Keen, Paul. Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 250 pp.

Lara Apps


In this study, Paul Keen focuses on a short period of English cultural history, not in order to explain how things changed in that time, but, as he puts it, to examine “how people living in an earlier period coped with change, or at least how they coped with seemingly endless talk of change” (1). Keen connects this work clearly and deliberately to present concerns about the rate of cultural and technological change, drawing on historian Robert Darnton’s insight that turning to history can offer a critical perspective on the issue of how to manage such changes. In a 2008 essay, “The Library in the New Age,” Darnton argues that “every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.” A longer view helps us to see historical continuities in our relationship to information and to become more effective readers who recognize the inherently unstable and constructed nature of texts and the information that texts convey. Keen’s study of the late eighteenth century demonstrates precisely the kind of continuity that Darnton describes, revealing several ways in which that period, “like our own, was haunted by a sense of its own extraordinary modernity” (1). Without diminishing the range of responses to the pressures of British commerciality on cultural issues, Keen emphasizes the ways in which writers engaged actively and productively in the process of defining new positions within the changing cultural landscape.


The development of commerce and the ‘consumer revolution’ in the eighteenth century are well-known phenomena. Keen focuses on reactions to these developments, explaining in the introductory chapter that the narrative of progress had a dark side, which was characterized by concern over “personal and civic corruption” and “the threat of effeminacy” (10). Critics of commerce and the ‘consumer revolution’ argued that excessive interest in fashion was vain, selfish, and effeminate, and that the new, commercialized social order fetishized novelty and was “committed to arousing rather than regulating desire” (10-11). As Keen reminds us, literature and reading were key components of the commercialized order, which implied, necessarily, a different understanding of the roles of author and reader, as well as the relationship between them. Keen’s interest ranges beyond books and other standard literary forms to explore how other cultural phenomena expressed and informed what he calls an

            emergent form of cultural self-understanding … rooted in an unprecedented sense of the contingency of knowledge which simultaneously unleashed new anxieties about the social order and created fresh opportunities to conceptualize the role of literature in ways that resonated with these developments by embracing that sense of contingency as its most fundamental characteristic (16).


Through the five central chapters, Keen explores the ballooning craze of the 1780s, the “rage for books,” (42) literary magazines, the professionalization of authors, the fashion for spectacles and “wonders,” and the reading public. There is not enough space here to consider all of Keen’s topics; a summary of two chapters will provide a sense of his approach.


Keen uses the ballooning craze—balloonomania—as a way of examining indirectly the so-called bibliomania of the same period. In the detailed and engrossing second chapter, “Balloonomania: The Pursuit of Knowledge and the Culture of the Spectacle,” he argues that the fascination with hot air balloons, which began in 1783 in France, expressed both the idealistic hopes of the era and an awareness of commercial culture’s instabilities and reliance on appearances. As he puts it, ballooning circulated through such different cultural registers as scientific treatises, satirical prints, poems, and fashion accessories. This made it “a cultural lightning rod for the broader anxieties and aspirations of the day,” (44) which generated both approval and criticism. “The scientific achievement of flight was tempered by skepticism regarding ballooning’s utility; was it, perhaps, merely a spectacle to amuse the gullible masses? Was it “a testimony to the manly achievements or the luxurious effeminacy of the age?” (69). In other words, should ballooning be taken seriously or not?


In the third chapter, “Bibliomania: The Rage for Books and the Spectacle of Culture,” Keen argues that similar tensions animated late eighteenth-century debates over modern literature and the “rage for books” (90). Books could have healing powers, but at the same time, they could be inflammatory, arousing uncontrollable passions or even causing madness. Book collectors as well as readers avid for the latest novel might be unable to discern the true worth (or lack thereof) of a book, and thus be cheated by frauds. Another effect of bibliomania was the “rage of publication,” which, according to critics, “seduced many would-be authors into making a spectacle of themselves” (91). Keen’s analysis illuminates the cultural importance not just of authors and texts, but of the material aspects of books as well, showing that even the “excessive margins” (92) of modern novels drew fire. The concept of taste, and the position of the man of taste, arose as mediators that established and maintained standards and exercised influence.


Keen concludes, in a brief afterword, that confusions and anxieties surrounding commerce, fashion, and the contingency of knowledge became fused with anti-revolutionary fears in the 1790s and were expressed in debates over the definition of literature. He suggests that late eighteenth-century Britons experienced both a sense of “dazzling immediacy, fuelled by so much getting and spending,” (206) and a haunting fear that there was no longer any solid basis for assessing or knowing anything. The literary world negotiated this instability by transforming it into a virtue: “Reconfiguring the experience of epistemological failure in the psychologized terms of the sublime, literature (and especially poetry) converted a crisis of subjectivity into a triumph of the imagination” (207). In short, Keen argues that Romanticism arose in response to the tensions generated by commerciality. He does not, unfortunately, develop the implications for (post) modern readers as fully as one would like, given the encouragement to identify with the concerns of the late eighteenth century. Keen ends simply with the advice that we must learn to adapt to discontinuities, instability, and the fundamentally haunted nature of modern society.


This is an exceptionally well-written book that will be useful to both historians and literary scholars. While grounded in such fields of cultural history as the book, taste, and consumption, the text is never overwhelmed by Keen’s references to other scholars; these are, rather, helpful signposts indicating which theoretical perspective is in play and how Keen is building on previous scholarship. One puzzling gap in Keen’s approach is the almost total absence of religion. There is a brief reference to the issue of enthusiasm within religious discourses and how concerns over religious enthusiasm metamorphosed into concerns about the various manias of the late eighteenth century; however, Keen effectively ignores the ways in which religion and religious debates might have shaped the reactions to commercial culture that he is studying. This criticism aside, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity is an enjoyable and stimulating analysis of an aspect of eighteenth-century culture that is deeply relevant to our hyper-linked, inter-connected, globalized, and intensely commercialized world.


Works Cited

Darnton, Robert. “The Library in the New Age.” New York Review of Books. 12 June 2008. Web. 20 November 2014.



Lara Apps is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Alberta. Her research examines the construction of atheist identities in eighteenth-century England and France, paying particular attention to the dimensions of gender and class. She is the co-author, with Andrew Gow, of Male witches in early modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2003).


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