Introduction: Celebrity Culture in the Public Sphere
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1 In an essay occasioned by his reading of James Eliot Cabot’s A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James reflects on the reputation and literary merits of the Concord Sage. For James, Emerson’s great contribution , the reason “that indeed we cannot afford to drop him,” is that “he did something better than any one else; he had a particular faculty, which has not been surpassed , for speaking to the soul in a voice of direction and authority.” Emerson’s success lies less in his message than in his manner, his ability to communicate with his audiences. In James’s rendering, Emerson is himself a representative man in his fitness to his time and place: “In what other country, on sleety winter nights, would provincial and bucolic populations have gone forth in hundreds for the cold comfort of a literary discourse?” This “cold comfort” is Emerson’s gift to his countrymen, the sense of improvement and insight that comes with attending the public lecture outside of one’s regular vocation. Looking to Emerson ’s potential fame, James concludes that “if Emerson goes his way”—­ if he continues to appeal to audiences in the future—­ “on the strength of his message alone, the case will be rare, the exception striking, and the honor great.” Writing less than a decade after Emerson’s death, James wonders whether Emerson’s legacy will transform from celebrity, a temporary appeal to a mass audience of his contemporaries, into fame, the durable reputation for greatness.1 Both Emerson’s celebrity and his fame depend, however precariously, on his association with transcendentalism. James addresses Emerson’s discomfort with the transcendentalist label, quoting a letter Emerson wrote to his wife Lidian in 1842: He liked to explain the transcendentalists but did not care at all to be explained by them: a doctrine “whereof you know I am wholly guiltless,” he says to his wife in 1842, “and which is spoken of as a known and fixed element, like salt or meal. So that I have to begin with endless disclaimers and explanations: ‘I am not the man you take me for.’” He was never the man any one took him for, for the simple reason that no one could possibly take him for the elusive, irreducible, merely gustatory spirit for which he took himself.2 Introduction �������������� CELEBRITY CULTURE IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE 2  Introduction In James’s reading, Emerson’s rejection of the term “transcendentalist” manifests his characteristic aloofness; that same tendency caused him to withdraw from Margaret Fuller’s enthusiastic friendship and tack away from Brook Farm. Leon Edel notes that the essay traces “the exquisite qualities of Emerson’s mind and its expression in his writings.”3 But although James provides some excerpts from Emerson’s works and discusses his ideal of the scholar, James is ultimately not interested in Emerson’s philosophy or even style, which he dismisses: “it is hardly too much, or too little, to say of Emerson’s writings in general that they were not composed at all.”4 The “felicities” and occasional “eloquence” of Emerson’s writings barely make up for his inability to achieve a form. Of more interest to me, in this passage James puts his finger on the great challenge of publicity and celebrity more specifically: the public figure’s understanding of himself cannot be reconciled with his audience’s view of him. Under these circumstances , what can Emerson, or any other public figure, do? Throughout the essay, James attempts to interpret Emerson’s character, identify and analyze the qualities of the self that appealed to the popular mind, and thereby justify that appeal. James asks the same question many of Emerson’s early critics asked, that some still ask, and that, indeed, first attracted my own interest years ago: what made Emerson so appealing to his audiences? How do we account for his popularity ? Relocating interest in Emerson from his works—­ his ideas—­ to his personality , James is not unlike Cabot or the other early biographers whose works I explore more fully in chapter 2. James’s essay strikes me as a strong example of the influence of the celebrity culture that was just getting started as Emerson began his lecturing career. The interest in the character of public figures, the effort to personalize them, is a defining element of celebrity culture. In this book, I study the emergence of celebrities and celebrity culture in the mid-­ nineteenth-­ century United States. I am especially interested...


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