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Paul Keen. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s – Print Culture and the Public Sphere

Susanne SCHMID
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Paul KEEN, The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s - Print Culture and the Public Sphere. Oxford University Press, 2006, 299 pp., €34.74, ISBN 0-521–02722–5.

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1Keen’s impressive study commences with the seemingly straightforward question of what actually constituted “literature” in the 1790s. The answer, however, is anything but simple, as the 299 pages, packed with information, prove to their readers: By no means did “literature” only relate to poetic works in a narrow sense – on the contrary, “literature” comprised texts in any subjects and on any topic, ranging from theology to natural philosophy. In the 1790s, which were revolutionary both through the events in France and through the considerably improved access to information, the concepts of “literature”, likewise of the “reading public”, were still in the making and therefore hotly contested sites of struggle. Keen not only situates literature in the public sphere but reads it “as a public sphere” (10). His methodological framework combines Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, recent challenges to the concept of “Romanticism” (for example McGann’s Romantic Ideology), and the institutional history of English Literature, thereby situating his object of enquiry in a socio-historical field. The study falls into two parts: “Enlightenment”, which focuses on the function of literature and of the man of letters in society, followed by “Marginalia”, which presents three types of marginalized authors: the poor, women, and those who dealt with the empire.

2While conservative critics voiced anxieties about new strata of readers, whose education, they argued, did not make them fit readers of a potentially seditious literature, radicals and reformers cherished the ideal of literature as public sphere. Godwin described literature as an engine and thereby emphasized the aspects of exchange, cohesion, and communication. In the reformers’ view, which was based on an “equation between print and the public good” (27), vice would be the result of ignorance, which, however, could be remedied through an improved access to information. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, technical advances in printing facilitated the circulation of printed matter: books, pamphlets, and journals. The dissenting academies contributed to the spread of knowledge, to the growth of literature as public sphere. However, idealistic views and hopes for change were countered by conservative critics’ fears of unrestrained enquiry and of the abuse of reading. Burke envisioned a nightmarish and destructive literature that would facilitate conspiracies and lead to unrestrained action. In practical terms, a distinction was made between publications that were merely speculative as opposed to those that were seditious and meant to inflame the minds. For example, Paine’s writings were seen as pernicious because they were often circulated in abridged versions, which could easily be acquired by new audiences eager for information but without the necessary education. The 1790s persecution trials bore witness to the conservative critics’ unrestrained fears.

3At the same time, writers began to redefine themselves as industrious professionals. While rejecting aristocratic titles, they would nevertheless use the vocabulary of nobility in order to emphasize their enhanced status and, in addition, would imitate an aristocratic air of “disinterested concern for the general good” (87). Many of these authors were in fact middle-class, often from dissenting backgrounds, and fashioned themselves as quasi-aristocratic men of leisure yet also as motivated, intellectually capable, and therefore imbued with moral integrity. Their relationship with commercial sector was ambivalent because they needed commerce to ensure that their writing was marketed yet attempted to remain aloof from its taints. While fantasies of the classification of knowledge – images of the library, the encyclopedia, the bibliography – worked towards fulfilling these authors’ dreams of acknowledgment, the inflation of print also led to a flood of negative responses. Critics complained that the quality of published writing was uneven and that the public did not succeed in separating the good from the bad. If literature degenerated into fashion it would become a threat to intellectual integrity – especially novels, sermons, travel writing, anthologies. To a certain extent, periodicals, which organized the mass output through reviews, were regarded as a viable solution to the problems produced by a literary mass market. This first part of Keen’s study is innovative because he forces his readers to rethink concepts of literature, audience, and authorship.

4Part two focuses on three types of readers, writers, and activists from the margin: the poor, women, and orientalists. Even though both Keen’s material and his conclusions are worth considering, the second part, which explains three “emergent subaltern publics” (141), sometimes tries to do too much by following in the (fashionable) footsteps of working-class history, gender studies, and (post-) colonial studies. Among the lower classes, the growing disposition towards reading led to a longing for improvement. Keen analyses the self-fashioning of numerous self-taught activists, among whose favourite gesture was the emphasis on the unsteady nature of intellectual progress. If fear of insurrection led to harsh criticism of the reading poor, masculine women, who participated in a field reserved for men, caused even more anxieties. The revolution in female manners was often seen as threatening in the context of the French Revolution because manly women seemed to rebel both against the social and the natural order. If women were to have an Enlightenment, it was certainly not the same as the one enjoyed by men. In his final chapter, Keen turns to those who wrote the empire and appropriated artifacts and texts from the colonies. As the Enlightenment and the diffusion of reason coincided with Britain’s growing imperial presence, parallels between learning and colonization were drawn by some of these writers, particularly as literature and its “redemptive power” (211) played an important role in colonization. The study ends on a reading of Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface.

5This is a work of considerable scholarship and constitutes an important contribution to the canon debate because it analyses the emergence of authorship together with reading audiences and the literary market, proving how dynamic the 1790s contexts were. Keen’s explanation of gestures such as the middle-class author’s aristocratic intellectual self-fashioning or the working reader’s progress in the face of impediments are noteworthy observations and deserve further analysis. Again and again, Keen proves the necessity to consider popular reading matter, and periodicals in particular. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s complements works such as Klancher’s The Making of English Reading Audiences, St Clair’s The Reading Nation, and Kramnick’s Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism.

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Susanne SCHMID, « Paul Keen. The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s – Print Culture and the Public Sphere »e-Rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Susanne SCHMID

Frankfurt am Main

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