- Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity
After a long period of critical neglect, nineteenth-century literary celebrity has, of late, become a hot topic as scholars have recast our received canon of great authors by examining the most popular authors of the nineteenth century and by considering such canonical authors as Lord Byron or Elizabeth Barrett Browning in light of their popular reception. 2009 alone saw the publication of Ghislaine McDayter’s Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture; Tom Mole’s edited collection, Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750–1850, which followed his Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (2007); and Eric Eisner’s Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity. All three authors are interested in theorizing the ways in which writers such as Byron both created and anxiously responded to a new form of identity, “a new social category, a new kind of public person,” as Eisner puts it. Eisner further explains: “I understand literary celebrity not simply as one possible version of authorship but rather as a historically determinate form of the relationship between readers and writers” (3).
The trend is a significant one insofar as it corrects a growing body of critical literature—there’s even a Celebrity Culture Reader (2006)—that would have us believe that [End Page 168] celebrity is a product of the twentieth century. As these studies of the nineteenth century illustrate, there’s a strong argument to be made that, as Mole puts it, an “epistemic break” occurred “before the twentieth century, between earlier kinds of fame and modern celebrity culture” (Romanticism [Cambridge], 3). The trend also has ramifications for how we understand our received canon, for, as Mole continues, such studies “offer a new way of thinking about some of our critical protocols, and question the systemic assumption that celebrity culture is, by definition, below the notice of serious criticism” (15).
Byron’s significant place in the construction of celebrity culture has made Romanticism a particularly rich place to begin an archaeology of the celebrity; however, the Victorian period was certainly just as significant in the shift from seeing celebrity as “something you had” to “something you were” (Romanticism 2). And Eisner’s study would be worth the price of admission even if only because he helps us to bridge the gap between Romantic and modern celebrity culture. The study begins, almost by necessity, with Byron; however, Eisner’s study distinguishes itself from those of Mole and McDayter in two significant ways: on the one hand, with one chapter on John Keats and two on Percy Bysshe Shelley, he thinks through the careers of those poets usually cast as existing in a realm of pure poetry outside the messy negotiations of celebrity. He also illustrates the way in which Victorian poets, specifically Letitia Landon and Barrett Browning, adopted and adapted their Romantic precursors’ models for celebrity.
I would have liked to see Eisner theorize more fully what exactly constitutes a celebrity and how the subjectivity of the celebrity is distinct from, if possibly in dialogue with, the rather different sort of dispossession characteristic of the lyric self. Although he states in his introduction that he’s “interested in what happens when we shift our analysis of textual activity to include both the performance of authorship within particular institutions of reading and the experiences and practices of actual individual readers within determinate histories” (14), he does, in fact, often rely on rather general, abstract concepts to link the authors he analyzes to a celebrity culture driven by what he sees as “the ghostliness—the impersonality, abstraction and unrealness—of mass-market subjectivity” (63). Is the “dispossession of self” that is a “commonplace about celebrity” really the same as the abstracting of the self characteristic of the nineteenth-century turn to an idea of pure, lyric poetry or, for that matter, the alienation of the mass-market product (70)? As Eisner puts it, “the concrete, embodied experience of seduction by the ‘magnetic’ personality becomes a figure through which to understand the perhaps more disturbing abstraction inherent...