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Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850

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A decidedly promiscuous brand of renown, celebrity has a bad reputation. That reputation was characterised by Daniel Boorstin, who coined what has become a near-axiomatic definition of the celebrity as 'a person who is known for his well-knowness'.1The tautological bent of Boorstin's definition seems to suggest the meretricious nature of celebrities, famous not because they have done anything to merit acclaim, but because their images have been widely publicised and promoted. According to this logic, celebrities are superficial personalities, bold-faced names, air-brushed faces; they are slick images manufactured for the moment. Celebrities signify all that is shallow about contemporary society. Looking to account for the American fascination with stars, John Lahr has suggested that celebrities 'substitute for the national lack of a historical consciousness'. 2 Deriding the presentism of American culture, Lahr's remark is a fairly typical indictment of the vacuity of popular celebrity, especially its lack of historical validation. But what Lahr diagnoses as a symptom of twentieth-century America can be traced back to the Romantic period in Britain, and I find his comment especially telling in that it suggests a certain symmetry between popular celebrities and national consciousness, a symmetry I explore in the following pages.3 Essentially modern phenomena, both mass-media celebrity and the nation-state took shape during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Both memorialise their subjects. Both generate new models of consciousness and identification. Both are based on a regime of publicity and spectacle.


‘This material has been published in"Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850" by / edited by Tom Mole. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press.