Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity

Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity

by David Haven Blake

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What is the relationship between poetry and fame?   What happens to a reader's experience when a poem invokes its author's popularity?  Is there a meaningful connection between poetry and advertising, between the rhetoric of lyric and the rhetoric of hype?  One of the first full-scale treatments of celebrity in nineteenth-century America, this book examines Walt Whitman's lifelong interest in fame and publicity.  
Making use of notebooks, photographs, and archival sources, David Haven Blake provides a groundbreaking history of the rise of celebrity culture in the United States.  He sees Leaves of Grass alongside the birth of commercial advertising and the nation's growing obsession with the lives of the famous and the renowned.  As authors, lecturers, politicians, entertainers, and clergymen vied for popularity, Whitman developed a form of poetry that routinely promoted and, indeed, celebrated itself.  Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity proposes a fundamentally new way of thinking about a seminal American poet and a major national icon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300134810
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

David Haven Blake is associate professor of English, The College of New Jersey. He was co-director of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Symposium in 2005. He lives in Pennington, NJ.

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Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity



Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11017-3

Chapter One



CELEBRITY CAME LATE TO WALT WHITMAN. An old man, half paralyzed by strokes, he could hardly appreciate the attention he attracted during the height of America's Gilded Age. From around the world people wrote the poet asking for his autograph, and on at least one occasion, he used a pile of such requests to light the kindling in his fireplace (WWC, 4:351-52). Admirers frequently traveled to Camden, hoping to meet the author of Leaves of Grass. When Oscar Wilde arrived in 1882, the poet was living with his brother and sister-in-law in a respectable working-class neighborhood. The two drank homemade elderberry wine and took tremendous satisfaction in each other's company. In March 1884, Whitman moved to the two-story shanty where he would reside until his death. Located at 328 Mickle Street, the house had six small rooms and no furnace. By arrangement, the previous owners lived with the poet, but when they moved ten months later, they left him alone and with no furniture. Eventually Mary Davis, a sea captain's widow, agreed to move into the home as Whitman's housekeeper, bringing with her a dog, a cat, a few birds, and the much-needed furniture.

Surrounded by the sounds of factory whistles, train yards, and peddlers hawking in the street, admirers such as Bram Stoker and Thomas Eakins visited with the famous man. They climbed the narrow staircase to a plainly decorated room where the poet sat in a rocking chair amid piles of old newspapers, photographs, notebooks, and manuscripts. A lifetime's worth of correspondence was seemingly scattered about the room, though Whitman seemed able to locate any single letter with ease-the congratulations from Emerson, a rejection from a New York magazine, a note from an English sailor expressing admiration for Leaves of Grass. Although many were filled with praise, a number of these letters revealed the complications that came with fame. One reader contacted Whitman, oering to bear him a child; he marked on the envelope containing her letter "?insane asylum." A letter from a prominent Englishman inquired whether the Calamus poems hinted at sexual relations between men. The poet responded with anger and astonishment, claiming that he had fathered six illegitimate children. In 1888 he refused to endorse a California woman's plan to produce a Walt Whitman calendar with each month illustrating a passage from his poems. "I not only don't enthuse-I do not even approve," he commented. "Leaves of Grass does not lend itself to piecemeal quotation" (WWC, 2:115). Earlier that year, however, the poet had greeted the sight of his portrait on a box of cigars with the amused pronouncement "That is fame!" (WWC, 7:386).

With their invasions on both his privacy and his work, such incidents suggest an unexpected conclusion to the kind of fame that Whitman had imagined for himself in the decades before the Civil War. In none of these situations would he find the type of deep-seated popularity he observed in the carnival atmosphere of antebellum New York. Though his understanding would change over time, celebrity for Whitman was less a biographical marker than a broad cultural orientation. Its capacity to signify individual achievement was subordinate to its role in expressing the popular will. Never at ease with the increasingly invasive forms of publicity that arose in the late nineteenth century, Whitman fondly remembered the spontaneous enthusiasm with which audiences had greeted their favorite actors in 1830s New York:

Recalling from that period the occasion of either Forrest or Booth, any good night at the old Bowery, pack'd from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well dress'd, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American born mechanics-the emotional nature of the whole mass arous'd by the power and magnetism of as mighty mimes as ever trod the stage-the whole crowded auditorium, and what seeth'd in it, and flush'd from its faces and eyes, to me as much a part of the show as any-bursting forth in one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery-no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2000 full-sinew'd men-(the inimitable and chromatic tempest of one of those ovations to Edwin Forrest, welcoming him back after an absence, comes up to me this moment). (WPP, 1189)

Published in 1888, the passage from November Boughs touches on many of the themes that Whitman had employed in earlier depictions of the crowd: the manly and polite working class, the magnetic pull of the star, the eruption of muscular applause setting the Bowery theater apart from its aristocratic counterparts. As Whitman's next paragraph makes clear, the actors attracted a highly diverse audience, one that included such "notables" as John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and James Fenimore Cooper along with its native-born workers and mechanics. The crowd's "inimitable and chromatic tempests" attested not only to the strength of the actors but to its own strength as well. Edwin Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth (the father of Lincoln's assassin) were both celebrated for their broadly expressive style of acting. In their celebrity, Whitman sees a kind of election, a representative system in which individuals could be sanctioned with public approval and sanctified in national pride. Just as they stirred and electrified their admirers, the performers were transformed by the audience applauding them. They were not simply actors with individual talents and skills; they were emblems of democratic nationalism.

In contrast to much of November Boughs, the passage returns Whitman to antebellum New York and the emergent celebrity culture that had played a prominent role in his conception of Leaves of Grass. Although the poet's own fame came during a later age of magazine profiles, testimonial dinners, and "star lectures," it was the reception of figures such as Forrest and Booth that excited his imagination and exerted a deep influence on his poems. Whitman's recollection of the Old Bowery attests to the rich potential he had seen in the democratization of fame and the rise of American celebrity. Among the many political, economic, and social changes that occurred during the Jacksonian era, substantial popular audiences began to appear in urban centers stretching from New York and Philadelphia to such far-o towns as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Building on the growing significance of celebrity in eighteenth-century London and Paris, American cities saw the emergence of a highly fluid and oftentimes politicized concept of fame. Though it is colored by nostalgia, Whitman's portrait is indicative of a society that in coming years would turn people as diverse as Tom Thumb and Harriet Beecher Stowe into objects of public appeal and scrutiny.

In the years between Jackson's election and the start of the Civil War, urbanization and the opening of commercial markets resulted in the proliferation of new forms of popular entertainment. Whitman thinks back to a period of cultural growth that would affect nearly every segment of urban society. While these changes influenced aristocrats and professionals alike, their biggest impact was on the middle and working classes that were forming in towns and cities along the eastern seaboard. Particularly in New York, common laborers could join their bourgeois counterparts in attending an array of operas, plays, lectures, and recitals. At the same time, the rise of the penny press was making newspapers, books, and magazines available to readers of all incomes. Among the most influential-and visible-members of antebellum society were the great "national" publishers James Gordon Bennett, Robert Bonner, and Horace Greeley.

For some Americans, the growth of popular culture resulted in "the deep, horizontal comradeship" that Benedict Anderson has associated with nationalism. As individuals attended common performances, read common newspapers, and consumed common goods, they developed a spirit of both power and fraternity. The sense of cultural ownership could produce the unity that Whitman recalled in November Boughs, but it could also intensify the boisterous, sometimes volatile nature of his society. The antebellum public sphere was a disorderly place in which performers, writers, reformers, and discourses competed for the public's attention. Out of this period came the first campaign slogans, the first campaign biographies, the first advertising agencies, and the first programmatic efforts to understand hype. The men behind these innovations aimed to adapt to the country's newly competitive environment. At the center of this competition was the public, and audiences quickly felt their newfound power, often associating their participation in cultural matters with their political identity. The nearly utopian class mixing Whitman appreciated at the Old Bowery was short lived. In the 1840s, he informs us, "cheap prices and vulgar programmes came in," and the audience of assorted mechanics, writers, and statesmen gave way to "the pandemonium of the pit" (WPP, 1190). Over the next decades, spectators from the bourgeois and working classes gravitated toward different kinds of entertainment. The sense of national camaraderie became a class-based identification with specific amusements, venues, and celebrities. With a striking fusion of pride, defiance, and urgency, laborers formed a deep connection to the purveyors of popular entertainment, a connection often expressed as a competing form of nationalism.

That sense of competition was evident in the celebrity of Edwin Forrest, Whitman's favorite actor and one of the most notorious stars of his age. As the passage from November Boughs illustrates, Forrest's American style of acting had won him broad praise in the 1830s, particularly among the working classes, who admired his patriotism and hypermasculine roles. (Forrest was known internationally for his performance as the oppressed slave Spartacus in The Gladiator.) By 1849, however, Forrest's rivalry with the English Shakespearean James Macready would play a central role in the Astor Place riot. Over the years, the two actors had traded insults through the press, most of which focused on the national character expressed by their divergent styles. The rivalry grew dangerously intense when the two men offered competing productions of Macbeth at theaters separated by just a few blocks. With the press aggravating the conflict, Forrest's working-class supporters hissed and heckled Macready's performances at the genteel Astor Place Opera House. Despite pleas from leading writers and intellectuals (Herman Melville among them), the disturbances continued. Eventually the militia was called in, and on the night of May 10, 1849, the ten thousand protestors outside the opera house turned violent. The fighting killed twenty-two people. There are many lessons to be drawn from the Astor Place riot-the depth of class antipathy, the blinding force of nationalism, the long-lived tension between high and popular culture. The riot also indicated the extent to which Whitman's working-class New Yorkers identified themselves with their celebrities.

By the 1850s, a much broader cross-section of society would share that sense of value, choosing among a group of actors, musicians, writers, and promoters a few select individuals whom they would vest with sociopolitical meaning. The phenomenon extended to all segments of society, affecting not just entertainment but the ministry, publishing, business, lecturing, and poetry. Whether people rejected or sought it, thinking about the meaning of fame and publicity became a prominent concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Some, like Forrest, would experience the hazards of fame firsthand and find themselves beset with overeager fans or invasions of their privacy. Others, like Whitman, would observe such behavior from a distance, reflecting on what celebrity meant to the development of democratic society. The roots of this new world lay in the eighteenth century.


Determining the beginnings of celebrity culture is a difficult if not futile exercise, particularly since most scholars of the subject view it as roughly corresponding to the lives of the specific men and women they are studying. (While one scholar, for example, observes the phenomenon in the mid-eighteenth century, another claims that the concept did not exist until the advent of film and television.) In the seventeenth century, celebrity was used to describe a solemn religious observance; it was a quality that might be attributed to a ritual or ceremony that had been performed with due respect for its office. The OED cites Edward Brerewood's Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages and Religions (1612): "Their general synods ... have frequently been held with great celebrity." By the eighteenth century, the word's meaning had expanded to include "the condition of being extolled or talked about; famousness, notoriety." Mirroring the increased importance of the public sphere (and the subsequent devaluation of church authority), the word now signified the public's possession of a renowned individual through conversation and colloquy. In this respect, it came closer to its original Latin meaning of being famous or thronged. Samuel Johnson-whose dictionary lists celebrity as being synonymous with fame and renown-used the word in Rambler 165, wryly remarking that he did not find himself "enriched in proportion to [his] celebrity."

The emergence of this new definition of celebrity coincides with the beginnings of what Leo Braudy has described as "an international European fame culture" in the eighteenth century. As the power of both the church and monarchies waned, "an enormous variety of new social, economic, and political groups" used the press to push their way into "the vacuum of cultural authority." That sense of opportunism, of concerted efforts to publicize one's self, shows up in the example of the novelist Laurence Sterne. In 1760, Sterne traveled to London to promote Tristram Shandy. Dressed in character as either the digressing Tristram or the amiable Parson Yorick, he circulated through London as a walking advertisement for his book. As Peter Briggs describes it, the stunt played upon the "illusion of presence already established in the novel" and won for Sterne notoriety in both the press and polite society. Nearly a hundred years before Whitman adopted the costume of a working-class rough, the novelist was achieving enviable success in thinking of publicity as a series of public performances.

Sterne exploited a phenomenon that, as Briggs points out, Johnson and Boswell had observed as well: "that audiences were increasingly interested in authors as 'personalities' rather than simply as artistic makers; idiosyncrasies that had gone unreported in an earlier generation were now seized upon as symptoms of personal character, pieces in a mosaic of personality which the reading public wished earnestly to complete." A more dramatic eighteenth-century expression of this trend centered on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unwilling to admire the writer from afar, people traveled hundreds of miles to see and engage him in conversation. The posthumous publication of Rousseau's Confessions (1781) provided a fitting conclusion to the publicity surrounding a life known for its singularity. With its insight into the private life of an intellectual celebrity, the autobiography turned Rousseau into "an object not of attention but of curiosity," a writer valued less for his dialogue with the ancients than for his willingness to open his private life to public view.


Excerpted from Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity by DAVID HAVEN BLAKE Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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