Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Mythology, Celebrity, & the Machine (part 3)

Charles Dickens carte-de-visite (ca. 1860–69)

III. THE MEDIA'S OWN CREATURES

The eighteenth-century newspaper scooped up the beau monde as readymade celebrities. Many of high society's denizens would have been happier without the public scrutiny. Probably it was only those people and families who were either trying to climb the social ladder, found themselves in a position of precarity, or feared the airing of a private scandal who truly cared about what the plebians writing for the newspapers had to say about them. 

Despite the newspapers' role in bringing the affairs of the fashionable universe to the public's attention (and stationing themselves as a sort of magic mirror in the fashionable household), the media didn't get into the business of manufacturing its celebrities until the nineteenth century. True, the papers weren't above bringing eccentrics, perverts, and madmen into the textual spotlight to be gawked at by a public that would have otherwise been ignorant of them (then as now, sensationalistic content moved product), and of course coverage was allotted to the scientist, inventor, political activist, philosopher, or businessman who rose to prominence in their respective spheres of activity. But the first modern celebrity was the figure whose sphere of activity was the mass media itself: the literary celebrity, who made his entrance onto the public stage during the same decades that the fashionable intelligence column became a fixture of the English-language newspaper.

These new sorts of eminences were, like their counterparts on the twentieth century's silver screen and the twenty-first century's black mirror, those best endowed to make themselves a creature of the medium in which they worked, through a combination of ingenuity, talent, restless ambition, and a personal charisma they could weave into the very fibers of their productions.

Charles Dickens is the example par excellence: the voice of an age, whose prose appealed to both the literati and the merely literate, and whose stature as a living author reached altogether unprecedented heights. He was the first to eclipse Lord Byron—an iconoclast, a legend in his own day, and the forerunner of the artist renowned for his work and infamous for the torrid life he lead. To these two exemplars we might add the Robert Burns, whom in Carlyle's biographical treatment epitomizes the talented outsider ruined by a too-steep ascent to fame; Oscar Wilde, the playwright and journalist with a prescient understanding of the method of cultivating a media persona; Arthur Conan Doyle, who had the luck and misfortune of coming up with the legendary Sherlock Holmes, a character whom audiences adored more than they did his creator; and J. F. Smith, J. Malcolm Rhymer, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and scores of others whose serialized fiction ran in magazines that together sold around two million copies per week—and are all but forgotten today.¹

The rise of the literary celebrity was enabled by advances in the technology of production (both of paper and of print matter), exploding literacy rates, the addition of lithography and photography to the mass media's arsenal, and improvements to transportation. The first two factors extended the reach of the author beyond the coterie of the salon, giving him or her access to the general public (and vice versa). The third permitted the mass audience of inexpensive newspapers, serial magazine, and novels to tie the name of a renowned author to a printed illustration. (Photographs couldn't be reproduced by the printing press until the 1880s, but the camera could provide the template for an etching, while daguerreotypes and cartes-de-visite could be produced in large volumes and sold to fans.) The fourth not only intensified the circulation of print matter, but facilitated the rise of the prototypical celebrity performer, epitomized by the Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, who literally rode the train and steamship to fame on both sides of the Atlantic. And because of fast, inexpensive, and widely distributed print media he could be hyped far and wide as the greatest actor of his generation, even if his audience on a given night was restricted to a single venue's seating capacity.²

Edwin Booth carte-de-visite
(date unknown)

Unlike the members of the beau monde, whom historian Hannah Grieg (author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London, which you may recall from last time) urges us not to treat as cleanly analogous to the attendees at a Hollywood awards show afterparty, Dickens and Booth were celebrities in the modern sense. These were not politicians, aristocrats, generals, or captains of industry, but popular entertainers who had amassed a degree of social capital that was once unthinkable for people of their stations. During Dickens' 1867 tour of the United States, the author's manager "had to place guards at the doors to the novelist's hotel rooms to keep away admirers who tried to barge in and demand a handshake or a free ticket to his readings," writes Matthew Pearl. And Booth reportedly kept a stack of his favorite fan-letters that numbered in the hundreds; it's anyone's guess as to how many he tossed out.

As fiction reached its apogee as a popular artform, publishers of serialized journals sought to deepen and prolong readers' commitment to their product through strategies of interactive engagement. One common tactic was publishing reader comments and questions along with an editor's replies—and its effectiveness at stoking interest, brand loyalty, and a sense of belonging can be attested to by anyone who regularly purchased American superhero comics prior to the late 1990s. One Professor John Plunkett (see footnotes) explains how novel strategies of making readers feel like participants was instrumental to the emergence of modern celebrity culture through the print industry:

Popular journals encouraged an interactive and intimate relationship with their readers, which needs to be seen as one of the preconditions for a celebrity culture in so far as it inspired readers' emotional and psychological engagement. Recent scholars have similarly emphasized the way that serial publication——through its sustained regularity——made writers and their work part of their readers' everyday, affective lives. Readers literally lived with the novels, whose serial rhythms connected with their own: fiction and everyday life converged. Moreover, as Mark Turner has noted of serial fiction, the impact of 'readers interacting with media at roughly the same time' was to create 'a kind of simultaneity [which] becomes increasingly significant in a collective media culture, and can lead to a form of social bonding with a community of readers all engaged in the same activity.'

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But bear in mind that we're still looking at something like the purely discursive "virtual world" described by Sumiao Li (whom you undoubtedly recall from last time), and remember that the experiences that the enjoyments of the avid readers of serialized fiction were enjoyed privately in spite of the public rhythm into which it brought some of their behavior to conformity.

Sydney Paget, engraving for Arthur Conan Doyle's "The
Boscombe Valley Mystery" (1891)

While the press continued to report on society affairs and lionize certain intellectuals, inventors, businessmen, war heroes, and so on, there is a crucial distinction to be made between the star whose bread and butter is the mass media and the prestigious figure who incidentally finds themselves the subject of media attention. Though we're jumping ahead a bit, the pioneering chemist Marie Curie provides a stellar example.

As a scientific power couple in age where the nations of Europe more often competed for clout than they drove armies across each other's borders, Pierre and Marie Curie were bound to be featured in the Parisian press—but poor Marie got the worst of it. During a period of nationalistic fervor, she was an immigrant; at a time when it was believed the "natural" role of the woman was to provide moral support to the man and raise his children, she was a mother who spent more time in the laboratory than the nursery. The death of her Pierre by a freak carriage accident in 1906 left her a widow and brought the press vultures to her door. Another brouhaha followed when the press brought to light Curie's affair with the married (but estranged) Paul Langevin in 1911. The scandal reached such a pitch of intensity that it resulted in no fewer than five duels. A journalist was involved in each.

Curie herself didn't want the attention; she only wished to continue her research. There came a point, however, when she reluctantly submitted to playing the game for the sake of her work. Of Curie's first visit to the United States in 1921, Julie Des Jardins writes:

The tour was largely the work of a New York City journalist named Missy Meloney, who had interviewed Curie in 1920 in Paris for the women’s magazine the Delineator, which Meloney edited. Meloney learned that the Curies had never patented the process for purifying radium. As a result, other scientists and U.S. chemical companies were processing radium, then selling it for cancer treatments and military research for $100,000 per gram. Curie was now unable to afford the element she had discovered. Sensing a human-interest story, Meloney created the Marie Curie Radium Fund to raise money to purchase radium for Curie's continuing research.
American women would be inspired to give to Curie, Meloney figured, only if her image as a scientist——which stereotypically suggested someone dispassionate, even severe——could be softened. So Meloney's articles presented Curie as a benevolent healer, intent on using radium to treat cancer. Meloney also persuaded editor friends at other newspapers and magazines to emphasize the same image. Curie understood that radium might be useful in the clinic, but she had no direct role in using it for medical treatments. Nevertheless, Curie's motivation for discovering radium, according to a headline in the Delineator, was "That Millions Shall Not Die." Writers described her as the "Jeanne D'Arc of the laboratory," with a face of "suffering and patience."

The making of myth, documented. 

Curie disapproved of the publicity campaign. In lectures, she reminded her audience that her discovery of radium was the work "of pure science...done for itself" rather than with "direct usefulness" in mind.³
And yet Meloney’s efforts succeeded: She raised more than $100,000 on Curie’s behalf within months, enough to buy a gram of radium for the Curie Institute in Paris. Meloney invited Curie to the United States.
Curie, who disliked travel and attention, agreed to come to thank Meloney and those who had contributed to the cause. But, she wrote Meloney, "you know how careful I am to avoid all publicity referring to my name. And how I should be very grateful to arrange for my voyage with the minimum of publicity."

Curie sailed...and within hours of disembarking in New York embarked on a whirlwind tour that took her as far west as the Grand Canyon. As it wore on, Curie became exhausted and asked to cancel events, or at least not have to speak at them. She appeared aloof and sometimes refused to shake hands with admirers. She did not appear to be the kindly maternal figure that Meloney had made her out to be. Clearly, Curie's strength and patience were wearing thin.

The difference between the incidental celebrity and the media creature was that someone like Curie, a professor at the Sorbonne, didn't need public adulation to go on doing her work.⁴  If that work generated excitement outside of the academy, fine—but as Curie understood it, the success of her career depended on the replicability of what she achieved in the lab, not the number of people who turned out for one of her public appearances or the number of tabloids that put her on the front page. Like the more secure members of the beau monde, or the day's captains of industry, she would have much preferred to have been left alone to do her job.

Marie Curie and press photographers, from Feminia (Feb. 1 1911)

But the new breed of celebrity author depended on a good relationship with the switch operators in the literary factory farm to do their jobs and maintain their standard of living. Public interest was their bread and butter.

Looking at the biographies of famous European writers who worked before the nineteenth century, we frequently see a history in the academy, business, politics, the aristocratic salon, etc. Such people wrote novels or poems to entertain themselves, accrue clout, supplement their income, and so on. Skyrocketing literacy rates, reductions in the price of print matter, and the arrival of mass-circulation magazines made it feasible (though not necessarily easy) for a writer of fictions to live entirely from the income of their publications by the mid-nineteenth century. Even if they worked in solitude, they had no choice but to consent to the transmission of their names and images far and wide—and live with the probing attention that was liable to follow. Submitting to mythologization vis-à-vis the printing press and the newsstand was part of the bargain. 

The actor, the musician, and the visual artist weren't quite yet in the same position. While it's true that there were celebrities in each of these fields, they weren't mass media stars in the same sense as Charles Dickens. Their work remained incompatible with the technology of mass reproduction and circulation in the late nineteenth century. Certainly glowing reviews of a stage performance could be read by millions in the press, composing and selling sheet music could be a lucrative business, and engraved facsimiles of paintings could be printed—but the play, the song, and the full-color painting were confined to specific places and times.

But not for much longer.


1. Names were pulled from John Plunkett's "Celebrity Culture" (whose specific focus in spite of its general title is implied by its publication in the Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture). Of these three authors, only Mary Elizabeth Braddon's work is reproduced on guternberg.org.

2. The knowledge that his fame will be forever eclipsed by that of his younger brother John Wilkes probably has poor Edwin spinning in his grave.

3. In the early twentieth century, radium products were marketed as medical panaceas. Hence the "millions will not die" bit.

4. At least not in theory, but whether she should be held responsible for failing to patent her discovery or anticipate the avarice of United States businessmen is another conversation.

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