How to Define Celebrity: Celebrity Encounters: Transatlantic Fame in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America Conference
4th-5th July 2014, University of Portsmouth
When we look around our modern world, the sheer volume of individuals who can claim celebrity status is overwhelming. Actors, sportsmen and women, reality television stars and even radio hosts are included in its broad spectrum. Some may argue the term ‘celebrity’ has become cheapened when it appears that people would do anything for a chance at immortal fame. But this leads us to consider several questions. What makes a celebrity? When did the term ‘celebrity’ come into being and how did people in the past describe this phenomenon? Recent scholarship has argued our modern concept of celebrity has existed since the late eighteenth century, and the Celebrity Encounters conference explored in detail the transatlantic nature of fame and fandom. Whether it was personality or an audience selecting an individual to be lionized or both, the question of how someone becomes a celebrity was the central focus of the conference. The conference was international in scope and focused on writers and poets, a former slave, a burlesque star and a talented cricketer, to name but a few.
For someone who is relatively new to the field of Celebrity Studies, the conference was a brilliant introduction to the complexities of the term ‘celebrity.’ What did a celebrity look like, how was he or she perceived and what enabled an individual to earn that celebrity status in the first place? The definition itself poses problems, particularly for those individuals in the early nineteenth century who were admired and adored. Were the necessary elements in place at that time to create a modern celebrity or was it a different form of ‘hero-worship?’ We find it difficult to define a celebrity in the modern world; it was equally difficult to describe and define a celebrity in the past.
While the conference was not designed to answer these questions, it is clear that a celebrity is a particular product of a time and place. The rise of a celebrity depends on the triumvirate of an individual, an audience and an industry. The emerging print culture and technology of the late nineteenth century in part allowed a celebrity to flourish, and it was interesting to consider the level of power they had over an audience, or the extent to which that power came from the audience itself. The audience and industry are essential in creating a celebrity, but an individual can only become famous if he or she masters the art of controlling their own celebrity. In other words, an individual must have certain qualities that deem him or her worthy of admiration, and in no uncertain terms that individual should have an element of ‘magic.’ Interestingly, the notion of what makes a celebrity ‘worthy’ is still fiercely debated today. Our modern world can often feel saturated with ‘A’ list or ‘C’ list celebrities, and some argue these individuals do not have qualities that are worthy of such admiration. We question why some celebrities are famous, from Kim Kardashian to Big Brother contestants, but the ability to remain in the public eye is a skill wielded by the individual and of course, the willingness of the audience to accept that individual in the canon of fame. From actors to reality television stars, fame can be fickle and brief: the star might shine brightly for a time but will quickly fade when an audience loses interest.
Forms of public recognition were changing in the nineteenth century, as they are today. Celebrity rides on immediacy and is fuelled by the media. Hence, the development of photography encouraged the power of a celebrity. Providing a visual expression of an individual gave renewed emphasis to the relationship between an individual and an audience. Famous figures sparked fashion trends, grand banquets, even memorialization through statues. Two stand-out papers illustrated this. Nancy Bruseker (University of Liverpool) focused on Vesta Tilley, the famous star and male impersonator who had six successful tours of the United States. Bruseker explained how a costume malfunction kick-started a fashion craze: after she lost one of her cufflinks, Vesta used ribbons instead and it was not long before Americans were copying the new style. Douglass Muzzio (Baruch College, CUNY) explored the impact that Charles Dickens had on New York during a visit to the U.S. Thousands of people would wait for the next steamer to arrive from Britain, anxious to hear his latest stories (particularly when they were in serialized form) and when Dickens did arrive in New York, he was feted and mobbed wherever he went. Indeed, three thousand people attended a banquet held in his honour.
There were three keynote speeches interspersed between themed panels – unfortunately I missed one of them but the others touched on literary celebrities Walter Scott and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Tom Mole (University of Edinburgh), focused on Scott’s transatlantic celebrity and considered the complexities of fame. Scott, the famous Scottish poet, novelist and playwright, was one of the first people to be internationally recognised for his literary work during his lifetime. With Scott in particular, there was a balance between what kind of fame his supporters wanted him to have as opposed to the fame he actually had. In the early nineteenth century, Mole argued, the idea of a celebrity seemed fleeting, often undeserved, whereas true fame was often bestowed posthumously and was immortal. David H. Blake’s (College of New Jersey) keynote also focused on the concept of immortal fame: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the American poet, was very popular in Britain and his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha sparked songs and artwork on both sides of the Atlantic. The decision to erect a bust of Longfellow in Westminster Abbey stirred a debate regarding immortal fame, and whether an American should be remembered in a place that had been traditionally reserved for English heroes.
But the conference did not focus solely on those who achieved fame. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century there were individuals who fought hard to achieve celebrity status but never quite reached it. Naomi Stubbs (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY) gave a paper on Harry Watkins, an actor and playwright who sailed to Britain in search of fame and fortune after some popular reviews in America. Watkins’ attempt at transatlantic fame wasn’t entirely successful, however. He enjoyed some popularity but often played various roles, from the star of the show to minor characters, and Stubbs argued this might have hindered his chance at becoming a celebrity. We are left to ponder the consequences of why he failed and others succeeded.
Questions were raised that challenged me and thus provided interesting new directions for my own research on Frederick Douglass, an African American former slave and social activist. Douglass visited Britain in 1845 and acquired celebrity status due to his powerful oratory and reputation as a fugitive slave. The conference pushed me to consider the differences between performance and the written word in the creation of celebrity, and how this influenced fame. For example, Carolyn Eastman’s (Virginia Commonwealth University) paper on James Ogilvie was a valuable illustration of this. Mr O (as he was known) travelled over two thousand miles across twelve states and his oratory was unrivalled to anything that had been seen or heard before. However, when he tried to transfer this power to print in an autobiography the sales were poor, partly because of the laboring language he used for description. He could not bring the words to life as much as he could when on stage. It is hard to replicate that public yet intimate relationship between someone on stage and the audience. The ‘magical’ quality of a gifted speaker can only be seen to be believed. While Douglass was both a gifted orator and writer, he reached more people through his lectures and was famous in Britain because of his oratory rather than his literary work. His impressive bearing, charm and, according to so many at the time, “natural eloquence” made a deep impression on people of all classes.
The round table discussion on Saturday proved fruitful, and it was interesting to consider how many themes we had touched upon in two days. The concept of immortal fame versus fleeting celebrity during the nineteenth century depended (and ultimately, still depends) on the individual, the audience and the industry itself. We also focused on mapping a celebrity and their success, particularly on a national and international scale – location and identity were often crucial in moulding and maintaining celebrity status. It is perhaps no surprise that the conference provided much food for thought after it had ended. It was my first conference and although it was quite intense at times, I did not expect to leave with my mind buzzing with so many questions about the nature of celebrity, as well as new ideas and perspectives for my own research. In particular, the differences between performance and print will be essential for my PhD and will give a good basis for determining Douglass’ legacy in Britain.
Thanks to Paraic Finnerty and the University of Portsmouth for hosting such an interesting and thought-provoking event!