I am at work on a new book titled Improving Literature: Media, Environments, and the Eighteenth-Century Improvement Debate. In the early seventeenth century, “improvement” meant the development, beautification, and monetization of land; by the end of the eighteenth, everything was apparently in need of improving: estates, agriculture, trade, nations, morals, literature, language, the law, the arts, the sciences, the self. Improving Literature shows the centrality of the concept of “improvement” to eighteenth-century thought, arguing that it explains major trends in the period better than the post-facto designation of “Enlightenment.” Focusing on ephemeral everyday texts like journals and periodicals, I explore how colonial subjects, the enslaved, and women were not only subjected to “improvements” but also reclaimed the concept for their own purposes.
My exemplary figure for what I am calling the “book history of improvement” is the Romantic-era landscape gardener Humphry Repton, who invented the form of the before-and-after illustration to expand the concept of improvement even as he worked in its traditional realm, the renovation of houses and gardens. By illustrating improvement in the form of the before-and-after drawing, Repton’s books made environmental transformations seem easy and even inevitable—in the process, making improvement graspable as a concept.