Let’s admit it up front: for a lot of us, there is a definite “cringe factor” when we make our way through the supermarket checkout aisle and glance at magazine covers, or sign in to msn.com or yahoo.com. Whether or not we understand who the prominently featured people are on Internet homepages or in those magazines in the checkout line (“blocked” from the prying eyes of “innocent” children by a hard sheet of colored plastic in some cases), or why we should care–there they are, the “celebrities” adored by many Americans. Think about it: “Baby bumps”; BFFs; “calling out” another celebrity for some real or imagined slight; “news” of a change in hair style or color; a new wardrobe (or, a “wardrobe malfunction”). Oh, and let’s not forget the celebrity “couples” who are so much in the public eye that they lose their individual identities and are combined into another—e.g., “Benifer.” (Who remembers this? Anyone? Anyone?) And then there are the Kardashians, an entire family the cause of whose “celebrity” apparently is wrapped in mystery; they are “famous,” but few people can say why. Oh, wait: they’re “reality tv stars” (oxymoron alert!).
Now, celebrity “worship” is certainly nothing new—for example, consider “ballyhoo” in the 1920s (i.e. Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, flagpole sitters, goldfish eating, telephone booth stuffing); and the rise of “movie magazines,” which began early in the twentieth century and still survive, though much of their “celebrity thunder” is regularly stolen nowadays by tabloid publications like People and US. [In the early 1960s, when I was in high school, I was known (in a very small circle, to be sure) for my “dramatic readings” of the front covers of movie and romance magazines, in a drug store across from the church where my Explorer Scout troop met.] Moreover, the roots of the worship of sports “celebrities” stretch back even further, at least to the era of the “sporting press” in New York City and elsewhere in the nineteenth century.
If you’re like me, though, you probably find yourself, at least occasionally, contemplating both the present and the future of the United States and of our popular culture, based upon the influence of the tabloid press and the Internet. The results of this process are not encouraging: Surely Americans cannot be so superficial, can they? But, if they are, is there anything the rest of us can do about it? Or should we even bother trying?
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Burdened with such gloomy thoughts, imagine my surprise when I discovered that, in the second volume of his Autobiography, the leading cynic of the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain, has something relevant to add to this conundrum, describing a woman who was nothing less than a Gilded Age equivalent of today’s generic member of the “Kardashian klan,” a person who became “famous” without much actual claim to that label, at least in a contemporary context.
According to Twain, Olive Logan [in good twenty-first century fashion, perhaps we should refer to her as “Olive L.”] was among the “new kind of female lecturer who invaded the [Lyceum] platform” during the Gilded Age after the Civil War. (43) Unlike their articulate, principled female predecessors on the Lyceum circuit (women who had been active, for example, in the antebellum Abolitionist movement), public speakers like Logan “hadn’t anything to say, and couldn’t have said it if they had had anything to say; [they are] women who invaded the platform to show their clothes.” (43) Anxious to make a name for herself on the lecture circuit, Logan, Twain asserted, had “set herself the task of manufacturing a reputation,” at first by offering examples of her writing, none of which did much to raise her celebrity. Then, Logan married “a penny-a-liner [journalist, William Wirt Sikes],” who circulated brief notices about her, her opinions, wardrobe, and activities, to newspapers and magazines. While Logan’s name gradually became more prominent in the press, thanks to her new husband and his journalistic contacts, Twain wrote scathingly, there “was never a word of explanation of who Olive Logan might be or of what she had done to earn fame.” (43, 45)
Much to Twain’s surprise, however, these efforts by Logan’s “penny-a-liner” husband eventually succeeded in raising her reputation, actually making her “famous,” at least as measured by one Gilded Age standard, the fee she could command for her appearances on the Lyceum lecture circuit ($100 a night, less than Twain received, but still. . . .). Yet, despite this “fame,” Twain asserted, “there wasn’t a human being in the United States who could answer if you asked him, ‘What is [Logan’s] fame based on? What is it that she has done?’” (44)
And, in a description that, to modern eyes, has “Kardashian” written all over it, Twain opined that Olive Logan “had built up a great, a commercially valuable name, on absolute emptiness; built it up upon mere remarks about her clothes and where she was going to spend the summer, and her opinions about things nobody had asked her to express herself about.” It was, he concluded, “the emptiest reputation that was ever invented in this world.” (44)
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According to Twain, then, Logan was a no-talent actress, journalist, dramatist, and public speaker, whose husband had used the Lyceum lecture circuit and the availability of regional and national newspapers and magazines to advance her career. (And, to be fair, the excruciatingly thorough editors of Twain’s Autobiography try their best to present a more objective view of Logan and her achievements, as do some online resources, though without much success.) The major differences between the “celebrity” career of Olive Logan and those of today’s “celebs” appear to be that Logan’s “fame” took a lot longer to build, and, in terms of what she did or said, she was not nearly as outrageous as her modern successors. And, golly gee-whiz, whether you liked her or not, Logan actually had accomplished a few things, unlike a lot of today’s “celebs.”
Logan’s husband arranged lectures for her on the Lyceum circuit, and these might or might not have been covered by local, regional, or national publications. Yet, ultimately, because of the coverage Logan did receive, thanks largely to her husband’s efforts, she earned a reputation that brought her national acclaim–of a sort. Nowadays, of course, in addition to supermarket tabloids, entertainment magazines, and the homepages of various Internet service providers, a veritable raft of “celebrities” have their own reality television shows, “destination viewing” for fans hungry for “news” about their favorites.
As for the rest of us, what do we know—or care—about the careers of the Kardashians and their vapid rivals? Certainly, nobody forces us to watch reality television shows. Yet, lately, it seems that virtually every major network or cable system has its share of “reality” programs, including–God save the mark!–PBS. Evidently these offerings are inexpensive to make and manage to attract an audience. Don’t ask me how–I’m still trying to figure out the appeal of “professional wrestling”!
The thing is that the hoary cliché about enjoying one’s ten (or fifteen) minutes of fame apparently has been rendered almost irrelevant by the continuing power of the Internet. Now, homepage “celeb news” sections, links, and blogs, have produced a “democratization,” or perhaps a “debasement” (or even a “bastardization”?) of the concept of “celebrity” or “fame.” And, of course, there are larger cultural issues at play here. For example, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argued recently that today the very concept of “Water Cooler” TV shows, programs watched by a huge number of Americans, has become a thing of the past. American popular culture has become Balkanized and, thanks to the Internet, “In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?”
I guess you “pays your money and you takes your choice,” as W. C. Fields, or some other ancient commentator, said. And, again in the interest of fairness, we survived the “celebrity” of Olive Logan and her successors prior to our own celebrity-steeped age, so perhaps we’ll make it past the Kardashians. I certainly hope so! As for me: sorry, Kim K.; I prefer Olive L., any day, but I’ve still got to wonder what Mark Twain would think of you!
“Q&A on the News,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 9, 2013, B-2.
Benjamin Griffin, Harriet Elinor Smith, et al, eds., Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2013.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: