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
  • The cultural impact of commercial modernity
  • Changing constructions of authorship

Current Research

My new book, entitled The Humanities in a Utilitarian Age: Imagining What We Know, 1800-1850, is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in their “Campaign for the Humanities” series and their “Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print” series. It 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. 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.

My current project, The Idea of the Author in Pre-Confederation Canada, which I am co-writing with Cynthia Sugars, explores the ways that early nineteenth-century writers in what was to become known as Canada formulated ideas about the nature and importance of a domestic literature in the British American colonies, and, what was inseparable from that, about what it meant to be a professional author.  D.C. Harvey’s description of Nova Scotia in these years as a period of “intellectual awakening” applied to other regions equally well. It was a period of deep unrest (symbolized most dramatically by the 1837-38 uprisings) but also of cultural and intellectual fermentation; a time when writers from a range of cultural and political perspectives raised important questions about the public worth of a domestic literature, the status of the authors who produced it, and the challenges to colonial cultural production.

Our project explores these developments by concentrating on four specific areas: (1) the ways that writers in this period sought to articulate a broader public role for themselves as pedagogical agents, extending “rational entertainment” and “instruction” to the “desk of the Merchant and the fireside of the Farmer,” as Joseph Howe proclaimed in the Novascotian; (2) authors’ emphasis on literature’s power to foster contending forms of regional and proto-national community; (3)  the emergence of a new understanding of “the literary” within the broader print culture of the period in ways that reinforced these pedagogical and community-building efforts even as it helped to legitimize settler autonomy; and (4) the complex ways that these debates were shaped by a transnational flow of ideas, images, and publishing opportunities between pre-Confederation English Canada, Britain, and the United States.

We are especially interested in the ways that emerging ideas about literature were shaped by the tensions inherent in these dynamics. Each of these impulses reflected value judgements which, in a colonial context, were animated by a radical ambivalence: these debates were bound up with efforts to foster a domestic literature as a way of resisting Britain’s imperial authority, but they also served as a crucial part of the larger struggle to legitimize settler hegemony. Our argument is that this ambivalence was at the very core of these debates. The more powerfully these writers aligned themselves with what they hailed as the progressive force of enlightened democratic views, the more this reformist ethos reinforced an implicit and sometimes open sense of their superiority to non-British subjects (Indigenous peoples and non-British immigrants).

Honours and Awards

  • 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, forthcoming.

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

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

“‘The Philosopher in the Workshop’: Rethinking the Literatures of Knowledge and Power,” Studies in Romanticism. Special Issue: “Romanticism in a New Key.” Forthcoming.

“Conservatism,” Mary Wollstonecraft in Context. Ed. Nancy E. Johnson and Paul Keen. Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming.

“Introduction.” Co-written with Nancy E. Johnson. Mary Wollstonecraft in Context. Ed. Nancy E. Johnson. Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming.

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

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

“‘Extravagance, Tea, and Trumpery’: Irony and Education in Thomas McCulloch’s Stepsure Letters,” Studies in Canadian Literature. Co-written with Cynthia.

“‘No London street-Arabs for me’: The Unnatural Orphan in Anne of Green Gables,” L.M. Montgomery and the Matter of Nature. Ed. Rita Bode and Jean Mitchell. McGill-Queens University Press, 2018. Pp. 157-70.

“Against Utilitarianism: Two Hundred Years of ‘Useful Knowledge,'” Romantic Circles.

“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.

Invited Papers

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

The Use-Value of Romanticism,” Brigham Young University (November 2018)

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

“Reinventing the Humanities,” University of North Texas (April 2015)

“The Future of the PhD in the Humanities,” OURA, Toronto (February 2014)

“Hanging by a Thread: Social Media and Literary Value in a London Field, August 1754,” Davidson Dunton Lecture, Carleton University (April, 2013)

“Fashionable Subjects: Curious Exhibits and the Limits of Sociability,” Romantic Sociability Workshop, Huntington Library (January 2012)

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

Seminar Leader: Invited to lead a seminar on my current work-in-progress in the Seminar Series at the 2008 NASSR Conference in Toronto (August 2008)

“‘With Seeming Inattention’: The Politics of Manners in the Late Eighteenth-Century Periodicals,” Concordia University English Department Lecture Series (September 2005)

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

“Fashionable Subjects: The Making of Modern Literature,” Digital Retroaction Workshop, University of California at Santa Barbara (September 2004)

Papers Presented at Recent Conferences

“Imagining What We Know”: The Utility of the Humanities,” 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)

“Joseph Howe and the Novascotian: Reformist Struggles and Trans-Atlantic Romanticism,” ACCUTE, Vancouver (May 2019)

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

“The Elephant in the Room,” Public Humanities Roundtable, 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)

“”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)

“Local Knowledge and International Celebrity: Alice Munro’s Paradox of Home,” Alice Munro and the Anatomy of the Short Story Conference, Italian Association of Canadian Studies. Naples, Italy (October 2014)

“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)