Literature and Celebrity: Eighteenth Century and Beyond
Abstract and Keywords
For decades, scholars have defined the terms “literature” and “celebrity” in opposition to each other, arguing that literary fame is based on true greatness that immortalizes its authors whereas celebrity is superficial and ephemeral. The job of a literary critic, then, is to distinguish true literary genius from mere celebrity. This chapter challenges that long-held distinction. It traces the origins of both literary criticism and modern celebrity back to eighteenth-century England and explores how and why literature and celebrity so often intertwine. At the same time, it examines the ways in which the growing discipline of performance studies—with its valuing of the ephemeral—opens new paths for studying the influence of celebrity on literature, and it suggests several areas for future research.
Let’s begin with Exhibit A: an autopsy report included in Benjamin Victor’s 1733 Memoirs of the Life of Barton Booth, which challenges our collective cultural assumption that celebrity is only skin-deep. During his lifetime, Booth was one of the most famous actors in London: he was known in particular for his roles as tragic heroes and dashing rakes, for his stint as the manager of Drury Lane Theater during some of its most profitable years, and for his torrid affairs with the era’s most admired actresses (only some of whom he married). At his death in 1733, however, Booth was immortalized in a hastily written biography and in the autopsy report that described his “Rectum, with the other Intestines” being “ript open with a Pair of Scissars, in which was found very little Excrement, but the whole Tract on the inside, lin’d with Crude Mercury divided in Globules, about the Bigness of Pins Heads.”1 Defying assumptions that celebrity is superficial, Booth’s biographer seems awfully eager to get under his celebrity’s skin.
Victor’s preoccupation with Booth’s interior seems strange (and somewhat gruesome) until we start reading other English actors’ biographies from the period, quite a few of which include similarly visceral details. Or until we consider even more recent examples, such as the internet clamor for Michael Jackson’s autopsy report after his death (under mysterious circumstances) in 2009. If celebrity is fleeting, as so many have claimed, how do we explain this ongoing interest, over the past 300 years, of tracing its origins? If celebrity is superficial, why do we keep trying to probe its inner depths?
But perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t why so much celebrity gossip tries to resist the idea that celebrity is superficial, but how we arrived at this idea of celebrity’s superficiality in the first place. And, in order to answer this question, it’s useful to consider how the concept of celebrity developed in opposition to the concept of literary fame. In his landmark study The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, the literary historian Leo Braudy defines the pursuit of fame as the desire for immortality.2 We might extend this definition to distinguish between literary fame and mere celebrity on the basis of two important qualities: celebrity is ephemeral whereas fame is immortal, and celebrity is superficial whereas fame is earned. If fame is a ticket to immortality, in other words, celebrity is a more fleeting phenomenon: like a burst of light as brief as it is brilliant, the celebrity’s spotlight fades in moments—or in the fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol ascribed to the celebrities of the future before their time was up. Fame implies futurity and earns its possessor a place in history, but celebrity belongs only to the present. Of course, as Braudy points out, what will last and what will fade are very difficult to predict, especially in the moment. Even as it seems to endure only in the present, then, celebrity must always be talked about in the future tense (“She is merely a celebrity; we will all have forgotten her tomorrow”) or in the past (“Whatever happened to him?”).
In addition to its ephemerality, celebrity’s superficiality has been its defining feature at least since 1961—when the historian Daniel J. Boorstin defined the celebrity as a person “well-known for his well-knownness”3—and likely even before 1751, when Samuel Johnson used it to describe a fame he wasn’t sure he’d earned (or been compensated for).4 Then, as now, celebrity implied not an inner strength that emanated from certain personalities but the media frenzy that adhered to them. “Celebrity derives from the Latin nouns celebritas and celebratio,” point out Nancy Vickers and Joseph Boone, “both of which signify the presence of a multitude, a large assembly or gathering, a crowd…. To be a celebrity is, then, to be talked about by the crowd…. Seen in this light, gossip and rumor are neither ancillary to the system of renown nor sullying by-products that follow in the wake of the object of the fans’ adoration; rather, gossip and rumor are the very bedrock of renown’s formation and existence.”5
Traditionally, literary scholars have claimed to eschew consideration of “gossip and rumor” in choosing which works are worthy of study, a claim that excluded celebrity from serious scholarly consideration for many years. When celebrity did begin to garner some scholarly attention in the mid-twentieth century, it was largely as a sociological phenomenon rather than as a literary concept. Celebrity entered the scholarly conversation, in other words, through studies of its spectators rather than its objects. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and their intellectual descendants (Daniel Boorstin, Richard Dyer, and David P. Marshall, to name a few most often applied to literary studies) described the celebrity as one in a number of tools that capitalist society uses to seduce and subdue the masses. Joshua Gamson and Graeme Turner, more recently, have extended this analysis from the consumers of celebrity culture to its producers: the network of photographers, publicists, and journalists responsible for cultivating and marshaling the public attention on which celebrity feeds. The focus for these scholars was less on close reading the materials of celebrity culture to determine how they work and more on examining celebrity as an “industry” (to borrow Adorno and Horkheimer’s term) and asking why it exists—in other words, what purpose does celebrity culture serve in the societies that embrace it?
To many of these scholars and among the traditions they follow, the title “Literature and Celebrity” might seem oxymoronic, a fusing together of the serious and lasting with the trivial and fleeting. In the history of literary criticism, certainly, these terms are opposed far more than they are paired. The Romantic critic William Hazlitt was not saying anything shocking when he distinguished between “fame” and “popularity” in “On the Living Poets” (1818): “Fame is the recompense not of the living, but of the dead, for fame is not popularity, the shout of the multitude, the idle buzz of fashion, the venal puff, the soothing flattery of favour or of friendship; but it is the spirit of a man surviving himself in the minds and thoughts of other men, undying and imperishable.”6 If the celebrity earned attention for what she was rather than for what she did, the literary critic claimed to disregard an author’s person and personality in evaluating the author’s work. If the celebrity’s aura haunts the corpus of his public performances, in other words, the literary critic concerns herself with the corpus of the author’s published writing, and if the celebrity flaunts spectacle, the literary critic seeks substance.
Yet the vehemence of Hazlitt’s critique suggests a closer and more complex relationship between literary criticism and celebrity than simply one of opposition. It is even possible to understand the emergence of celebrity as necessitating the emergence of the literary critic, a professional whose expertise allows him or her to help the general population distinguish between true greatness and mere popularity. This supposition might explain why England’s first professional literary critics (Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s pseudonymous Mr. Spectator, John Dennis, and Samuel Johnson, to name a few) began to ply their trade around the same time that England’s first modern celebrities (the spectacular king Charles II,7 his actress-mistress Nell Gwynn, the Shakespearean actor David Garrick) began to ply theirs. Indeed, the fact that the general population required professionals to help them distinguish literary authors and popular authors—between true geniuses and mere celebrities—suggests that these two categories weren’t nearly as disparate as Hazlitt’s definitions suggest.
On closer examination, we find several problems in the binary that defines literature as deep and lasting and celebrity as superficial and ephemeral. For one thing, this binary doesn’t explain the existence of literary celebrities—those who use their recognizability to promote their writing or (perhaps more interestingly) who parlay their literary talent into a celebrity identity. We might think here of Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, or Jonathan Franzen—or even of the great “Dictionary Johnson!” himself.8 At the same time, this binary offers little to elucidate the autopsy reports that haunt so many celebrity deaths—from Barton Booth to Michael Jackson—and that invite their readers to delve far beneath celebrity’s glamorous surfaces. These reports (not to mention the gossipy biographies that so often accompany them) suggest that, despite our insistence on celebrity’s superficiality, we crave some proof of its profundity; and despite our insistence that celebrity is unmerited, we are eager to trace its source. This is one way in which celebrity gossip bears an uncanny resemblance to literary criticism: both long to look at a corpus that everyone has seen and to discover something that no one else has noticed. The stark opposition that authors and literary critics have always claimed between themselves and mere celebrities suggests that one cannot exist without the other. To understand why and how, it is necessary to ignore the imputation that celebrity exists only in the present moment and to travel back in time.
Exhibit B, then, is the closing couplet of Alexander Pope’s 1715 poem, The Temple of Fame: in an imprecation to the goddess of fame, Pope begs, “Unblemish’d let me live or die unknown; / Oh, grant an honest fame, or grant me none!’”9 Pope’s call for an “honest fame” that he distinguishes, some lines earlier, from that “doubtful Fame” that “Enlarges some, and others multiplies” echoes Boorstin’s later suggestion that celebrity belongs to the undeserving.10 “Honest” fame is earned and lasting, but “doubtful Fame” is an effect of smoke and mirrors, and it disappears almost the moment it materializes. Pope registers this “doubtful Fame” as a new phenomenon in eighteenth-century England—a claim that suggests Pope’s 1715 poem as one possible starting point for the history of modern celebrity—and for the criticisms that attempted to distinguish it from the “honest Fame” of England’s literary greats.
This myth of origins seems less sure, however, when we consider that Pope derived his Temple of Fame from Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame, composed around 1379 or 1380. The word “celebrity” was not a part of Chaucer’s English; it didn’t enter the language until more than two hundred years later, when it meant “a solemn rite or ceremony, a celebration.”11 In the beginning, then, there were people who possessed or performed celebrity, and, like modern celebrities, what they did mattered less than what they represented. But, unlike modern celebrities, these people tended to be the priests, kings, and noblemen whose significance, far from being superficial, was thought to be ordained by God. (Another quick etymological excursion will confirm that this ordination was far from superficial: to divine is to observe something hidden, something beneath the surface; it was their profundity and not their superficiality, then, that made these early kings and priests divine.12) The first people to exhibit celebrity inherited their power by birth or earned it by solemn vows, and they maintained it by staging elaborate parades, shows, and ceremonies to which the word celebrity initially referred.
As the years passed, however, the power faded and only the ceremony remained. Thus, Pope’s claim that fame was somehow different and more superficial in his day than it had been in ages past has some truth to it. Leo Braudy traces the concept of “renown” as far back as Alexander the Great, but he identifies eighteenth-century England as a watershed moment in the history of celebrity, an era that “seemed particularly preoccupied with the question of fame in the modern sense—as a way of defining oneself, making oneself known, beyond the limits of class and family. Economic, social, and political revolution had produced so many new ways of naming oneself that what had been an urge in a few, in many became a frenzy.”13 Recent scholars seem in large part to concur with Braudy’s assessment, and celebrity studies has begun to make its mark on scholarship about eighteenth-century England, fueled by important books by Kristina Straub, Cheryl Wanko, Joseph Roach, and Felicity Nussbaum. Historian Stella Tillyard explains this change in ideas of fame during this time by noting three developments of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English culture: “a limited monarchy, the lapse in 1695 of the Licensing Act which had controlled the numbers of printing presses and to some extent printing, and a public interested in new ways of thinking about other people and themselves.”14
In one way, then, celebrity emerged out of Britons’ desire to look backward: as spectacular kings ceded their power to Parliament and as the elaborate ceremonies of Catholicism gave way to the plainer Anglican and Protestant services, the English people craved an outlet for the pomp and pageantry with which they once honored their political and religious leaders. When the comparatively reticent Hanoverians replaced the spectacular Stuarts as the kings and queens of England, their subjects sought their pageantry in the actors and actresses who played kings and queens on stage. These actors and actresses became celebrities, according to Chris Rojek, when Britons began to seek representatives “to fill the absence created by the decay in the divine right of kings, and the death of god.”15 In this sense, we might see in Barton Booth’s autopsy report the ghosts of Catholic saints and the reliquaries in which fragments of their bodies were preserved, passed around, and gazed upon by worshippers craving proximity to that “heavenly body” (to co-opt Richard Dyer’s suggestive term for the twentieth-century celebrity). Yet while saints’ bones were worshipped for the divinity that seemed to infuse them, Booth’s bones were disassembled, analyzed, and examined by coroners trying to find an explanation, in the absence of divinity, for Booth’s fame.
At the same time that this “doubtful Fame” exemplifies a nostalgia for the past, however, it also depends on the new-fangled technologies popping up in Pope’s present. One of the most important was the printing press—a technology that had appeared much earlier but that had combined with slowly climbing literacy rates and the growing demand for news to create a print culture in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century. As Tillyard notes, the lapsing of the Licensing Act contributed to this culture by making it more difficult for government censors to control the information released to the public by the printing houses now proliferating throughout London. This information included criticism of government officials, but it also included run-of-the-mill rumors and gossip about ordinary citizens who consequently became media sensations. By allowing such gossip to appear and to disseminate, the lapsing of the Licensing Act fueled the emergence of celebrity culture.
The availability of this gossip would have been unimportant, however, were it not for the growing appetite for such gossip exemplified not only in the emergence of the tabloid and the celebrity biography but also in the rise of the novel, a medium that promised to reveal the interior self of its main characters. Tillyard writes: “Ever since the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, ‘secret histories,’ which told scandalous stories of immorality at court and in other high places, had been highly popular. Biographies of notorious and famous individuals, and the notion of fixed character that could be written as a literary construct and then used in a plot, were also becoming commonplace. The great age of biography and of the novel—which usually depended for its plotting and moral framework on the connections between private life and public events of one sort or another—was just beginning.”16
Tillyard’s connection between the novel’s interest in interiority and the celebrity biography’s interest in “secret histories” suggests that, even in the eighteenth century, the division between literature and celebrity or between substance and superficiality wasn’t as stark as Pope’s Temple of Fame makes it out to be. Celebrity biographies and autobiographies often capitalized on their stylistic and structural similarities to the novel in order to proclaim the sincerity and substance of their subjects against audiences’ accusations of superficiality, as when the actress George Anne Bellamy composed her 1785 Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy in the epistolary style employed by the sentimental novel or when Colley Cibber opened his own 1740 Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber by promising the public “an honest Examination of my Heart” and “the History of my private Life.”17 Even as self-styled literati like Pope and literary critics like Hazlitt proclaimed a distinction between literature and celebrity, in other words, celebrities like Cibber and Bellamy were working hard to dissolve that distinction. For them, the skills that the literary critic employed to divine the meaning of a novel were no different from those that the biography reader employed to divine “what [the actor] really was, when in no body’s Shape but his own.”18
The relationship between the author and the celebrity became even more complicated in the Romantic era, when poets’ turn toward the lyric and their celebration of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” channeled through the poetic self muddled the distinction between the personality and the poem.19 This was, after all, the era of Lord Byron, a man known as much for his romantic exploits as for his Romantic poetry,20 and of the poetic preface (like that to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”) that invites the reader to imagine the conditions under which the poem was composed and thus the personality of the poet-turned-celebrity who composed it. At the same time that Romantic poetry foregrounded the poet as central to the poem, however, Romantic critics like Hazlitt and poets like John Keats emphasized the distinction between fickle popularity and true genius. “Romanticism … stands in a deeply conflicted relationship to celebrity culture,” writes Tom Mole. “On the one hand, by connecting the Romantic conception of a deep, privatized, developmental, self-actualising selfhood to an industrial infrastructure of promotion and distribution, celebrity culture constituted a powerful engine for normalising Romantic understandings of subjectivity. On the other hand, studying celebrity culture reveals the extent to which the attitudes of high Romanticism were elaborated in opposition to that culture.”21 The striking resemblance between the Romantic cult of subjectivity and the celebrity cult of personality seems to have made pointing out their differences all the more crucial to the Romantic project.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, celebrity culture intensified even further as advances in photography allowed fans to gaze on the celebrity’s face much as it might appear in life rather than through the stylized rendering of a portraitist’s brush strokes. But the technological advance that had perhaps the greatest impact on celebrity culture—at least since the explosion of print culture in the eighteenth century—was the development of the moving picture at the fin de siècle. By facilitating the mass production and mass distribution of the celebrity’s moving body and (later) resonant voice, the cinema made celebrity not only available but near-ubiquitous for people of many classes and from both towns and cities, across the country and around the globe—for everyone, in other words, with proximity to a theater and the dime it cost to enter.
Significantly, the golden years of the silent film era and of the celebrities that it engendered coincided with the literary movement of High Modernism, led by authors who prized themselves on the difficulty of their writings and their rejection of mass media and popular culture. Gertrude Stein was disturbed to see her name in lights on arriving in New York for her Lectures in America tour (although she had encouraged speculations into her private life by composing two autobiographies and a novella, Tender Buttons, often read as an even more intimate description of her domestic life with Alice B. Toklas). Virginia and Leonard Woolf eschewed the mass media that had made celebrity possible when they founded Hogarth Press, hand-printing pamphlets on an old letterpress (until the business expanded and began to publish some thirty books each year). Yet as Aaron Jaffe has argued, modernist authors like T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis depended on and manipulated celebrity culture as much as they seemed to eschew it.
At mid-century, the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, the fluxus creations of George Maciunus and Yoko Ono, and (later) the postmodern fiction of Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon rejected the long-held distinction between “doubtful Fame” and artistic greatness by incorporating and even celebrating the ephemerally famous throughout their works. Warhol’s screen print of Marilyn Monroe, now displayed in the Tate Gallery in London, is one of the most obvious examples. In Delillo’s White Noise, similarly, one character proclaims his ambition to “establish an Elvis Presley power base in the department of American environments” at the university where he has become a leader in Elvis studies—a detail that points up even as it points out the dissolving boundaries between the artifacts of celebrity culture and the artworks deemed worthy of serious study in Delillo’s world.22
If literary authors acknowledged (albeit reluctantly or obliquely) the usefulness of celebrity to a successful career, literary critics continued to tout the New Critical truism that scholars should disregard an author’s biography and reputation in their reading of the author’s work. This assumption held sway until the 1980s, when feminist critics and cultural historians became interested in recovering the work of authors previously overlooked because of their gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. These scholars didn’t introduce the consideration of authors’ biographies into literary criticism so much as they exposed the extent to which literary critics had always considered the author’s gender, sexuality, and ethnicity in designating certain works as “serious” or “timeless” and others as merely popular or as geared only toward a particular niche. For many cultural historians, a work’s popularity in its own time constituted a reason to study it, rather than an embarrassing distraction or detraction from its seriousness.
Although few of the forgotten authors that these scholars worked to recover could be termed “celebrities,” cultural historians’ contention that an author’s gender and ethnicity could be (indeed, always had been) a consideration in their designation as “literary” cleared the way for scholars to regard other aspects of an author’s biography—his or her reputation among his or her contemporaries; the way he or she marketed or promoted his or her work; the puffs, personal details, and performances of self that he or she used to attract new readers—as impossible entirely to detach from the author’s literary strategies or written work.
Scholarship on celebrity was no doubt influenced, too, by the expansion of television and, later, by the introduction of the Internet. Much as photography had brought fans face-to-face with their favorite stars, television brought these stars into their living rooms. The explosion of reality television shows in the 1990s and 2000s went a step further: instead of bringing stars into fans’ living rooms, reality television brought cameras into those living rooms and made the fans into the stars. Around the same time, Internet sites that relied largely on user-generated content (YouTube, Wikipedia, a growing number of blogs) allowed aspiring writers, filmmakers, musicians, and artists to bypass the agents, publishers, and producers who had for many years served as the gatekeepers to stardom and to seize greatness themselves (or to have it thrust upon them). In one sense, these developments seemed to widen the gulf between literature and celebrity: professional scriptwriters began to develop increasingly more complex and “literary” dramas (The West Wing, The Wire, Breaking Bad) as if to emphasize the sophistication that scripted television could achieve over reality shows that relied solely on the lure of celebrity to attract viewers. And, far from destroying the prestige of the printed book, the popularity of the blog seems if anything to have increased it. At the same time, however, the explosion of reality television, social media, and user-generated content on the Internet underlined the need for incisive scholarship on celebrity, a concept that had come to pervade so many aspects of daily life.
It was the emergence of performance studies in the 1970s and 1980s (and its wider introduction into university curricula in the 1990s and 2000s), however, that made celebrity a viable subject of study for scholars within—and just outside of—departments of literature. Although it borrows methodologies from a myriad of fields (sociology, anthropology, philosophy, art history, and religious studies, as well as literary studies and theater history), performance studies is a discipline organized around the attention to the ephemeral and the theatrical—the two qualities that had once distinguished celebrity from “honest Fame.” In her important study Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993), Peggy Phelan defines performance as any work that “becomes itself through disappearance” and describes performance studies as a field that aims to examine the political power of the “nonreproductive” or ephemeral.23 At the same time, the field’s professed attention to the spectacle and to the contingencies of the live performance—in addition to or even instead of the language of the script—provides its scholars with a methodology and a vocabulary for studying the profound implications of seemingly superficial details (costumes, gestures, casting choices). If traditional literary criticism defines itself in opposition to the ephemeral and the superficial, performance studies pledges to recognize the cultural impact and the scholarly value of these very qualities. And if traditional literary criticism disregards celebrity as irrelevant to literature, performance studies has introduced the profound and lasting impact that this seemingly superficial and fleeting form of fame has had on the societies that have produced it.
Among the list of the most influential works of performance studies to have been published since the emergence of the discipline in the late 1970s, then, are several that expose the relevance of celebrity to some of Western society’s most significant literary, cultural, social, and even political developments. In the third chapter of his Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), for instance, Joseph Roach analyzes the way that eighteenth-century Londoners used the funeral of celebrity-actor Thomas Betterton to navigate the difficult transition from a monarchy to a representative democracy. In The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003), Diana Taylor examines the relationship between America’s mainstream media and its minority cultures by examining how minority populations reacted to the news of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. And in her contribution to PMLA’s 2010 special issue on “Literary Criticism for the 21st Century,” Peggy Phelan analyzes the funeral of pop star Michael Jackson in order to argue for more “close readings of performances and poems, more muscular math for calculating” the ineffable, ephemeral, and superficial details that make celebrity deep.24 What these investigations of celebrity culture through the methodologies of performance studies suggest is that, in today’s media-saturated culture, celebrity influences not only what we talk about, who we vote for, and how we delineate categories like gender, race, and sexuality, but also who and how we read. Indeed, it always has.
Which brings us to Exhibit C. In the third volume of his idiosyncratic prose work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne inserts a marbled page that he describes (cheekily?) as the “motly emblem of my work.”25 As an emblem the marbled page promises depth: its colored swirls and curlicues resemble the lines of differently colored matter revealed when a block of marble is cut in half to expose its innards. In this way, the marbled page hearkens back to Barton Booth’s autopsy report, which similarly promises an understanding of his “work” to anyone who dares to peer beneath his skin. It resembles, too, the promise of any literary work that invites the critic to delve deeper, to cut away the superficial layers and divine the true treasures—the true meaning—below the surface. “Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader!” Sterne urges us in the text that precedes the marbled page, “read——or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon——I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid” within the black page of Volume I—or (by implication) within the book of which it is a part.26
With his imputation to his critics to “read, read, read, read,” Sterne calls up the promise of literary criticism: that we might discover hidden meanings and profound truths in a text if we only learn to read it correctly, carefully, deeply. And, in the centuries since Sterne first issued his invitation, countless literary critics have taken him up on it. In taking seriously Sterne’s invitation to “read” the marbled page, however, are we reading too much into it? The more we attempt to delve beneath the surface of the marbled page to discover Sterne’s meaning, the more superficial this meaning (and the page that conveys it) comes to seem. The marbled page might seem to represent the colors and patterns we would see if we investigated the interior of a stone, but in fact it records the colors and patterns that we see floating on the surface of water: to create the effect of a marbled page, the printer drips ink into a pan of water and then lays a piece of paper on the floating swirls of ink. The paper absorbs the ink but is removed from the pan before it can sink below the surface. The depth that the marbled page promises is mere illusion, then: what it actually represents is the ink that sank no deeper than the surface of the water. And since marbled pages often adorned the inside covers of eighteenth-century books, Sterne’s inclusion of such a page in the middle of his book might suggest that all of our efforts to “read, read, read, read” his words have revealed little more than we might have gleaned from gazing at the book’s front matter. By poring over the marbled page in order to “penetrate the moral” of Sterne’s work, are we just judging the book by its cover?
A savvy manipulator of his own literary celebrity, Sterne suggests here that our dependence on surfaces when we claim to be reading literature deeply is as strong—and as justifiable—as our desire to probe sources of celebrity gossip in search of profound truths. If the marbled page is the moral of Sterne’s text, that moral seems to be that it is impossible to distinguish the deep from the superficial, literary greatness from fleeting celebrity. Sterne’s own career seems to illustrate this lack of distinction. Many of the most respected literary critics of his time dismissed Sterne as a mere celebrity: less than a decade after Sterne died, Samuel Johnson famously told James Boswell, “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”27 Two hundred and fifty years after one of the greatest literary critics of his day made this prediction, however, Sterne is still being read in classes on eighteenth-century literature, still being discussed in books of literary criticism and in a journal devoted solely to studies of his work, and still regarded (although hardly clear of Johnson’s imputation of his oddity) as one of the most important and most modern writers of his time. Critics, like Johnson, who try to distinguish Sterne’s literary ambitions from a celebrated “oddity” that would not “last” come to seem short-sighted when Sterne’s texts outlast his life. Similarly, critics, like Pope, who attempt to distinguish between literature and celebrity by reading deeply into the artifacts of either start to resemble Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the Puritan proselytizer in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, who engaged in a vehement argument with a puppet only to prove that the puppet had no soul.
Rather than employing our close-reading skills to distinguish between deep and lasting literature and superficial celebrity, it seems much more fruitful to aim our critical methodologies at celebrity culture and ask of it the same questions that literary and cultural historians have long been asking of literature. How does celebrity culture inlay its words, images, and performances into the pre-existing assumptions of the society that harbors it in order to create or to reveal new values, new identities, or new desires among that society’s citizens? Do celebrities and their handlers influence the way that their fans conceptualize categories like gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality? Or do they merely reflect and reinforce how the fans already conceive of these categories? How does our knowledge of and interest in celebrity affect the way that we read, watch, listen to, or understand the literature and art that our culture produces? For even those who refuse to acknowledge the resemblances between literature and celebrity must acknowledge the ways that one influences the other: the ways that an author’s reputation apart from his or her work influences whether and how we approach that work and the ways that celebrity has come to pervade so many aspects of our media-saturated society.
The growing field of celebrity studies achieved two important milestones within the last few years. The first was the establishment of an academic journal entitled, simply, Celebrity Studies and dedicated to exploring the ongoing relevance of celebrity to a number of academic disciplines, from literary studies to sociology to political science. In their introduction to its inaugural issue, editors Su Holmes and Sean Redmond argue against the imputation that their consideration of celebrity constitutes a “dumbing down” of academia and introduce their journal as the first to “focus upon the critical exploration of celebrity.”28 Keeping this promise, the journal continues to publish the newest work on celebrity studies not only by literary scholars but also by sociologists, cultural historians, and others.
The second milestone in celebrity’s rise to prominence within the larger field of literary studies was a special issue on “Celebrity, Fame, Notoriety” in PMLA, the leading journal in literary studies and one that has come to be seen as the gold standard of what literary studies will and will not permit. “How can the methods, theories, and terms emanating from celebrity studies work for and inflect the kinds of literary and cultural critique that matter to most readers of PMLA?” ask guest editors Boone and Vickers in their introduction to the special issue.29 They propose several compelling answers: before the Internet made fame ubiquitous, celebrity was disseminated and perpetuated principally through the literary texts that form the heart of literary scholars’ analysis. The transfer of celebrity from printed books to online material didn’t make celebrity less relevant to literary studies, however. If anything, this shift made celebrity more relevant to literary studies because it infused all aspects of Western culture. “As a phenomenon at once dismissed as superficial and acknowledged as pervasive in our culture,” they continue, “celebrity clearly begs analysis.”30
And, despite the growing numbers of literary scholars now incorporating celebrity studies into their research, there is still much analysis to be done. For the most part, for instance, scholarship has explored celebrity primarily as a Western development. Some scholars have examined Western celebrity in the context of globalization, addressing how non-Western peoples have positioned themselves in relation to Western celebrities (Diana Taylor) or how Western societies have used celebrity as a vehicle for exoticizing and stereotyping racially marked bodies (Anne Anlin Cheng). Fewer, however, have asked what celebrity looks like outside Western Europe and North America. If celebrity is part of a larger “culture industry” as Adorno and Horkheimer claim, for instance, it seems plausible to look for it in recently industrialized societies like those of India and China. How do these societies use celebrity to ease the transition to industrialization? It is slightly less obvious but no less fruitful to ask how celebrity has fared in the Middle East and especially among societies that have expressly resisted (and even forbidden) the influx of Western popular culture. Have these cultures also resisted the phenomenon of celebrity or has celebrity developed differently here, in ways that might provide an alternative history of celebrity to that evident in its North American and European iterations?
Even within the parameters of Western celebrity culture, however, much work remains to be done. The precise relationship between a celebrity, his or her handlers (stylists, publicists, promoters), the journalists and photographers who distribute the celebrity’s image, and the larger population of fans and detractors, for instance, has yet to be defined. If authors like Sterne can be considered celebrities, can celebrities be considered authors? In other words, what amount of control do celebrities have over how their images are molded and distributed? Fifty years after Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author,” might it be possible to see in celebrity a new model for authorship—one in which an entire team of publicists and promoters is employed to glorify the idea of a single “author” (the celebrity), who seems to define while in fact merely echoing the values and beliefs of his or her fans? Paradoxically, in other words, celebrity culture seems to resurrect the author, inviting us to admire the author-celebrity as uniquely glamorous or “abnormally interesting” (in Roach’s terms) even as we acknowledge that this glamour and interest is the effect rather than the cause of our admiration.31
This debate about whether the celebrity might be considered an author also begs the question of whether the celebrity need be a human being at all. Emily Hodgson Anderson has recently asked whether fictional characters might be considered celebrities, for instance, and her work brings up several interesting questions. Does one need a physical body to be a celebrity? Is the dissonance between an actor’s “real” life and his or her fictional role necessary for celebrity, or is it possible to talk about celebrities who do not exist outside these fictional roles? Is there something inherently “human” about the celebrity, or might animals, robots, or machines be considered celebrities? And if fictional characters, animals, or robots might be considered celebrities, what does that indicate about our apparent fascination with the celebrity’s interiority? Is it possible to peer inside the mind of a fictional character or a robot in the way that Benjamin Victor invites us to peer inside the body of Barton Booth?
The continued rise of celebrity studies and the increasingly rapid dissemination of celebrity gossip through technologies such as the Internet, the tabloid, and the reality television show will no doubt inspire scorn from certain camps, who will insist (with Alexander Pope) on the distinction between “honest Fame” and “doubtful” celebrity or who will claim (with William Hazlitt) that “fame is not popularity, the shout of the multitude, the idle buzz of fashion” but rather “the spirit of a man surviving himself in the minds and thoughts of other men, undying and imperishable.”32 Yet a deeper look into the history and the pervasiveness of celebrity in Western culture reveals that our desire to regard it as an antonym to literature is misguided and short-sighted. Instead, it is far more useful to understand celebrity studies as inextricably intertwined with literary studies, and we must begin to ask how one has influenced (sometimes even by resisting) the other.
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(1) Benjamin Victor, Memoirs of the Life of Barton Booth, Esq., with His Character (London: John Watts, 1733), http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ecco/infomark.do?action=interpret&docType=ECCOArticles&source=library&docLevel=TEXT_GRAPHICS&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=rpu_main&tabID=T001&bookId=1108800400&type=getFullCitation&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&finalAuth=true, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, 23.
(2) “Fame is made up of four elements: a person and an accomplishment, their immediate publicity, and what posterity has thought about them ever since,” Braudy writes. Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Random House, 1986, 1997), 15.
(3) Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1961), 57.
(4) The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first usage of the word to mean “the condition of being much extolled or talked about; famousness, notoriety” as occurring around 1600, but quotes Johnson’s Rambler 165 as a significant example: “I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2013), “celebrity.”
(5) Joseph A. Boone and Nancy J. Vickers, “Introduction—Celebrity Rites,” Special Topic: Celebrity, Fame, Notoriety, PMLA 126 (October 2011), 903–904.
(6) William Hazlitt, “On the Living Poets” (1818), The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, edited by P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1930), V.143–144.
(7) In Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), Paula R. Backscheider describes Charles as the last “spectacular king”: in other words, one who guaranteed his power by performing it—in parades, processions, masques, and other elaborate displays of wealth—before his public. Joseph R. Roach (in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993] and again in It [University of Michigan Press, 2003]) joins Braudy and others in linking these spectacular royal performances to the glitz and glamour of modern celebrity culture.
(8) James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, edited by David Womersley (London: Penguin, 2008): 93. Several scholars have explored the phenomenon of literary celebrity, including James English, Loren Glass, and Joe Moran’s. A number of others explore the literary celebrity of particular authors or literary movements. See, for instance, Frank Donoghue’s The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); Eric Eisner’s Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity (New York: Palgrave, 2009); Jonathan Goldman’s Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011); and Aaron Jaffe’s Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
(9) Alexander Pope, The Temple of Fame (1715), The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963), 188.
(14) Stella Tillyard, “Celebrity in 18th-Century London,” History Today 55 (June 2005): 23.
(15) Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 13.
(17) Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, with an Historical View of the Stage during His Own Time (1740), edited by B. R. S. Fone (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1968), 7.
(19) William Wordsworth, “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” (1800), Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (London: Routledge, 1968, 1991, 2005), 237.
(20) See Tom Mole’s Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy (New York: Palgrave, 2007).
(21) Mole, “Introduction,” Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750–1850, edited by Tom Mole (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 12.
(22) Don Delillo, White Noise (New York: Penguin, 1984, 1985), 64.
(23) Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), 146.
(24) Peggy Phelan, “‘Just Want to Say’: Performance and Literature, Jackson and Poirier,” Literary Criticism for the 21st Century, special issue of PMLA 125 (October 2010), 946.
(25) Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, edited by Melvyn New and Jane New (London: Penguin, 1978, 2005), 204.
(27) James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, edited by George B. Hill and L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934–50), ii.449.
(28) Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, “Editorial: A Journal in Celebrity Studies,” Celebrity Studies 1.1 (March 2010), 7.
(31) Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 4.