Competition: US & Canada
Education: Princeton University
Sean Keilen was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. At an early age, he fell in love with the works of Ovid and Shakespeare. Years of Roman Catholic schooling were followed by an education in other pastoral locales–Williams College, Cambridge University, and Stanford–and later by appointments to the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and the College of William and Mary, where he is now Associate Professor of English. In addition to the Guggenheim, Keilen has been elected to fellowships at the National Humanities Center, the Institute of English Studies at the University of London, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Huntington, and the Newberry. He is a founding member of the Academy of Tall Ears and describes himself as a hermeneut, symposiarch, and arbiter elegantiarum, and as a teacher and critic.
Mr. Keilen’s first book, Vulgar Eloquence: On the Renaissance Invention of English Literature (Yale UP, 2006), explores the meaning that Latin literature may have had for a generation of writers who came to see ancient Rome from a subaltern perspective. It suggests that English literature, at the time of its inception in the late-sixteenth century, was the imaginative offspring of the Roman Conquest, a distant, historical coercion that brought eloquence to Britain by force. In Circle of Affection: Imitation and Tradition in Renaissance Poetry, a second book to be published by Yale, Mr. Keilen studies the simultaneous development, within the literary period that runs from Chaucer to Dryden, of a very different sense of tradition: one that emphasizes the harmony of ancient and modern writers, approaches interpretation in the spirit of charity and friendship, and establishes an authority for itself that is self-critical and inter-subjective rather than dogmatic.
Both of Mr. Keilen’s books concern an early period of English literature. However, in focusing on the way earlier writers read and understood the influential books they loved, he also addresses the discipline of literary studies as a whole, as practitioners of an art of interpretation. Following the example of Renaissance poets, his style of criticism balances a skeptical and scholarly attitude towards anachronism with a deep, even literary, appreciation for the aesthetic experiences that stimulate critical reflection in every reader. This is to advance the idea that the history of a work of art extends far beyond the moment in the past in which it was created, moreover that its life lasts only as long as it continues to be enjoyed. For Keilen, the future of literary studies depends upon engagements with literature in this expanded sense and upon experiments that blur the distinction, not between the humanities and the social and natural sciences, but between the humanities and the fine or creative arts.