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Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame
Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame. By Thomas N. Baker. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. xi + 252 pp. $52.
Until recently, N. P. Willis has been one of the great footnotes of nineteenth-century American literary history, always in the background of someone else's story (namely, Edgar Allan Poe's, Fanny Fern's, and Harriet Jacobs's) but rarely discussed on his own terms or anthologized. In Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame, Thomas N. Baker places Willis at the center of an examination of antebellum culture, fleshing out key incidents in a turbulent career to explore why Willis was, as his early patron Samuel Goodrich claimed in 1856, "more written about than any other literary man in our history" (Recollections of a Lifetime , 265-66).
Baker situates Willis's fame within such interrelated contexts as the cults of Byron and Bulwer-Lytton, the rapid growth of print culture, sentimentalism, and the rise of personality journalism to show how this spreader and subject of printed gossip mastered the star-making machinery only to fall victim to it repeatedly. Baker focuses on several key episodes and phases of Willis's career: his transition from pious Yale undergraduate versifier to the romantic "beauty's apostle" in the 1820s; his self-fashioning breakthrough as the dandified but (seemingly) sincere editor of the Boston American Monthly Magazine in the late 1820s and early 1830s; his scandalous, career-making tour of Europe as correspondent for the New York Mirror in the early-to-mid-1830s; his ongoing project of refining the tastes of republican society; his involvement in the sensational divorce proceedings of the Bowery B'hoys' tragedian Edwin Forrest and Catherine Sinclair in 1850-52; and the unwelcome publicity surrounding his sister Fanny Fern's infamous characterization of him as the cruel, self-absorbed Hyacinth Ellet in her novel Ruth Hall (1854). The predominant theme throughout these chapters is the double-edged nature of sentiment and celebrity: Willis manages to keep himself in the public eye and even remain popular with a large segment of the population as an accomplished poet and "personal friend" of his subscribers even as he is attacked for his seduction of women readers into a world of amoral social climbing and luxury. The now-commonplace image of celebrities who thirst for publicity even as they lament their lack of privacy finds a quaint precursor in Willis: "Once private life became revealed to so many and in such terms as it was by the Forrest case, often little could be done to retrieve a name dishonored. It was ironic, in this respect, that Willis's desire for public access to the lives of noted personages should redound so savagely against himself and those he celebrated" (157).
Sentiment and Celebrity is full of interesting documentary information about Willis and antebellum celebrity culture, and Baker's analysis of this considerable body of evidence is both careful and insightful. He describes Willis's rise and fall in the eyes of British aristocracy in ample but not excessive detail, revealing the politics and the expectations behind the network of letters of introduction, which Willis used--along with his personal charm--to climb European social ladders, as well as his violation of the very privacy the letter system was supposed to protect. As an apparently well-connected [End Page 132] and respected poet on a European tour, Willis was made welcome; but his journalistic project of sending gossipy "insider" reports back to the New York Mirror led to an embarrassing series of challenges and aborted duels with Frederick Marryat, as well as the infamy of having invaded the privacy of the rich, famous, and titled.
The two chapters that Baker devotes to the Forrest divorce trial shift the focus away from Willis somewhat; as an alleged lover of Catherine Sinclair Forrest...