped to found the British Museum, acquired objects that demonstrated all aspects of the world. In collecting items relating to different peoples, however, he did not collect many costumes, probably because they were large and difficult to transport. But he did collect footwear, and his catalogue lists pairs from India, China, Japan, Turkey and elsewhere. Sloane probably collected shoes because they were small and because their varying forms illustrated very clearly the differences between cultures.

Sloane’s collection included painted wooden shoes from the Coromandel Coast of India, leather ones from Morocco, silk slippers from Japan and an espadrille from the Pyranées. Sloane either collected these himself or through his connections. For instance, Sloane’s contacts with employees of British trading companies on the Coromandel coast of India would have been the source of the shoe illustrated on the left of the picture. This wooden shoe is one of a pair, annotated in Sloane’s catalogue as ‘A shoe from Coromandel’. This type of footwear, with a single knob to slip between the toes, is very old and exists in India in many different forms and materials, both for everyday use and as ritual objects or luxury items. Some were finely executed, like this lacquered example with painted floral motifs.

Admittedly, looking for a collection of shoes in the same museum where you can see the Rosetta stone may seem anti-climactic.  But what better image of the Enlightenment’s empirical study of the everyday, than those ancient flip-flops?


John Dryden in LRB

The latest LRB has a longish essay by Matthew Reynolds on Dryden, which begins quite engagingly with the question of why non-academic readers can’t be bothered to read him.  I would add that most academic readers can’t be bothered to read him either, unless they are already Dryden scholars.  For a number of reasons, Dryden has fallen off of that tacit list of canonicity, the list of writers we are ashamed to admit we have not read.

Reynolds quotes James Winn, his most recent biographer, as saying that ‘Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read.’  But perhaps Dryden would benefit from a different process of selection, one that worked harder to connect the different aspects of his writing and career.

So what should we do as teachers of eighteenth-century literature, especially if we believe, along with Eliot, that ‘We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden’?  At this point in time, if Dryden is not taught, he will not be read, not even by the specialists.  So what parts of Dryden are we teaching, if anything?

For me, the problem really centers upon selection, and what principles should underlie our choices and our priorities.  How do we go about choosing the portions of a major writer that are at once a) representative and b) accessible to first-time readers. 

And this is where I think Dryden presents two problems that we don’t have with other canonical figures: diffusion and variety.  I think Dryden is really an argumentative rather than a narrative or a lyric poet, and so it becomes particularly important to know who he’s arguing with.  This is most obvious in his satires, which is why these are usually considered his most accessible works, but I think the description fits across the board.  It also accounts for the mediocrity of the plays: if we have any interest in them at all, it’s for their extravagantly rhetorical speeches, which seem to have little connection with the plot turns that motivated them.

Because of this eminently rhetorical quality, Dryden does not lend himself to the kinds of intensive, concentrated close reading or anthologization that have helped to build the reputations of other kinds of writers (think about Congreve or Behn, for example).  Reynolds seems to acknowledge this when he points to the sheer range and difficulty of the genres Dryden excelled at during his long career:

The need for help in fully enjoying Dryden becomes clear as soon as one looks at a list of the genres in which he excelled. Most of them either need prior contextual knowledge (or annotation) to make them comprehensible, or are some distance from what, for the last couple of hundred years, have been the main concerns of poets; or both. There are the literary and political satires (Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel). There is panegyric: on Cromwell (Heroic Stanzas), on Charles II (Astraea Redux, To His Sacred Majesty), on the new baby heir to James II (Britannia Rediviva); though never on William and Mary. Theological disputation, first Anglican in complexion (Religio Laici), then Roman Catholic (The Hind and the Panther). Historical chronicle (Annus Mirabilis). Translation: from Homer, Juvenal, Persius, Ovid, Boccaccio, Chaucer and others; and of the complete works of Virgil. And then there are the massed and (except All for Love) rather mediocre plays which took up most of his time and earned much of his money: heroic tragedies (The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe), tragicomedies (Marriage à la Mode) and farce (An Evening’s Love); and many, many prologues and epilogues to other people’s plays as well as his own. Finally, there are the volumes of accompanying criticism (Of Dramatic Poesy, ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’).

As Reynolds points out, these are all genres that participated fully require intense scholarly mediation before they can be enjoyed, because they were so intensely topical and public at the moment of their first appearance.  This need for mediation probably reduces the potential number of texts covered in a semester, even when it leaves us with the disjecta membra of a long and varied career.

But I also wonder if part of the problem is that we try so hard to give the holistic ‘overview’ of a particular writer, especially the major ones, that we lose sight of the most interesting aspects of their writing.  Along these lines, Reynolds argues for Dryden’s translations as paradoxically the most authentic parts of his writing, an insight which I’d endorse and then extend to his critical prose.  So why not feature these aspects of his writing in a course on translation or criticism, and not just tramp through the footnotes of Absalom and Achitophel?


PS: And just to show that someone is still reading Dryden, there’s a nice post about Annus Mirabilis going on at the Valve right now, courtesy of Adam Roberts.

John Gray on Enlightenment

Throughout his career, John Gray has argued ‘against’ the Enlightenment.

To put it less charitably, he has been writing and re-writing the same book for several years.  Each book features a ‘contrarian’ take on some powerful or once-powerful figure (Thatcher, Blair, Bush etc.), followed by a bleak and pessimistic conclusion.  Each time, he seems to wind up his arguments with a denunciation of Enlightenment for its supposed optimism and ‘faith in progress.’ 

Though I appreciate Gray’s choice of rhetorical targets (globalization, Blair, Bush, neo-cons etc. etc.), I find myself increasingly skeptical about his assertions regarding the Enlightenment (whatever that is, when named as a single, substantive noun).  Can we truly blame the historical Enlightenment for every shitty thing politicians say and do in the present?  Perhaps it’s the repetition that’s ruined this argument for me, or perhaps my impatience with Gray’s inability to move away from what seems to me a Cold-war liberalism.

This set pattern of blaming Enlightenment for the shittiness of the present holds true, I think, for Gray’s latest book, Black Mass (atheists and secularists are nothing but evangelists in disguise!), but I keep finding the same conclusion over and over again in the earlier writings, too.  Here he is in 2004, for example:

As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution. Later, Enlightenment ideas animated some of the most repressive and murderous regimes of the 20th century. Contrary to views often voiced on the left, state terror in the Soviet Union and Maoist China was not produced by national traditions of despotism. It resulted from the utopian character of communism itself. The tens of millions who starved or were killed under communism perished for the sake of an Enlightenment ideal.

I have enjoyed Gray’s essays for some time, but I cannot take accounts like this–either of Enlightenment or contemporary politics–seriously anymore.  It feels like a rehash of Burke’s reading of the Jacobins, applied willy-nilly to Stalin and Mao and the Khmer Rouge blah blah blah, and then onwards and upwards to Bush and Blair and their equally ‘fanatical’ enemies. 

 To me, all this feels like a deeply ahistorical and reductive treatment of religion, politics, and war, with no respect for the distinctive causes and histories of any of these issues.  Ultimately, these arguments embody a liberalism (however qualified) that keeps searching for its ideal-typical Other–the Fanatic–for an excuse to launch its thoroughly conventional (and by now, ineffectual) attacks.  But how much do these kinds of arguments about Enlightenment and secularization help us to understand Bush, Al Quaeda, or even Robespierre?,,2126493,00.html


Blogger’s Corner: Collective Wisdom or Delusional Thinking?

This week, I’m putting up two pieces discussing the political problems and potential of what has been called ‘the wisdom of crowds.’  Coincidentally, they both came from writers for the New Yorker.

The first piece is from Menand’s review of economist Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton, 2007), which might be called, ‘Who cares what you think, anyway?’ (I said, economist, not ‘political economist’).  Here’s a good sample of Menand’s summary:

The average voter is not held in much esteem by economists and political scientists, and Caplan rehearses some of the reasons for this. The argument of his book, though, is that economists and political scientists have misunderstood the problem. They think that most voters are ignorant about political issues; Caplan thinks that most voters are wrong about the issues, which is a different matter, and that their wrong ideas lead to policies that make society as a whole worse off. We tend to assume that if the government enacts bad policies, it’s because the system isn’t working properly—and it isn’t working properly because voters are poorly informed, or they’re subject to demagoguery, or special interests thwart the public’s interest. Caplan thinks that these conditions are endemic to democracy. They are not distortions of the process; they are what you would expect to find in a system designed to serve the wishes of the people. “Democracy fails,” he says, “because it does what voters want.” It is sometimes said that the best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Caplan thinks that the best cure is less democracy. He doesn’t quite say that the world ought to be run by economists, but he comes pretty close.

To counter this, I’m putting up blogger-journalist Emily Gordon’s interview with James Surowiecki, whose best-selling book The Wisdom of Crowds helped to popularize the notion that collectively-held knowledge could be more powerful than that of individual experts.  Here Surowiecki talks frankly about the limitations of the paradigm he has written about.  When asked whether ‘wired first world life’ might translate into different, more immediate forms of political participation, he responds:

The simple answer is: I don’t know.  I think that it’s clear that lots and lots of people want their opinions to be heard — and want them to, in some sense, make a difference. And I hope that that will, at the very least, translate into people voting in greater numbers, and even contributing to political campaigns in greater numbers. (It’s possible we actually saw some evidence of this in 2006.) But there is a big gap between dialing a call-in number on “American Idol” and participating in a demonstration, let alone actually doing real labor organizing. The thing about lower-tech forms of collective action is that they’re often hard, not just in the sense of being demanding in terms of time and energy, but also in the sense that they require tremendous amounts of patience and a willingness to defer immediate gratification. Unlike electing Jordin Sparks this year’s American Idol, social and political change does not happen in a few hours, or even a few months. So I’m not sure we can expect the “democracy” of the Net and of modern media to lead to an efflorescence of real-world activism. But that doesn’t mean that participatory democracy in the wired world is unimportant. We just have to be realistic about what it can accomplish.

There’s a lot we could discuss here, but my question would be, what happens once we assume that ‘experts’ as well as ‘crowds,’ may harbor, communicate, and even defend their ‘prejudices’?  How will those errors and prejudices be corrected, or at least countered, in public discourse?  Who is responsible, we might ask, for correcting them?


Names and people in 18th-century sources (I)

In my working capacity as the Oracle of the OBP Online, I was recently asked a question that went something like this (details changed):

I’m confused by all these results. If Robert Scott was hanged in 1765, who are all these other Robert Scotts? And some of them are after 1765?!

This is at first glance a slightly daft question – well, obviously, they’re all different people but with the same name, aren’t they? (The qestion also contains a common misconception about the source, which I’ll come back to in a moment.) And yet, at the same time, it’s not really silly at all.

They might not all be different people. In our database of the names in the OBP there are 142 instances of the name ‘Robert Scott’ (including slight spelling variations). (Mind you, this is nothing compared to a name like John Smith, which occurs more than 4000 times.) How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?

And this is without even starting on the problem that a significant proportion of those appearing at the Old Bailey were known by more than one name, and some had a string of aliases and nicknames. Oh, and the reporters sometimes got people’s names – even those of defendants – just plain wrong.

In other words, identifying the relationship between names and people in early modern sources is often extremely tricky, and the question ‘who the hell are all these Robert Scotts?’ isn’t so daft after all. Which is just as well, really, because this is precisely the kind of problem that’ll be keeping me in work for the next couple of years.

This isn’t just of concern to family historians trying to work out whether someone is really their ancestor or not. Most historians have to make these linkages, ask these questions, at some time or another in the course of their research. Most of us do it on a small scale by hand; a more select group do it on the large scale with computers and algorithms. I’ll hopefully post about both of these later. But in both cases, the process relies on weighing up and ranking probabilities.

Sometimes the answer, either way, is so obvious that the question doesn’t even need to be consciously formed. But at the other end of the scale, there are times when it’s impossible ever to know because you simply don’t have enough information, especially if a name is very common and you have very little contextual information besides the name itself. And I’m sure other historians will have encountered those frustrating borderline cases: if those documents are all referring to the same person, you have a great story. But are you certain enough to rest a serious argument on that identification?

It’s true, for example, that death is a clincher: if you know this Robert Scott died in 1765, then he can’t be the same person as that Robert Scott mentioned in records as alive and well in 1775. (At the other end of the life-cycle, birth is equally conclusive, of course.)

But are you sure he died?

The OBP doesn’t in fact tell you that Robert was hanged (this is the misconception I mentioned above); like archival court records of the period, it normally records only the sentence that was passed. But many people sentenced to death in the 18th century were reprieved or pardoned. Unless you have corroborating evidence that the execution was carried out (and this does occasionally appear in OBP), you need to be cautious.

So a Robert Scott in the database after 1765 could be the same guy after all. Told you it was tricky.

(To be continued.)

A few links:

The linkage of historical records by man and computer (JSTOR subscription required)
A discourse on method, historical knowledge and information technology
Reconstructing historical communities
AHDS guide

(X-posted at EMN.)