Keen, Paul, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800

Paul Keen, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) 268 pp. £20.99 Pb, $25.00 PDF, £62.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107016675

Paul Keen is Professor of English at Carleton University, with interests in the role of literature in society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The book under review is related to two other current projects:  one a book on how the humanities were defended in an age of utilitarian beliefs; the other, a book on how the idea of what came to be called ‘Canada’ was shaped by writers, including the shaping of domestic writing by politics. Literature, Commerce and the Spectacle of Modernity develops another aspect of the overall theme of how writers fashion society, and vice versa, this time by dealing with the shaping of authorship by commerce. The book builds on his earlier entertaining article on the eighteenth century phenomenon of  ‘Balloonomania’, in which he introduced us to the many familiar writers who, unexpectedly for this reviewer,  had an opinion on the latest, short-lived craze, for ballooning; writers such as Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, and Fanny Burney,1 an article which deals with the uneasy overlap between scientific endeavour and commercial exploitation. Keen’s book extends this approach, demonstrating how a variety of commercial spectacles influenced literary style.

Chapter One introduces Keen’s overarching theme of how rapidly changing fashions can shape written culture, and locates the project within a variety of theoretical approaches, alluding to writers such as Roger Chartier and Raymond Williams. Instead of simply regarding the text as an ‘abstract object’ removed from society,  or of simply looking at the ‘history of the book itself’, Keen places his research between these two exploratory methods of literary analysis.  He uses a rich array of sources to link the subjectivity of writers, who are shown to situate their own texts within the eighteenth century debate on change and modernity. Writers, he suggests, were using self-conscious language to debate the topic of ‘what literary professionalism meant’ (5). Each chapter takes a theme, linked to commerce, and traces how each was taken up by a variety of writers.

After the theoretical section, Chapter One itself continues with a section on ‘the Last Masquerade at the Pantheon’. The Pantheon of course is known to literary and cultural scholars as a famous London site for entertainment and intrigue and fashionable display, and is familiar to readers of Fanny Burney’s Evelina. Here Keen describes a writer, in 1782, who self-consciously advertises his own writings in terms of this kind of entertainment, and in doing so creates the image of a writer’s masquerade costume of labels listing all the literary fashions – ‘all the various topics which compose your miscellany’ – including ‘Science- Biography- Politics- Poetry- History- Anecdotes-Music’ (6).  However, the writer describes using this costume simply to collect ‘scraps of gossip’. Keen makes the point that the writer here is linking what were thought of as perhaps higher forms of literature with more shallow fashionable display.

Chapter Two dwells on ‘balloonomania’, linking fashion and science in the society of the 1780s. Keen perceptively links the concept of ballooning with the idea of ‘the paper age’: balloons were made of paper, and the new paper currency had been extended in the later eighteenth century. The story of ballooning links commerce with a variety of texts including broadsheet ballads, advertisements, pantomimes, and scientific treatises, even becoming the Frontispiece for the Encyclopaedia Britannia in 1797 (see here).

However, ballooning later came to be associated with the foreign ‘other’. As such it was seen as a threat to British values, with the associated science and technology dismissed as a form of ‘conjuring’, and French culture in turn seen as superficial and ‘flighty’. Thus language-use, culture, and politics become interlinked.

Chapter Three deals with ‘bibliomania’, the passion for book collecting which spread through England. Keen links it with commercial decisions on book format, and how this in turn was reflected in perceived value. He demonstrates how bookshops themselves could be seen as places  in which the overlap between ‘commerce and culture, fashion and knowledge’ can be seen; he quotes one consumer’s experience of book shopping where there was seen ‘ such abundance of choice as almost to make one greedy’ (80). Bookshops were also equated with a ‘chemist’s’ for ‘the disorders of the mind’ (80). Keen goes on to quote several writers who deal with the seemingly irreconcilable opposition to this idea – of books as a cure for the mind – with the contrasting idea of the ‘fever’ and ‘passion’ which could be induced by books themselves. Indeed, the excess collecting of books was described in 1791 almost as a form of ‘disorder of the mind’, ie ‘Bibliomania’, linking as it did what should have been seen as a quest for knowledge, with the extreme following of fashion.

Later sections deal with familiar concepts such as ‘Men of Taste’ and ‘The politics of politeness’,  and these settle the debate firmly within the bookish dialogue of college versus circulating library, and the role of the periodical in generating a new consensus of taste for the ‘middling sort’ (99). Later, writing itself is characterised as an almost industrial process.  Quoting an essay by D’Israeli titled ‘On Literary Industry’, in which he wrote against the idea of a writer requiring ‘genius’,  Keen contrasts this with Dr Johnson’s description of the many London writers who ‘live unrewarded and die unpitied’. The result, according to Keen, was that writers were aware of how they negotiated their own space within the commercial world of writing; they were aware of the  links with writing and ideas of ‘virtue’,  however this virtue is seen as deriving not from ‘above’, but rather from the sense of ‘mutual dependence’ of both writer and reader (150).

Later chapters deal with topics such as how the eighteenth century was seen as the ‘Age of Wonder’, in which science was seen as having a reciprocal relationship with literary thought.2 Although in a later section which deals with the reading public, Keen demonstrates how, in fact, this reciprocal arrangement was undermined, giving the  well-known example of the Learned Pig, later satirised by Rowlandson in the cartoon here:

The horse of knowledge and the learned pig,
The stone eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, ventriloquists …all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, wild beasts, puppet shows3

Wordsworth demonstrates his disapproval of this type of experience by describing them as ‘far-fetched, perverted things’ demonstrating both the ‘dulness’ [sic] and ‘madness of man’, as well as being representative of city life itself (175).  Keen uses the writings about the ‘learned pig’ to raise the problematic issue of the gullibility of the reading public.

It is impossible to do justice to the breadth of reference in this book; I suppose, thinking of the richness and variety of Keen’s sources, he could be seen as utilising a variety of Clifford Geertz’s ‘thick description’.4  Every page has an entertaining and pertinent story, and every story makes one want to return to the primary sources. There is also a detailed bibliography for those who wish to pursue differing element of his debate.

In reading this book this reviewer was led to ponder the many similarities and overlaps between the eighteenth century and today in regard to the issues of presenting ideas . Indeed, Keen himself makes a similar connection in Chapter One, when he introduces the historical concern with rapidly changing fashions and the place of culture within it, linking this to our own current concerns with information overload in the age of technology. Other areas which perhaps can be seen to resonate today include the contrasting terms of wonder and science, alluded to above. A brief look at Dr Johnson’s dictionary definitions of ‘wonder’ and ‘science’ shows that, for some writers of the time, the two stood in an oppositional relation. Indeed, an unscientific use of the Google tool ‘ngram’ shows that it was in the later eighteenth century that the idea of ‘wonder’ was overtaken by the concept of science. This contrasts starkly with today, when scientists are concerned with the general public’s undermining of the enlightenment approach to thought, in both journalism and in advertising, and its replacing with what The New Scientist terms ‘fruitloopery’. In addition, Keen deals with the historical gullibility of the reading public, which I suppose has echoes in our own time with the recent concept of fake news. The final section, ‘Afterword’, reignites the debate of the 1790s in which radicals linked the following of fashion to luxury. This debate too has reverberations today, with the questioning of the latest word- culture of vlogging, and its apparently narcissistic and superficial content, in yet another consumer revolution which is shaping culture.

Anna Brunton, Kellogg College, Oxford

1 Paul Keen, ‘The “Balloonomania”: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006): 507-535

2 Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder : How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: HarperPress 2011)

3 William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805 text, Bk 7, ll 682-687

4 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books 1973)