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Cameo Appearances; or, When Gertrude Stein Checks into Grand Hotel
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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.2 (2001) 117-163

[Figures]
Besides, when every body has his portrait published, true distinction lies in not having yours published at all. For if you are published along with Tom, Dick, and Harry, and wear a coat of their cut, how then are you distinct from Tom, Dick, and Harry?--Herman Melville, Pierre
In America everybody is but some are more than others.--Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography

The travesty of literary celebrity that Melville undertakes when the action of Pierre moves from the country to the city is as savage as it is, from young Mr. Glendinning's perspective, uncalled for. Disinherited, estranged from family and fiancée, impoverished, abandoned in urban squalor, incestuously in love with his mother, his sister, or both --becoming famous would seem the least of Pierre's problems. Then again, as he is molested from the start by the uncanny likeness of his father's image and the "ineffable correlativeness" it suggests, it is perhaps not out of character for Pierre to be worried, above all, about anything that might render him just a version of someone else. For Pierre, to sit for a daguerreotype, to be "dayalized a dunce"--where once a "faithful portrait" marked the "immortalizing [of] a genius"--is to lose oneself within a democracy of mercenary and formulaic distinction (297); so we might say that for Melville, the mediating discourses and material emanations of fame work contrary to their own clamor, permitting not the apotheosis of the singular individual but the replication of a standardized type of celebrity, famous like most people aren't, but also famous exactly like others already are. Melville thus assaults an American culture of celebrity in a highly precocious way, identifying at this early moment that what is most strangely compelling about stardom has less to do with its scarcity and considerably more with its proliferation and promiscuity. "America," writes Leo Braudy, "pioneered in the implicit democratic and modern assumption that everyone could and should be looked at. This it seemed was one of the privileges for which the American Revolution was fought." The overstatement is only partly rhetorical. Stars constitute a whole category of extravagantly mediated personhood, a whole species that is at home in the artificial worlds of publicity that have come to surround those technologies, film most of all, that amplified fame and its effects out of all historical proportion in the twentieth century. And America is a kind of native land for any celebrity, a place where they are all at home, no matter where they might come from. The logical extension of Melville's corrosive irony toward fame would treat being a star as the same thing as being American, only more so: we're all looked at, we're all mediated, we're all spectacularly reproduced, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous are nothing more than variations on everyday modern life in general, pitched at the level of allegory and dressed up to show a little, or sometimes a lot of, class.

There are no such concerns for Gertrude Stein, or so my second epigraph on American celebrity would have us think. Stardom here assumes an ontological status; it is a difference that makes a difference: a star is a star is a star is a star. Stein makes this remark in Everybody's Autobiography, the 1937 sequel to her astonishing 1932 best-seller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and these two texts are my primary concern in the pages that follow. I am interested in what might be called, following Hayden White, the content of the form of Stein's fame. I do not treat Stein's fame as a biographical footnote, or as a catastrophe from which her writing failed to recover, or as an extended performance of cultural subversion from within. Instead, I reconsider her stardom as an essential aspect of her literary production in the 1930s, when Stein finds herself strangely and belatedly embraced by American culture, perhaps in part because she describes the experience of celebrity in ways that resonate everywhere with a larger history of media and mediation. That is, the life of fame...



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