Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Alison Conway


In this dissertation, I analyze scenes of encounter between human beings and human dust in eighteenth-century texts. Ploughmen exhume bones and armor in the arable, consumers taste other people’s excrement in their vegetables, and improvers lime the earth to break down ancient corpses. In process, I find that eighteenth-century British authors recognized the soil as an agent of continuity, with the capacity to preserve, mobilize, and disseminate the material constituents of identity from one body into another. At times, the soil’s powerful co-operative agency is threatening to the integrity of the human self, but I argue that authors negotiate between the threat posed by dirt’s unknowing agency, and the opportunities that such a mediator affords for bridging the aporia wrought by death, partition, and forgetfulness. Exploring agricultural treatises, sermons and natural philosophy as well as georgic poetry, Restoration drama, novels and travelogues, this dissertation engages with new-materialist perspectives on literary history, arguing that eighteenth-century authors saw in soil not just a symbol for regeneration or fragmentation, but a material agent in the production of identity. At the same time, it offers historically focused readings of each text, showing how authors rely on the agency of soil to resolve particular challenges to continuity.