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Tom Mole, ed. Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. ISBN: 9780521884778. Price: US$98.00

  • Eric Eisner

…more information

  • Eric Eisner
    George Mason University

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Romanticism and Celebrity Culture,1750-1850 offers a kaleidoscopic view of varieties of fame and fandom in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. The essays on hand spirit the reader from the Duke of Wellington’s visit to Madame Tussauds (in Jason Goldsmith’s “Celebrity and the spectacle of nation”) to Rossini’s appearance on the concert stage (in Benjamin Walton’s “Rara avis or fozy turnip: Rossini as celebrity in 1820s London”); from the boxing ring (in Peter M. Briggs’s case study of the Jewish pugilist Daniel Mendoza) to the theater (in Cheryl Wanko’s essay on the eighteenth-century stage and Heather McPherson’s on the legacy of Sarah Siddons); from Calais, where a broken Beau Brummel languishes in Clara Tuite’s “Trials of the dandy: George Brummell’s scandalous celebrity,” to Ireland and America, where Siddons’s sister Ann Hatton tries in vain to start a celebrity career (in Judith Pascoe’s “Ann Hatton’s celebrity pursuits”); and back and forth in time, from the early eighteenth century (Linda Zionkowski’s “Celebrity violence in the careers of Savage, Pope, and Johnson”) to the early Victorian era (Richard Salmon’s “The physiognomy of the lion: encountering literary celebrity in the nineteenth century”). Though somewhat uneven, this is an engaging and timely collection that helps map an important emerging area of Romantic studies.

Mole’s edited volume joins a number of recent monographs in addressing the conjunction of British Romanticism and celebrity, including Mole’s own Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (Palgrave, 2007), Ghislaine McDayter’s Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture (SUNY Press, 2009), David Higgins’s Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine: Biography, Celebrity, Politics (Routledge, 2005), Claire Brock’s The Feminization of Fame, 1750-1830 (Palgrave, 2006) and my own Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity (Palgrave, 2009). Celebrity owes its current rising visibility as a topic of Romantic studies in part to several developments in the field over the past few decades: the interest in a public or social Romanticism; the interest in the material forms of print culture; the interest in affect and emotion as social and public forms; and the renewed vigor of reception studies. The essays in this volume contribute usefully to each of these domains, attending variously to the marketing and “branding” of names and personalities; to the formation of audiences and the consumption of culture; to the celebration and commemoration of famous persons and events; and to the often politicized, gender- and class-inflected public discourse of fame itself. The basic thesis organizing the volume is that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witness the emergence of a modern celebrity culture through what Mole describes as a “slow, diffuse, but significant shift in the nature of fame” (2). Modern celebrity culture emerges, on this account, sometime over the period 1750-1850, as apparently ephemeral, commercialized, sensationalized, and mass-mediated forms of distinction monopolize public attention. Though Mole is wise to avoid trying to locate a single key turning point for this shift (like the “Byromania” of McDayter’s argument), the introduction and many of the essays would benefit from a clearer delineation of just what distinguishes celebrity from other forms of fame, or just what distinguishes the celebrity culture of earlier periods—say, that of the early eighteenth century—from Romantic-era celebrity.

Particularly welcome is the volume’s stated emphasis on celebrity as a “multimedia phenomenon whose cultural pervasiveness — in literature and the theatre, music and visual culture, fashion and boxing — overflows modern disciplinary boundaries and requires scholars with different areas of expertise to collaborate” (2). Together and individually, these essays nicely track the exchanges among distinct cultural locations, with especially rewarding explanations of the interaction of live performance and printed accounts in the marketing and consumption of names, personalities, and artistic works. A standout in this regard is Walton’s witty and marvelously detailed essay on Gioachino Rossini’s 1824 visit to England. The popularity of Rossini’s music, combined with sensationalistic advance press and the persistent ideal of expressive “genius,” led English audiences to expect a far more seductive and energetic personality than the “short fat figure” dragged on stage (in the London Magazine’s report) at the composer’s first London appearance (87). Walton’s essay traces the ways in which, across a series of benefit concerts and command performances that year, Rossini and his audiences negotiate expectations about “how a celebrity composer ought to look and behave”—expectations that involve the competing self-regard of audience and composer, and a complex of anxieties about class, culture, money, and nationality (87). Taking the stage as a singer, Rossini seems to play up a role as celebrity entertainer that his reviewers contrast to the already “classical” status of Mozart. Persuasively reconstructing the complex play of looking and listening shaping the encounters between Rossini and his English publics, Walton’s essay contributes not only to our understanding of the canonization of musical styles but also to the cultural history of musical performance and reception more generally.

Power struggles between celebrities and audiences are a recurrent theme. Mole, for example, analyzes the celebrity actress, novelist, essayist and poet Mary Robinson’s career in terms of a dynamic of alternate self-display and self-effacement, as Robinson courts and retreats from a sometimes overly aggressive public. Mole’s discussion of Robinson’s multiplying pseudonyms as an instance of such self-effacement might have been sharpened had it taken advantage of Adriana Craciun’s work on Robinson’s pseudonymous political activity, however: the political dimensions to Robinson’s public personae are too faintly outlined. Linda Zionkowski’s “Celebrity violence in the careers of Savage, Pope and Johnson” compellingly explores how each of those three figures tests norms of civility through acts of rhetorical or actual violence that come to define the writer’s public image, exposing the contradictions between aggression and politeness structuring an “emerging dynamics of masculine literary celebrity” (169). In her insightful essay “Patron or patronised?: ‘fans’ and the eighteenth-century English stage,” Cheryl Wanko argues that modern forms of fandom begin to emerge among eighteenth-century play-goers as an older type of aristocratic patronage is transferred onto (and transformed by) the interaction between stage celebrities increasingly conscious of their power and desirability and a wider, more anonymous audience. Riffing off Foucault’s “author-function,” Wanko coins the term “patron-function” to analyze these unstable actor-audience relations. Audiences come to see themselves as patrons of the stage, but celebrity performers also cast themselves as patronizing their fans. Wanko’s discussion of the ways playgoers assert ownership and control over the stage convinced me; the case for celebrities as patrons is intriguing but perhaps too quickly sketched. It would be interesting, too, to hear more about how the “patron-function” Wanko traces in the theater might be connected to the development of the “author-function” within and beyond the theater.

The shifts Wanko traces in celebrity-audience relations through the transformation of patronage are taken up on later terrain in Richard Salmon’s smart contribution “The physiognomy of the lion: encountering literary celebrity in the nineteenth century.” As Salmon explains, “lionism” as a cultural practice exemplifies the transitional nature of celebrity in this period, looking back to “a culture of visual spectacle and sociable encounter cognate with institutions of the eighteenth-century public sphere” at the same time that it “feeds off the subsequent expansion of print culture in ways that anticipate the more familiar twentieth- and twenty-first forms of mass-media publicity” (60). Through readings of representations of lionism from the 1830s to Henry James, Salmon shows (in ways parallel to arguments I’ve made elsewhere) how the discourse of lionism highlights the contradictions between older forms of patronage and the market economy in structuring access to and support for literary culture in the mid-Victorian period. Yet here we encounter what is both a central strength and a limitation to this volume: if on the one hand the collection allows us to trace developments in celebrity culture from Richard Savage to Henry James, on the other hand such a broad scope makes less credible the claims of the introduction and of individual essays about the distinctive character of celebrity in the various moments under investigation, or their claims about the distinctive relation any of these moments bear to the history of modern celebrity. Just as the middle class is always rising, is celebrity culture always exploding?

I am left wondering as well about the prominence of “Romanticism” in the volume’s title. Rossini and Byron, and Brummell by adjacency, fit the bill; but Pope or Henry James or even Siddons do not. A few of the essays here do take up the idea of Romanticism directly. Through astute discussion of Coleridge, Byron, and Hogg, among others, Jason Goldsmith cleverly parallels the Romantic invention of forms of feeling for the nation with the development of shared national feeling for celebrities, pointing out the similar strategies of mediation through which both celebrity culture and nationalist sentiment aim to unify a public on the basis of the shared memory of epochal events. As in his book-length study of Romantic-era magazine writing, David Higgins knowledgeably examines the political ramifications of discourses of “genius” and “popularity” in Romantic-era criticism. But given the foregrounding of Romanticism in the volume’s title—which may well have been a publisher’s decision rather than Mole’s—I expected the volume as a whole to tell me more than it did about how attention to celebrity culture might reshape our understanding of Romanticism, and I missed hearing more about what might be specifically “Romantic” about celebrity and celebrity culture, or what might distinguish a Romantic celebrity culture from any other. (Is our own celebrity obsession Romantic or not?)

A similar problem obtains with claims for an analytic or theoretical value to the identification of present-day celebrity with historically earlier versions of fame. The conjunction is fruitfully made in several of the essays; in other cases, the conjunction is insisted upon but feels extraneous. Corin Throsby’s “Byron, commonplacing and early fan culture,” however, draws persuasive connections between communities of Byron’s readers and fan communities today. Looking at commonplace books in William St. Clair’s private collection, Throsby analyzes how the users of those books, in copying and circulating Byron’s poems, “actively and creatively constructed identities as readers of Byron” through markedly “critical and discerning,” if also loving, modes of reading (228). Pascoe’s delicious and yet sympathetic essay on Ann Hatton, a “public attention-seeker” for whom “fame was an end in itself,” is valuable not only for its resonance with our own publicity-mad moment—were Hatton living today, you could surely find her on reality TV—but also for its insight into the consuming desire for fame that drives Hatton to endless attempts at capturing the public’s notice (245). Tuite’s careful reading of William Jesse’s Life of George Brummell (1844) nicely situates the text within a material and textual network around Dandyism, teasing out evocative links between nineteenth-century spectacles of glamorous or abject masculinity and “the contradictory modes of social affect that are also constitutive of a modern celebrity culture, in their swerves between sympathy and Schadenfreude, desire and disenchantment, identification and alienation” (163). Tuite and Pascoe’s essays are notable, then, for getting at celebrity culture’s ability to generate particular forms of desire, pleasure, pathos and pain, then and now, giving us a purchase on celebrity’s paradoxical centrality and eccentricity in Romantic and modern culture.

Important work on celebrity is popping up all over literary studies these days—David Haven Blake’s _Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity_ (Yale UP, 2006) and Loren Glass’s _Authors, Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880-1980_ (New York UP, 2004), to name a couple of examples—and _PMLA_ devoted a recent issue (October 2011) to the topic. Mole’s introduction seems to float the idea of an emerging “celebrity studies,” grounded in particular in cultural studies work on celebrity, and connecting work on celebrity across periods and cultural domains. This volume certainly makes a strong case for the diversity and significance of celebrity culture in the Romantic period, but the reliance on cultural studies analyses of “celebrity” too often seems to recirculate the same untested assumptions about celebrity (especially the off-hand construction of celebrity as a “pop-cultural” and noisily mass-market phenomenon, which seems to me to erase some of the nuance and contradiction of its relation to social status in the period). The claim for the value of a distinct “celebrity studies” would perhaps have been more persuasive had the volume explained more directly what its approach adds to discussions of Romantic-era fame that unfold along different lines (such as Susan Wolfson’s work on Felicia Hemans in Borderlines [Stanford UP, 2006]), or Ian Duncan’s work on Scott and “the romance of the author” in Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel [Cambridge UP: 1992]). Still, the essays here enter a lively conversation about celebrity and Romanticism perhaps still just taking shape. It remains to be seen whether a “celebrity studies” develops in Romanticism along the lines of other recent trends such as the rise of ecocriticism or disability studies, and what shape it will take if it does.

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