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 ...