Photo of Paul Keen

Paul Keen


Degrees:B.A. Honours (Dalhousie), M.A. (St. Andrews, U.K.), (British Columbia), D.Phil. (York, England)
Phone:613-520-2600 x 2333
Office:512 Tory Building

Research Interests

  • Romantic and eighteenth-century print culture
  • Literature and politics in the Romantic period
  • Pre-Confederation Canadian Print Culture
  • Current debates about the role and value of the humanities
  • Radical humanism

Current Research

My current project, The Joke of Literature: A History of the Essay in English, tracks the history of that most elusive of genres, “the essay,” over the three centuries since its meteoric rise in popularity after the appearance of The Spectator in 1711. G. K. Chesterton’s description of the essay as “the joke” of literature typified the genre’s uncertain history, always on the margins of those more ambitious forms of writing that could be embraced as “literary.” But this apparent limitation may help to explain both the essay’s enduring popularity across different historical periods and the renewed critical interest in the genre’s unruly status as “an experiment” or “a try-on,” as Montaigne called it, whose provisional nature unsettled the possibility of categorical certainties. Flaunting essays’ association with fragmentary and discontinuous writing that traded in the quotidian and the ephemeral, essay writers revelled in its democratic ethos, contrasting the immediacy of their everyday focus with the obscurity of more ponderous works that remained largely irrelevant to most readers. The project is grounded in my focus on the kinds of cultural work that authors’ alignment of their work with these apparently trivial characteristics could be seen to be doing in a succession of very different eras. This long historical context is a crucial part of this story because it highlights the multiple ways that authors adapted this association with miscellaneous forms of knowledge to the changing preoccupations and pressures of their era.

My most recent book, Imagining What We Know: A Defense of the Humanities in a Utilitarian Age, explores the ways that critics writing in the early nineteenth century developed arguments in favour of the humanities in the face of utilitarian pressures that dismissed the arts as self-indulgent pursuits incapable of addressing real-world problems. Its focus reflects the ways that similar pressures today have foregrounded all over again the question of how to make the case for the value of the humanities. Evidence of these problems surrounds us, but the core of my argument is that these pressures also constitute an important opportunity: a chance to re-imagine our answers to questions about the nature and role of the humanities, their potential benefits to contemporary life, and how we might channel these benefits back into the larger society. The good news is that in many ways, this self-reflexive challenge is precisely what the humanities have always done best: highlight the nature and the force of the narratives that have helped to define how we understand our society – its various pasts and its possible futures – and to suggest the larger contexts within which these issues must ultimately be situated. History repeats itself, but never in quite the same way: knowing more about past debates will provide a crucial basis for moving forward as universities, and the humanities in particular, position themselves to respond to new challenges during an age of radical change.

Awards and Honours

  • SSHRC Insight Grant ($102,684): The Joke of Literature: A History of the Essay in English, 1700-1940 (2023-28)
  • FASS Research Achievement Award (2021)
  • SSHRC Connections Grant ($7,500): Working Knowledge: Thinking Through Culture, 1780-1830 (2019)
  • SSHRC Insight Grant ($109,464), with Cynthia Sugars (PI): Imprinting Authority: Literature, Community, and Settler Legitimation in Pre-Confederation English (2017-22)
  • Davidson Dunton Research Lectureship (2013)
  • University Research Achievement Award (2011)
  • University Teaching Achievement Award (2003)
  • University Research Achievement Award (2001)
  • SSHRC Insight Development Grant, co-applicant with Cynthia Sugars: The Idea of the Author in Pre-Confederation Canada (2014-16)
  • SSHRC Insight Grant: Imagining What We Know: A Defence of the Humanities in a Utilitarian Age (2013-18)
  • SSHRC Standard Research Grant ($32,425): World of Wonders: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Print Culture (2010-13)
  • SSHRC Standard Research Grant: Fashionable Subjects: Literature, Commerce and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800 (2006-09)
  • SSHRC Standard Research Grant: Reading for Profit: Literature, Commerce and Fashion, 1750-1800 (2002-05)
  • SSHRC Conference Grant: “Wicked and Seditious Writings”: The Politics of Print Culture, 1750-1850 (2004)


The Humanities in a Utilitarian Age: Imagining What We Know, 1800-1850. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Mary Wollstonecraft in Context. Co-edited with Nancy E. Johnson. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Interacting with Print: Keywords for the Era of Media Saturation. One of 24 equal authors. Chicago University Press, 2018.

The Age of Authors: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Print Culture. Broadview Press, 2014.

Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Bookish Histories: Books, Literature and Commercial Modernity, 1700-1900. Co-edited with Ina Ferris. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Revolutions in Romantic Literature: An Anthology of Print Culture, 1780-1832. Broadview Press, 2004.

The Radical Popular Press in Britain, 1817-1821. Editor. 6 Volumes. Pickering & Chatto, 2003.

The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s: Print Culture and the Public Sphere. Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Recent Articles

“Periodical Writing and Colonial Citizenship in Pre-Confederation English Canada.” Co-written with Cynthia Sugars. Edinburgh Companion to British Colonial Periodicals. Edinburgh University Press. Forthcoming.

“Conservatism,” Mary Wollstonecraft in Context. Ed. Nancy E. Johnson and Paul Keen. Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 102-08.

“Introduction.” Co-written with Nancy E. Johnson. Mary Wollstonecraft in Context. Ed. Nancy E. Johnson. Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xxi-xxvii.

“Book-Making,” The Oxford Handbook of British Romanticism. Ed. David Duff. Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 437-48.

“Towards a Radical Humanism,” special issue of the Praxis series in Romantic Circles on “Raymond Williams and Romanticism,” ed. Jonathan Sachs and Jon Klancher (2018)

“Fashionable Subjects: Curious Exhibits and the Limits of Sociability,” The Sites of Romantic Sociability. Ed. Kevin Gilmartin. Cambridge UP, 2016.

“Radical Atlantic: Joseph Howe and the Culture of Reform,” Journal of Canadian Studies. Volume 48.3 (2014): 1-18.

“Imagining What We Know: The Humanities in a Utilitarian Age,” Humanities 3 (2014): 73-87. Special Issue: “The Challenges of the Humanities, Past, Present, and Future,” ed. Albrecht Classen.

‘The Good Things Above’: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi,The 18-Century Common (2013)

“Shelley on the Assembly Line: A Defence of the Humanities,” Keats-Shelley Review 26.2 (2012).

“‘Uncommon Animals’: Making Virtue of Necessity in the Age of Authors,” Bookish Histories: Books, Literature and Commercial Modernity, 1700-1900. Ed. Paul Keen and Ina Ferris. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Pp. 41-60.

“Foolish Knowledge: The Commercial Modernity of the Periodical Press.” European Romantic Review 19 (July 2008): 199-218.

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


“The Afterlives of the Near and Far: The Historicity of Trans-Atlantic Community in Pre-Confederation Periodical Writing,” ACSUS, Washington DC (November 2023)

“The Ghost of a Chance: Literature Against the Law,” Law, Culture, and the Humanities Conference, Toronto (June 2023)

“The Dust of Accidents: Self-Irony and Envisioned Communities in the Periodical Essays,” CSECS, Ottawa, ON (October 2022)

“Making America Gothic Again: Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America after January 6th,” International Gothic Association Conference, Dublin (July 2022)

“Imagining What We Know”: The Utility of the Humanities,” New Directions in the Humanities Conference, Granada, Spain (July 2019).

“‘When an University has been doing useless things for a long time, it appears at first degrading to them to be useful’: Lessons from the London University Debate,” “Working Knowledge: Thinking Through Culture, 1780-1830,” Ottawa (June 2019)

“‘The Philosopher in the Workshop’: Rethinking the Literatures of Knowledge and Power,” Symposium in Honour of Jerome McGann, Boston University (Spring 2019).

“‘Shooting Niagara’: The Humanities on the Edge”: Plenary Speaker, Canadian Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference, Niagara Falls (October 2018)

“John Stuart Mill’s ‘Transitional Age,’” NASSR, Ottawa (August 2017)

“‘Glad Enlightenment’”: Leigh Hunt’s Radical Humanism,” BARS, York, UK (July 2017)

“Joseph Howe and the Novascotian: Reimagining Literary Authority in Pre-Confederation Canada,” Co-presented with Cynthia Sugars, BARS, York, UK (July 2017)

“Making Nova Scotia Great Again: Revisiting Thomas McCulloch’s The Nature and Uses of a Liberal Education Illustrated,” Co-presented with Cynthia Sugars, Raddall Symposium:

“Thoughts from the Eastern Edge,” Wolfville, NS (July 2017)

“Culture and Anarchy: Thomas Arnold’s ‘Great World of Knowledge,’” ACCUTE, Calgary (May 2016)

“Reinventing the Humanities: Thomas Arnold’s ‘Great World of Knowledge,’” University of North Texas (April 2015)

“‘All I Ever Learned About Uselessness I learned From the Late Eighteenth Century,” Special panel on Useless Knowledge and the Eighteenth Century, MLA, Austin, Texas (January 2015)

“Conjuring Humanism: Southey, Macaulay, and the Invention of Tradition,” BARS, Cardiff, UK (July 2015)

“‘Who Do You Think Came to See Me?’ Blackwood’s Magazine and Early Canadian Satire,” Co-presented with Cynthia Sugars, BARS, Cardiff, UK (July 2015)

“Organizing Excess: Romantic Evolution and the Bibliographic Sublime,” North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, Washington, DC (July 2014)

“‘The Long Revolution: The Challenge of the Humanities Today,” New Directions in the Humanities Conference, Madrid (June 2014)

Keynote Speaker: “Recycled Paper: The Afterlives of Literature,” New Materialities Conference, Toronto (February 2010)

“The ‘Balloonomania’: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England,” the annual Ogden Glass Lecture, Bishop’s University (January 2005)

Recent Graduate Courses

  • The Production of Literature: Doctoral core course (ENGL 6000)
  • Revolutions in Romantic Literature: Debates in Romantic Print Culture (ENGL 5408)
  • Culture and Anarchy: Victorian Prose Writers (ENGL 5508)
  • Cultural Commerce: The Spectacle of Modernity in 18th-C Britain (ENGL 5402)