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Eric Eisner. Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-230-22815-3. Price: US$85.00

  • Andrew Franta

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  • Andrew Franta
    University of Utah

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Upon the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, Byron famously remarked, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” The famousness of Byron’s observation about his fame nicely captures the double nature of modern celebrity: the success of Child Harold made Byron famous, but, in turn and increasingly, he was famous for being famous. Eric Eisner’s excellent Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity explores the recursive nature of modern celebrity and carefully traces several of the many permutations of poetic fame in the Romantic and early Victorian periods. Eisner’s study frames its investigation of literary celebrity in the nineteenth century in terms of the doubling that makes famous poets into poets of fame—a pervasive phenomenon that shapes the poetic careers of the authors he examines in myriad ways. Celebrity is of course a central concern for Byron, the most famous of the period’s literary celebrities, but also, Eisner argues, for Keats and Shelley, whose lack of popular success nevertheless reflects contemporary celebrity culture, as well as Letitia Landon and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poetry interrogates both fame and its gendering. Literary celebrity, as Eisner describes it, is more than one topic among many. Instead, it becomes a matrix for understanding a range of literary historical issues—in particular, the fate of the poet in the literary marketplace of the early nineteenth century.

Eisner grounds his account of literary celebrity in historical and affective terms, describing the “burgeoning culture of literary celebrity” in nineteenth-century Britain and characterizing it in terms of the “powerful feelings of fascination, desire, love or horror” with which readers responded to writers. He understands the power of this celebrity culture as a function of its effects on poetic practice in the period, which “was crucially shaped by the practices of its star-struck readers and by the affective relationships between reader and writer those practices served to mediate” (1). Eisner is attentive throughout to the affective dimension of readers’ responses—which forms the basis of his consideration of celebrity’s impact on poetic form—as well as its place in “the mechanisms and structures of the world of popular celebrity” (2). As an introductory example of the dynamics of reaction and response that characterize literary celebrity in the early nineteenth century, he offers an illuminating reading of De Quincey’s pursuit of his literary idol, Wordsworth. Eisner traces De Quincey’s management (in print) of perhaps the most public reader-writer relationship in the period, demonstrating that De Quincey’s fascinated response to Wordsworth is not merely set against the backdrop of “the increased distance between writer and reader in the early nineteenth century as compared with the mid-eighteenth, but … that De Quincey requires a sensation of that distance—indeed, in a way exacerbates it—in order to produce the peculiarly intense closeness of his relationship to Wordsworth” (9).

This reading at once exemplifies Eisner’s skills as a critic and points to the way in which the larger argument of his study aligns celebrity culture with the transformation of the market for literature and the professionalization of authorship in the early nineteenth century:

A modern, mass-mediated, and transitory form, celebrity attracted anxieties that paralleled those attached to the literary works in an era of literature’s increasing commercialization: fears about the slippage between aesthetic response and consumer demand, about the value of popular judgment, about the dangers of media saturation, about the possibility of lasting fame in an age seemingly overrun by the ephemeral.

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I quote from the introduction at length because its itinerary of topics is delivered to the reader as a promise of the issues the book will address, and, to an admirable extent, Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity delivers.

Eisner’s first three chapters, on Byron, Keats, and Shelley, take on familiar topics; they are also the best of the book. Chapter one situates Byron in “a thriving celebrity culture” (20-1) by way of discussions of Mary Robinson’s scandalous celebrity, the reception of Byron’s “Fare Thee Well!” and the “performative women” of Canto I of Don Juan (44). Here Eisner persuasively argues “that scandalous celebrity is not lyric intimacy’s opposite but rather its very ground” (24). The following chapter develops this argument by suggesting that, from “Sleep and Poetry” to The Fall of Hyperion, “Keats’s poetry anticipates the kind of ‘celebrity effects’ the obituaries will exploit … not by looking to posterity but rather through its sophisticated negotiation of the mass-market structures of the contemporary culture of celebrity” (52). Chapter three reads The Cenci as Shelley’s meditation on the vexed relationship between “authorial charisma and its cognate, readerly fascination” (69). In each of these chapters, Eisner’s arguments are constructed around careful and insightful readings of his primary texts and equally careful and insightful reconstructions of “the contemporary culture of celebrity.”

In the last three chapters, on Shelley’s nineteenth-century reception, Landon, and Barrett Browning, Eisner’s analysis shifts gears, driven less by close reading than situating its subjects in the established culture of nineteenth-century literary celebrity. Chapter four takes up later nineteenth-century assessments and appreciations of Shelley—in particular Arnold’s and Trelawny’s—and finds the heart of Shelley’s peculiar appeal in an “oscillation between personality and impersonality” (106). Eisner suggests that the emphemerality and immateriality of Shelley’s poetry produces a paradoxical desire for the poet’s physical presence—disturbingly reflected in the macabre trade in parts of the dead poet’s body. Chapter five turns to Landon and sentimental poetry (it also includes an interesting reading of Jewsbury’s The History of an Enthusiast), and Eisner joins a number of recent critics in arguing that “the ‘thrills’ and ‘chills’ of Landon’s poetry bear a more complex relation to the marketplace and to the conditions of public visibility than they have often been granted” (117). The final chapter, on Barrett Browning and literary fandom, similarly argues, primarily by way of a reading of Aurora Leigh, that “Barrett Browning’s relationship to the fan’s desire was crucially reflexive” (137).

Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity is an intelligently-framed and well-constructed study. Its key claims are clearly articulated, the individual chapters are well-proportioned, and Eisner’s prose is lucid and engaging throughout. In some respects, however, the book is let down by its concision: some of its most interesting observations and analyses could be allowed more space to develop and elaborated in greater detail. One imagines, for example, that Keats’s “tactical management of his relationship to a contemporary culture of fame” might be better addressed through sustained consideration of “Isabella” and “Lamia” than Eisner’s admittedly “limited” claims about The Fall of Hyperion (67). Similarly, the discussion of Landon move too quickly from an account of how her “language of feeling … departs from the romances of Byron and Hemans” to the issue of literary professionalism (129). The expansion and amplification of such lines of analysis would go some way toward substantiating Eisner’s claim that Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity is as concerned with “the performative operation of language in poetic texts” as “the cultural systems through which celebrity is staged, and the affectively charged reader-writer interactions celebrity describes” (24). Formal questions are kept in sight in the first three chapters—although even there the specific nature of the relationship between celebrity and poetic language could be clarified, and the performative dimension of literary language, on Eisner’s account, has more to do with social dramas than textual operations. In the second half of the book, and especially in the last two chapters, the relationship between celebrity and poetry is more clearly specified, but in a way that subordinates formal analysis to thematic readings. In L.E.L. and Barrett Browning, literary celebrity and the celebrity culture that sustains it become topics for poetry and a shaping force for the poet’s career. As a context for understanding their poetry, however, while this consideration of celebrity pushes us away from assuming that their sentimentalism is fully felt, the ironic framing of feeling does not in itself reveal undiscovered formal innovations.

These reservations, however, do not so much detract from Eisner’s fine study as mark out avenues open to further inquiry. Another line of analysis suggested by Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity would be to situate a more broadly-defined account of literary celebrity (one, for example, that took other genres into account) in the larger celebrity culture of early nineteenth-century Britain (in which Byron would share pride of place with Beau Brummell). Eisner’s Romantic Circles volume on “Romantic Fandom” offers work along these lines. One could hardly imagine a better advertisement for such an endeavor than Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity.

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