David Alff

David Alff.

David Alff

David Alff

Director of Undergraduate Studies
Associate Professor


17th and 18th-century Anglophone writing and performance, infrastructure, public works, projects and projection

Contact Information

441 Clemens Hall

Phone: (716) 645-0695


Courses Taught


“Trespassing in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Fall 2016

“The Publique Eighteenth Century,” Fall 2015

“Improvement in Eighteenth-Century British Culture,” Fall 2013


“Eighteenth-Century Literature: Poetry”

“Eighteenth-Century Literature: Fiction”

“Eighteenth-Century Literature: Restoration Drama”

“Highways, Sewers, Ports: Building Modern Britain 1660-1820,” Spring 2013

Works in Progress

My first book, The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) investigates the origins of projects, concrete yet incomplete efforts to advance British society in a period defined by revolutions of finance and agriculture, the rise of experimental science, and the establishment of constitutional monarchy. Then, as now, the word “project” meant a proposal for action and the possibility of action itself. By “proposal” I mean a document drafted to make things happen, while “action” signifies the happening of those things through events like the enclosure of land, the construction of hospitals, and the founding of colonies. The Long Eighteenth Century saw thousands of endeavors called “projects,” but relatively few materialized, leaving scores of defunct visions, from Daniel Defoe’s attempt to farm cats for perfume to Mary Astell’s proposal to charter a college for women. When a small number of ventures succeeded in fields like banking and postal delivery, their project status -- their ability to come or not come into being -- was typically forgotten, as uncertain endeavor hardened into the empirical fact of achievement. The project, I contend, remains an elusive concept today because it is always turning into something else or into nothing at all. My research project into projects has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, and the SUNY Buffalo Humanities Institute.  

My next book project will investigate a set of ideas so fundamental to western society that they appear to resist interpretation. Entitled “Rights of Way,” this manuscript will explore the literary, legal, and political history of how societies determine who and what can go where, with particular emphasis on Britain and its colonies in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Current areas of inquiry include the cultural history of trespass, the graduation of highways from guarantees of passage to built infrastructure, the role of literary writing in the development of forestry law, and the early modern back-story of what we now call eminent domain. An excerpt of a future chapter appeared in PMLA (October 2017) under the title, “Before Infrastructure: The Poetics of Paving in John Gay’s Trivia,” and another essay drawn from this project, “Richard Savage and the Poetry of Public Works,” will appear in ELH.

Selected Publications

The Wreckage of Intentions book cover.
  • The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730
  • “Richard Savage and the Poetry of Public Works” in ELH (under contract)
  • "Before Infrastructure: The Poetics of Paving in John Gay’s Trivia," in PMLA (Fall 2017)
  • "Swift's Solar Gourds and the Rhetoric of Projection," in Eighteenth-Century Studies 47.3 (Spring 2014)
  • "Why No One Can Mend the Slough of Despond." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 54.3 (Fall 2013)
  • "Satirical Drama in History," forthcoming in MLA Options for Teaching Satire (Modern Language Association).
  • "Swift's World of Gulliver's Travels," forthcoming in The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds, ed. Mark Wolf (Routledge, 2016).
  • "Annus Mirabilis in 1688: Repackaging a Year of Wonders." Restoration: Studies in English Literature 35.2.
  • "Unearthing a "Universal Correspondence: Defoe's Roman Roads Project." Topographies of the Imagination: New Approaches to Daniel Defoe, ed. Katherine Ellison, Kit Kincade, and Holly Faith Nelson (AMS Press, February 2014)