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When James Lackington was drawn to Methodism in his youth, his religious enthusiasm led him on to a passion for books. “The enthusiastic notions which I had imbibed,” he recounted in the Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington (1791), “caused me to embrace every opportunity to learn to read, so that I could soon read the easy parts of the Bible, Mr. Wesley’s Hymns, &c. and every leisure minute was so employed.” A personal history of this kind was not exceptional among the contemporary Methodists. What made his life unusual was the fact that he not only began to expand the range of his reading, covering John Bunyan, James Hervey, Homer, Plutarch, Epicurus, and even Confucius, but also established himself as a successful bookseller with a considerable knowledge of the antiquarian market. His Memoirs offers a detailed testimony to the craving of working-class people for books and knowledge in the late eighteenth century. There certainly existed a barrier between working-class readers and educated, “polite” readers: Francis Place, for instance, was once advised by a friend to stop reading books, because his pedantic ambitions were evidently putting off customers who came to him as a tailor. Nevertheless, the class division did not deter many working-class men from assimilating the culture of middle-class intellectuals.

Paul Keen’s Crisis of Literature in the 1790s addresses important cultural and historical problems arising from such a dynamically expanding context of literature. The increasingly complicated relationships between books and the reading public have already been explored in the past, most successfully by Jon Klancher in The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (1987) and by Paul Magnuson in Reading Public Romanticism (1998). Based on ample materials and extensive research, Keen demonstrates a fresh, stimulating and profoundly insightful approach to this subject: he has gone further in illustrating how vast and complex the dimension of literature became in the volatile revolutionary period in England, even to the point of facilitating what he calls “a crisis of literature.”

In the mind of the late eighteenth-century public, “literature” did not necessarily mean poetry or fiction: it was predominantly associated with discourses on religion, politics and philosophy. “Literature” in this sense functioned as a public sphere in which people could share, exchange and dispute ideas and opinions as legitimate members of society. This is neither a simple re-confirmation of Jürgen Habermas’s notion of “public” nor a neo-historicist practice of discovering “displacements” in poetry. Keen takes a broad, uncanonical and historical approach, excavating those cultural institutions, printing markets, social and political restraints, and above all, the intense social conflicts and alliances, all of which prompted both the proliferation and crisis of literature. What has been conventionally seen as Romantic literature is re-positioned as a mere fraction of this expanding discursive universe. While circumscribing the border between “the textual” and “the literary,” Keen acutely points out that “literature” existed in the 1790s as a “heterogeneous site” of ideological contestation, cultural negotiation and power struggle. Discourses created, rather than simply responded to, “intellectual,” “spiritual” and “historical” needs among the readers by disseminating different forms of knowledge.

As the first two chapters of the book elucidate, the belief in the freedom of the press as the “grand palladium of British Liberty” pervaded society at that time. Literature provided a common ground for authors and critics to come together from various points on the political spectrum and enjoy unprecedented social and political benefits through diverse literary undertakings. It was middle-class reformers, particularly the Rational Dissenters, who assumed the role of public tribunals as “the HISTORIANS of the Republic of Letters,” attesting and legitimising the quality and public influence of each publication. Theirs was a kind of literary government, “sovereigns of reasons” in Samuel Pratt’s words, operating as a progressive nexus of scientific, political, and industrial radicalism.

Keen’s chief interest, however, lies in unearthing the dynamic power rising from the conflicting array of public debates. The Dissenting discourse formed merely part of it. The tradition of tavern debating, especially in London, constituted “counterpublics,” in which anyone who could afford sixpence for beer took part in the exchange of political opinions. The London Corresponding Society also encouraged all its members to read and discuss political issues freely at its Sunday night meetings. The multiple, overlapping, and frequently conflicting counterpublics emulated bourgeois ideals by employing an Enlightenment emphasis on the social importance of rational enquiry.

Autodidacts, such as Place and Thomas Hardy, emerged out of such a subterranean sphere into the arena of the Republic of Letters, but they were aware of invisible forces thwarting their desire for individual and social improvement. They repudiated the middle-class claim that the Republic of Letters was a genuinely open space facilitating liberty and equality. The prejudices they encountered were perpetuated by the wide cultural assumption of a distinction between “the polite” and “the vulgar.” The Analytical Review, for example, spurned “vulgar expressions or plebeian sentiments” in favour of “polite” language. While including the working class as part of their project for socio-political reform, middle-class reformers denied them membership in the Republic of Letters on the mere ground that those who toiled at menial jobs were too morally degenerate to be disinterested contributors to the general good. While the British government was nervous about political disturbances at home, middle-class authors were no less anxious about the threatening presence of plebeian writers who might appropriate their privileged authorial status and trespass in the sanctuary of the Republic of Letters. Working-class writers, on the other hand, were actually more enquiring than their complacent social superiors, despite their social disadvantages. Place insisted that the very willingness to continue in the routine work on behalf of themselves and their families was an honourable mark of decency, showing a moral capacity for pursuing general good with disinterestedness. The middle-class logic, in effect, stood on its head.

The rise of working-class authors in the 1790s, indeed, upset the general definition of literature. The prospect of open debate began to vex the Establishment, as a reform movement gradually gathered force and seemed to invoke a violent insurrection. Burke shrewdly discerned the real danger and political consequence of the increasing role of public discussions. The claim of “the political Men of Letters” to selfless commitments to the general good appeared to him as nothing but “barbarism.” His apprehension was recapitulated in T. J. Mathias’s The Pursuits of Literature (1794-97), which poignantly disclosed the ideological entanglement of the definition of literature:

LITERATURE, well or ill conducted, IS THE GREATEST ENGINE by which, I am fully persuaded, ALL CIVILIZED STATES must ultimately be supported or overthrown. .. . I am now more and more deeply impressed with this truth, if we consider the nature, variety and extent of the word, Literature.

In the eye of the government, radicals were threatening what they saw as the “legitimate” boundaries of literature through attempts at its democratisation. The trials of Daniel Isaac Eaton and Thomas Williams for publishing Paine’s and Pigott’s works can thus be seen as a desperate attempt on the part of the authorities to control the nature and extent of literature. Seditious writings, the freedom of discourse and the growth of the reading public were all important topics to be cross-examined during the trials.

There was no end to the debate on the nature of literature. In chapter 4, Keen does not neglect the important role played by women, who began in this period to react seriously against the assumption that women were no equals to men in reasoning faculty. For authors such as Wollstonecraft, Hays and Barbauld, women appeared doubly oppressed in terms of class and gender. “I am persuaded,” Wollstonecraft angrily wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), “that in the pursuit of knowledge women would never be insulted by sensible men, and rarely by men of any description.” Radical women were primarily inspired by the possibility of participating in the public sphere through publication. In publishing their work, they not only demonstrated their rational capacities, but also claimed a social and political recognition for their sex in general. They revised the established literary genres and styles for the purpose of addressing women’s issues of the day. Of course, not all female writers joined the feminist campaign. In Hannah More’s view, women were to be enlightened and reformed by the progressive effects of print culture, but not in order to participate in the arena of literature with an equal status to that of men. Maria Edgeworth and Richard Polwhele also caricatured radical women as Amazonians who “unsexed” themselves both in thought and behaviour. At the heart of many people’s growing anxiety about the supposedly increasing masculinity of women was a suspicion that manly virtues were giving way to a feminisation of manners and moral anarchy. Burke, again, wrote in 1796 that France was “in a state of complete sexual anarchy: prostitutes revered as goddesses, marriage reduced to the vilest concubinage.” The crisis of literature went deep and wide along with such social and cultural anxieties about the “defeminisation” of literature and the “demasculinisation” of manners.

Another large force was operating towards the “crisis of literature” in the genre of Oriental literature, as Keen’s final chapter shows in detail. British Enlightenment thinkers believed that “improvement” could be made even in colonies through a creation of the “Republic of Letters.” Sir William Jones asserted the role of literature as an aid in governing a colonised nation on liberal principles. The British Critic also aligned Enlightenment emphasis on the emancipatory power of knowledge with particular agents in the political struggle for the control of British India. In spite of such liberal principles, the republican belief in the improving effects of literature was ironically turned into a civilising imperative which could justify imperialism. What lay behind such attitudes was a misleading belief in the universality of literature.

Keen’s argument proves extremely valuable in examining the process through which what has been seen as Romantic literature emerged out of this “crisis of literature.” Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Keen argues in the Conclusion, was a zealous attempt to secure a place for himself in the changing universe of contemporary literature. While polite reformers adapted the discourse of classical republicanism to their idealistic Republic of Letters, Wordsworth emulated them in legitimising his own emphasis on the social role of poet and poetry. He presented an optimistic vision of a literary republic in which a harmonious unity would be created between the poet and the reader through a common, shared “language of men.” This rather optimistic and condescending attitude towards a mundane place within the working world was rooted in the middle-class consciousness of professional prestige and authorial status which polite reformers all shared and were eager to hold in face of rising working-class writers.

Keen’s scrupulous research offers invaluably profound suggestions in the fields of both historical and literary studies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The originality and insight of his thesis are clear and irrefutable, especially when we compare his position with that of Michel Foucault with regard to the production of discourse. “In every society,” Foucault once argued,

the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality.

Keen demonstrates that the number of procedures which controlled and distributed the production of literature was actually unlimited and vastly complex in the politically unsettled years of the last decade of the eighteenth century. Nor were the procedures by any means organized: the selection and distribution of “literature” was arbitrary and chaotic, and could not always be controlled either by government or even in terms of class distinctions. There was no way of evading the “ponderous, awesome” presence of the increasing reading public. The real danger was an inescapable “crisis of literature” itself, in which the boundaries of literature had become questioned, confounded and dissolved. The Crisis of Literature opens up new possibilities of re-reading literature within such a complicated historical context at the turn of the eighteenth century. The cultural significance of Romantic literature needs to be re-examined and re-defined along the lines Keen has shown us, taking into account the expanding universe of the reading public and the dynamically changing nature of literature.