Making Land, Making People: Rhetorics of Value and Improvement in Early Modern English Literature
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Making Land, Making People: Rhetorics of Value and Improvement in Early Modern English Literature


“Making Land, Making People: Rhetorics of Value and Improvement in Early Modern English Literature,” explores early modern English conceptions of land use and agriculture as they appear in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century agricultural treatises and poetry. I argue that the overlap we see between agriculture and poetry reveal how early modern English conceptions of land, property, and possession functioned within genealogies of racial capitalism. Despite the popularity of ecocritical studies of early modern literature, little attention has been given to how the ecological transformations in the early modern period— especially in terms of agriculture— can help us understand the legacies of colonialism and the formation of racialized difference. My study is the first to interrogate the relationship between literature and agriculture through an integrated framework of ecocriticism and premodern critical race studies. Central to my argument is the premise that regimes of land use in the early modern period allow us to see the imbrications of ecological control and rhetorics of difference and savagery that undergird the nascent English colonial project and infuse English Renaissance poetry and drama. Throughout Making Land, Making People, I make the subtexts of expropriation, appropriation, and subjugation in references to land use in early modern poetry and agricultural treaties my main focus. In this way, my dissertation invites an understanding of early modern ecology as interpenetrated with the formation of racial capitalism. In so doing, I offer a compelling account of the imbricated nature of ecology, racial capitalism, and colonialism in early modern literature. After an introduction that situates early modern husbandry within the formation of agrarian capitalism and its vectors of resource extraction and racialization, each chapter of Making Land, Making People pairs a concept of land use management with a consideration of poetic form. Chapter 1, “Country House Poems and the Mystification of Seventeenth-Century English Land Valuation,” analyzes the concepts of value and value-creation in early modern estates that we can find in seventeenth-century surveying manuals and the country house poem. This chapter proffers an historical materialist framework for the dissertation in order to elucidate how representations of land, land use, and agricultural productivity in the surveying manual and the country house poem both respond to what we may understand are the beginning conditions of the capitalist mode of production in the early modern period. In Chapter 2, “The Wild and the Sown: Husbandry and Colonization in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene,” I posit that Books 5 and 6 of Spenser’s epic reveal that land and land use were essential to the English colonial ethos. Through these latter portions of The Faerie Queene, which many scholars argue are directly related to Spenser’s time as an English colonial officer in Ireland, we can see that the English colonial project relied on a binary opposition between properly used land (in state-sanctioned plantations) and improperly used land (through either extreme wealth extraction or nomadism). A version of this chapter is currently in preparation for publication. Finally, in chapter 3, “ ‘A Most Majestic Vision’: Plantations and the Political Ecology of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” I attend to the ways land dispossession operates as the central node of the colonial dynamics of the play and in turn read Caliban’s dispossession in terms of early modern notions of land rights and property. My argument offers a novel way to understand this play and its well-studied colonial discourses through political ecology and the tensions between the English forms of land use that the plantation form mobilizes and the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Together, these three chapters form a fresh perspective on ecocritical readings of early modern literature by studying early modern English land practices in the context of property formation and colonial land dispossession, to provide a richer understanding of the ecological vectors of racialized capitalism in this period.

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