Abney Salomon on Dodds, 'The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh'

Phil Dodds
Charlotte A. Abney Salomon

Phil Dodds. The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh. Studies in the Eighteenth Century Series. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2022. Illustrations. 384 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-703-2

Reviewed by Charlotte A. Abney Salomon (Science History Institute) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58012

In the eighteenth century, Edinburgh became a capital of intentional progress. The powerful personalities of the Scottish Enlightenment were committed to the improvement of society, convinced of the value of rational and purposeful design; their most successful ideas would swiftly go on to shape the economic, social, and physical world at home and for those within reach of imperial Britain and beyond into the nineteenth century. This improvement drive not only was an intellectual enterprise for elite and famous thinkers but was also realized materially, directly, and within their immediate surroundings from the start, as Phil Dodds describes in his new monograph, The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh.

This book delves into the geographic work that imposed new order onto the places it described. Beginning with the planning of Edinburgh’s New Town and the map-based enclosure and reclassification of common space that made it possible, the first half of the narrative then moves outward in space to detail the surveying methods and correspondence networks that served to incorporate distant Scottish regions into the project. The second half examines the popular travel literature that provided accounts by which to create a national idea through comparison and contrast, followed by the literary practices of compilation and synthesis through which the entire world became knowable and manageable. The author introduces his study by describing its central data source, the sales records of a busy central Edinburgh book shop from 1770 through 1810. Across these forty years the author traces the purchases of over ten thousand of what he terms “geographical publications,” including a variety of material wide enough to include not only atlases and instructional guides for mapmaking but also expedition reports, tourist guides, and city plans for places around Scotland and around the world. Within the book’s chapters, the author goes far beyond charting the circulation of the material through these ledgers, additionally providing a detailed picture of the intent, construction, and impact of various specific publications.

The structure of the book cleverly mirrors its content and bolsters its theses. The book is composed of sixteen short chapters, evenly assembled into four thematic parts, and each of these parts begins with a helpful summary introduction. In content, the four parts address the construction and impacts of geographies of Edinburgh, its environs, remote parts of Scotland, and the wider world, respectively. Each chapter, on the other hand, pulls the focus back down to individual actors, whether mapmakers, authors, merchants, collectors, or other influential figures. This series of changes in perspective gives the reader the sense of zooming in and out spatially at neatly scaled stages, a sense reinforced by a conclusion that telescopes the argument back in from the global to the center of the city where it began, recapitulating the book in reverse order before offering closing thoughts. As a whole, the structure serves to buttress the author’s expansive conclusions from one section to the next while the sources and the narrative remain anchored at the human scale of the Edinburgh bookshops.

Beyond its central interventions in the history of geography, this work will be of interest to those engaging with the history of urban planning and environmental engineering for its detailed analysis of Enlightenment planners’ rapid and confident shaping of the city and outlying land under their control. Additionally, historians of print culture in spatial and geographical works will find that the studies here engage with the content of publications, their authors’ bodies of work, and their materiality both in production and in use. The author frequently highlights the social groups of origin of his actors—as well as those his actors actively exclude from providing input—and the book analyzes publications created by, used by, and affecting women and families of various circles and inhabitants of rural areas in addition to Edinburgh’s men of Enlightenment.

The chapters comprise around ten to twelve pages of text on average, frequently augmented by illustrations, excerpts, and tables. As one might expect of a monograph composed of so many discrete studies, some chapters establish and support stronger historical positions while others serve to provide more case detail in service of the section as a whole. However, I would suggest that the variety of the chapters’ approaches, taken together with their brevity and depth of research, speak to their utility beyond citation; they would be highly suitable as reading and discussion assignments in courses in a wide range of relevant fields.

As the scope of the narrative expands in the book’s later sections, the chapters begin to feel as if they should be proportionally more substantial to support the increased magnitude of the effects they describe. The final chapter in particular seems to raise more important questions than it answers as it foregrounds the intellectual influence of Scottish-trained physicians and other professionals as they went on to travel the world, often as part of colonial projects and even in direct service of the slave trade. Within its own stated goals, though, this monograph as a whole is entirely successful, providing an engaging, detailed analysis of the geographical work through which the individuals of Enlightenment Edinburgh came to conceive of their home and its place in the world.

Citation: Charlotte A. Abney Salomon. Review of Dodds, Phil, The Geographies of Enlightenment Edinburgh. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58012

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