A Short History of Celebrity

August 12, 2010

While Leo Braudy's history of fame, The Frenzy of Renown, began in antiquity with specific reference to the self-publicising strategies of Alexander the Great, Fred Inglis, in A Short History of Celebrity, turns back the clock a mere 250 years to account for the current status of celebrity within contemporary Western culture.

This modern celebrity-fixated culture still bears the imprint of the past, Inglis argues, and shows the traces of the emergence of a distinctive class of individuals who were able to command and incite acclaim and envy in equal measure. The rise of the individual is central to Inglis' historical narrative, an account that begins in London in 1760. The significance of this period and city is that it is here, he argues, that the foundations of our modern consumer society were laid, and in the process created an urban space that enabled fame itself to become a commodity.

To illustrate, he cites the development of the theatre under the direction of David Garrick, the "first" late 18th-century celebrity figure and the actor, producer and theatre owner who established a clear spatial divide between the theatrical player and the audience - an audience that hungered for tales of the actors' "scandalous" private lives. Inglis places such developments within the context of the processes of the "industrialisation of leisure", and the growth of public spaces such as concert halls and promenading gardens. These areas, beyond working life, were intimately connected with consumerism, visibility and forums for the display of famous faces.

These factors are developed in relation to Paris and New York of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, principally the rise of the department store and cafe culture in Paris. Such spaces were the social and cultural rendezvous sites of the anonymous and the famous, and the ostentatiously displayed trappings of luxury flaunted by New York's industrial classes, extensively reported by emergent journalistic genres, predicated upon "gossip" and "muckraking". However, individualism, consumption and spectacle would be paralleled by developments in the media technology of radio, film and television, principally in relation to their immediate and effective exploitation by the great dictators of the early 20th century.

Inglis then deftly considers the role of the Hollywood star system, and the subsequent pivotal role played by the cultural forces of sport, rock music and fashion in the creation and visual circulation of celebrity images. While historical discussions of fame are often characterised by laments for a better, vanished time characterised by a veneration of "heroes" worthy of fame, Inglis argues that the history of celebrity continues to inform the present, and he assuredly brings the past and present together. Here, he cites an extensive array of examples, from Lord Byron, Henry James, Sarah Bernhardt, William Randolph Hearst, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Andrei Sakharov and Seamus Heaney to John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, David Beckham, Diana, Princess of Wales, Dolly Parton, Nelson Mandela and Kylie Minogue (there are also a few unexpected citations, such as Lena Zavaroni). Add a veritable who's who of classic philosophers and social theorists - Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Clifford Geertz, Michel Foucault, Claude Levi-Strauss, C. Wright Mills, Erving Goffman - and the result is an assured, meticulously researched and superbly crafted book.

A particularly pleasing aspect of Inglis' approach is the palpable sense of warmth and enthusiasm he expresses for many of his case-study subjects. This is most notable in the section concerning Cary Grant's performance and image, which not only ably demonstrates the link between star image and public perception, but is so evocative it made me want to re-watch the key films of the debonair star. This style is also evident in the discussion of the early cultural "idol", Lord Byron, a figure Inglis concludes is "that rarest of creatures, a celebrity worth celebrating" - a sentiment that is difficult to argue with. However, the Byron evaluation does stress the "classic" hue of Inglis' substantive examples.

Although Kylie Minogue may come within the orbit of Marilyn Monroe, she does not get equal word-space, or equitable platitudes. Consequently, the reader seeking detailed elucidation of the present-day face of celebrity culture will find that it is the figures of fame and renown of the past who receive the bulk of the narrative. Nevertheless, the nature and orientation of the book, and its thesis, a historical account of celebrity, is transparent in its title, and in this regard it fully delivers. Contemporary academic accounts of the famous abound, but Inglis has produced something quite different. A Short History of Celebrity is not only an informative and informed study, it is also a great read, and will certainly appear on my student reading lists this September.

A Short History of Celebrity

By Fred Inglis. Princeton University Press 322pp, £20.95 ISBN 9780691135625. Published 3 August 2010

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