[Paleopsych] Hedgehog Review: Amy Henderson: From Barnum to Bling Bling
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Amy Henderson: From Barnum to Bling Bling: The Changing Face of Celebrity
THE HEDGEHOG REVIEW
[I am wildly enthusiastic about this publication and am reading all back issues
at the rate of an essay a day. Back up the tree to find out more about the
journal. One issue is neither online nor in print, and I'll go xerox it next
month when we make our annual trip to Charlottesville.
[Each issue of Hedghog Review deals with a topic about deep cultural change.
The writers, perceptive as they are, are almost uniformly 20th century
leftists, and sometimes their articles are merely silly. No room at all for
those who think genetic differences matter! I'll urge affirmative action for
conservatives and sociobiologists for future issues. The problem with them is
that they mostly want to infuse their "message" in everything they write. This
is slowly changing.
[I do not know who or what a bling bling is and did not find out from the
Summary from the "Magazine and Journal Reader" feature of the daily bulletin
from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.8.12
A glance at the current issue of The Hedgehog Review: Changing
perceptions of heroes
Americans used to embrace heroes, such as George Washington, on the
basis of achievement and gentility, but they now choose celebrities,
like the American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, on account of
personality, writes Amy Henderson, a historian at the Smithsonian
Institution's National Portrait Gallery. The growth of the media,
immigration, and urbanization at the beginning of the 20th century
fueled the change, she writes.
In the republic's early days, Americans mythologized national heroes
as men of virtue, self-reliance, and achievement to compensate for the
country's short history. Washington was one of those "Great Men on a
Pedestal," Ms. Henderson writes. By the 1850s, authors and essayists
such as James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson furthered that
view by inventing the "American Adam," a hero admired for his
innocence, individuality, and idealism, Ms. Henderson writes.
But the communications revolution, combined with the growth of
immigration and cities, replaced that character-driven definition of
heroes with the personality-driven one of today. "The 'genteel
tradition' that had been the core of America's mainstream culture
dissolved in this new urban stew, replaced by a vernacular culture
that rose from the streets," Ms. Henderson writes.
Vaudeville, movies, magazines, newspapers, radio, and, now, cable
television all helped form today's celebrity culture, where
entertainers dominate. Today's stars appeal to niche audiences, not
the public at large. There is also less of a barrier between "heroes"
and everyday people, in part because of the rise of reality
television. Instead of casting "reverential and upward-looking" gazes
upon celebrities, Americans now view them from an "eye-to-eye" level
-- a shift Ms. Henderson calls "an immense psychological sea change."
The article, "From Barnum to 'Bling Bling': The Changing Face of
Celebrity Culture," is available online at
Amy Henderson, a historian at the Smithsonians National Portrait
Gallery, specializes in film, music, media history, and biography. Her
books include Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the
Smithsonian; Red, Hot & Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the American
Musical; and On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting. She has
curated numerous exhibitions including: The TIME of Our Lives;
Champions of American Sport; Opera: The Grand Interpreters; Hollywood
Glamour Photographs; and Red, Hot & Blue.
Showman P. T. Barnum set the stage for modern celebrity culture by
opening the curtain on mass entertainment in the mid-nineteenth
century. He dazzled in an era before technology could broadcast
performancebefore the advent of the recording, radio, and motion
picture industries; before the heyday of advertising; before the mass
distribution of photography in rotogravure sections of the Sunday
newspapers. Yet somehow he ignored these constraints and created such
popular culture events as the establishment of the American Museum in
New York in 1841, the introduction of General Tom Thumb shortly
thereafter, the orchestration of Swedish songbird Jenny Linds
celebrated 18511852 American tour, the organization of The Greatest
Show on Earth (a traveling circus/menagerie/museum) in 1871, and the
creation ten years later, with James Bailey, of the Barnum & Bailey
Circus. His American Museum on Broadway in particular showcased
Barnums love of humbug in such wildly diverse entertainments as
industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists, living
statuary, tableaux, gypsies, albinos, giants, dwarfs, models of
Niagara, American Indians. It was my monomania, he said in his
autobiography, to make the Museum the town wonder and town talk. And
this he did with astonishing ingenuity: my puffing was more
persistent, my posters more glaring, my pictures more exaggerated, my
flags more patriotic. It worked brilliantly.^1
The bravado Barnum used to create his wondrous celebrities, illusions,
and spectacles injected ballyhoo into the rarified air of Americas
earlier devotion to Great Men on a Pedestal. Lacking millennia of
history as a nation, Americans of the Revolutionary republic fashioned
a mythic national character out of military heroes and eminent
statesmen who embodied the ideals of virtue, self-reliance, and
By mid-twentieth century, this heroic pedestal was claimed not by
politicians and generals but by sports stars and movie legendsby
personality rather than character.^2 This shift, reflecting the
cultural changes wrought by the communications revolution of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by the rise of
immigration and urbanization between the 1890s and 1920s, says a great
deal about the nations continuing need for self-definition, and about
the culture that contributed to the search for it. In his
groundbreaking book The Image, Daniel Boorstin described this
metamorphosis as one from traditional larger-than-life heroes known
for their achievement to celebrity-personalities recognized for their
well-knownness in a society enamored of pseudo-events.^3
By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the
twenty-first, the changing face of fame existed squarely at eye level,
lacking any pretense of pedestal altogether: postmodern
pseudo-celebrity blips flooded the airwaves with reality television
and Americans eagerly clawed their way to fame as Apprentices and
American Idols. Yet flash and spectacle remain crucial components of
celebrity, as exemplified today by bling blingthe diamond-studded,
showy rapper style that has recently won approval by the Oxford
From Revolutionary Hero to American Adam
Heroes of the Revolutionary era were invoked to give the nation a
sense of historical legitimacy. If, as Milton wrote, Fame is the spur
that the clear spirit doth raise,^5 then it was a spur to industry and
virtue. Above all others, George Washington stood as the great
embodiment of national virtue, the symbol of the nations essential
worthiness. Heroes of this era were gentlemen, scholars, and
patriotstraditional representatives of such basic social institutions
as the state, the military, and the churchand their lives served as
Literary historian R. W. B. Lewis has written that the heroic image
contrived between 1820 and 1860 was that of an American Adam,^6 a
figure of innocence and promise who was, as Emerson defined him, the
simple genuine self against the whole world.^7 In an age optimistic
about an indigenous culture-in-the-making, the nations novelists,
poets, essayists, critics, historians, and preachers all entered into
the discourse with gusto, seeking to construct not only a national
narrative, but to create that epics protagonist. The Adamic hero,
freed from the past and boasting such intrinsic characteristics as
self-reliance, virtue, and achievement, would become the central
figure in the quest for national legitimacy. James Fennimore Cooper
notably invented Natty Bumppo, the selfless, stoic, and enduring hero
who has been described as timeless and sturdily innocent, and the
essential American soul.^8
The conceptual distance separating Revolutionary heroes from their
mid-nineteenth century counterparts was indiscernible. Core values
remained, as Emerson demonstrated in extolling the democratic central
man who was the source of all national vitality.^9 Elsewhere he
depicted history in terms of representative men^10 --a sensibility
that would not have been alien to earlier generations. It was only in
the later nineteenth century, with the revolution in communications
technology, the rise of a substantial monied class, and the emergence
of a mass urban landscape, that the nations heroic vision evolved into
a new stage. The Communications Revolution
The look of fame itself changed with what Daniel Boorstin has termed
the Graphic Revolution, the advent both of mechanical means of image
reproduction and of the facility for mass diffusion of information.
The emergence of photography and chromolithography in post-Civil War
America led to an explosive growth in such mass publications as
newspapers and magazines. The first truly mass urban newspapers
appeared in the 1880s and were made possible by high-speed presses,
the linotype, halftone photo reproduction, and the emergence of
news-gathering organizations like the Associated Pressall of which
made the daily newspaper the central supplier of national and world
news. The circulation of daily papers increased 400% between 1870 and
1900, partly as a result of technology and partly because of rising
literacy rates and the growth of leisure time.^11
The new magazines like McClures that appeared in the 1890s also played
a role in enlarging the popular imagination, thereby redefining ideals
of fame, success, and national heroism. At centurys end Americas
most-admired figures were hero-inventors like Thomas Edison, Henry
Ford, and Italian &eactute;migré Guglialmo Marconi. Financial wizards
such as J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller (either
captains of industry or robber barons, depending on your perspective)
were idolized for fighting their way to Darwinian peaks of capitalist
Immigration, the Melting Pot, and the New Urban Landscape
But then the look of fame shifted again, turning full face in the
twentieth century. The new eras heroes were activists who muckraked
the old: figures such as Theodore Roosevelt rode the crest of change
and attempted to change the cultural context, busting trusts and
monopolies to leaven the social landscape while elevating the United
States to a heightened role in the international order. Journalist
William Allen White wrote in his autobiography that that decade which
climaxed in 1912 was a time of tremendous change in our national life.
The American people were melting down old heroes and recasting the
mold in which heroes were made.^12 This sentiment was echoed in Israel
Zangwills hit 1908 play, The Melting Pot, which depicted America as
Gods Crucible, the great Melting-Pot, where all the races of Europe
are melting and reforming.^13
Between 1890 and the 1920s, twenty-three million new immigrants
arrived on Americas shores. The genteel tradition that had been the
core of Americas mainstream culture dissolved in this new urban stew,
replaced by a vernacular culture that rose from the streets. The
sounds and rhythms of this new culture were captured best by the
rising entertainment industry: indeed, the most successful performing
art of the time was vaudevilleliterally, the voice of the city.
Magazines and newspapers trumpeted the phenomenon: one article in the
late 1880s proclaimed: It is remarkable how much attention the stage
and things pertaining to it are receiving nowadays from the magazines.
Twenty years ago, it was argued, such a thing would have been thought
indecorous, but drama now makes such a large part of the life of
society that it has become a topic of conversation among all
classes.^14 No longer indecorous, entertainment had become decidedly
mainstream. Advertising the entertainment at his Opera House,
vaudeville impresario Tony Pastor assured his patrons that his Temple
of Amusement was in fact The Great Family Resort of the City where
heads of families can bring their Ladies and children. Good order was
observed at all times, and there were strict rules against peanut
feasts and boisterous applause.^15 In the 1920s, cultural critic
Gilbert Seldes rhapsodized about the lively artsincluding jazz,
musicals, radio, and motion picturesthat were creating an American
culture to match the countrys new immigrant, urban personality.
Broadway flourished, and one of its leading lights, George Gershwin,
composed staccato-paced, syncopated rhythms that helped define the
Jazz Age. It was a highly visual culture as well. In 1915, poet Vachel
Lindsay wrote of the increasingly hieroglyphic civilization that
characterized the rise of American modernism.^16 Times Square and
Broadways Great White Way were blanketed by extravagant displays of
signs and blinking lights that bespoke what one chronicler called a
staggering machine of desire.^17 And who would emerge as the dominant
symbol of modernism? Media-generated celebrities whose popularity was
achieved via the mass media of radio, recordings, and motion pictures.
The Emergence of Celebrity
Celebrity became a measure of success in a culture preoccupied with
personality. In biographical articles that appeared in The Saturday
Evening Post and Colliers from 1901 to 1914, 74% of the subjects came
from traditional fields such as politics, business, and the
professions. But from 1922 until 1941, over half came from the world
of entertainment: sports figures like Babe Ruth and Joe Louis, movie
stars like Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin.^18 The machinery
providing mass information in the broadcasting, recording, and film
industries created a ravenous market for celebrity culture:
media-generated fame became a ragingand lastingpopular vogue.
Celebrities were able to broach all cultural levels. Between 1906 and
1920, Metropolitan Opera stars Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar were
the companys most successful box office draws. But their popularity
transcended Golden Horseshoe audiences, as newspapers and periodicals
fanned their fame and enormously lucrative sales placed their
recordings in millions of households. Farrar even went to Hollywood in
1915 to star in such Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars as a silent version
of Carmen, and Joan the Woman.
Motion pictures helped make celebrity culture a national pastime.
Though early flickers and back-alley lantern shows were considered
slightly sleazy, by the teens movies had achieved a middle-class
respectability. Whereas early film actors remained anonymous, the
public began to lobby for its box office favorites, and by 1915 there
were such authentic stars as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and
In the twenties and increasingly with the advent of talkies, movie
celebrities came to represent the visual quintessence of glamour.
Stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo glowed
with glamourdraped in diamonds and wrapped in silk, feathers, and fur,
they were silvered beings worshipped by what Norma Desmond in Sunset
Boulevard would call all those little people out there in the dark. By
the late 1920s, each of the major studios had its own portrait gallery
where studio photographers created a style of portraiture that
crystallized stardom. Armed with banks of lights, large format
cameras, retouching pencils, but above all an aesthetic of glamour,
they coaxed celluloid icons from mere flesh and blood.
In the Depression, the American public responded exuberantly to this
larger-than-life celebrity. Fan magazines like Photoplay documented
star activities (or at least the studios version) with gushing stories
about stars at homewhat they ate, what their beauty secrets were, what
pets they pampered, what cars they drove, what they wore. Fabric
stores sold patterns of favorite star dresses for at-home seamstresses
to copy, as in the phenomenally successful dress Adrian designed for
Joan Crawford in the 1932 movie Letty Lynton: in addition to countless
Butterick patterns of this puffed-sleeve, cinched waist dress, over
500,000 copies of the dress were sold at Macys alone!^19 And how many
women peroxided their hair à la Harlow, or later adopted Veronica
Lakes peekaboo look?
The Advent of the Broadcast Industry
The advent of the broadcast industry in the 1920s marked another
quantum leap in the cultivation of celebrity culture. While the film
industry expanded in response to popular demand and the recording
industry enjoyed a 600% sales increase between 1933 and 1938, radio
became an everyday medium for mass culture. A household presence, an
average radio in 1934 cost about $35, and 60% of all American
households had at least one set.^20 And unlike records, radio was
live: entertainment and information were available at the touch of the
dial. Radio stars like Rudy Vallee, Jack Benny, Molly Goldberg, and
Burns and Allen became virtual members of the family.
While entertainers dominated the airwaves, broadcasting created
political celebrities as well. Franklin D. Roosevelts election in 1932
coincided with radios own coming of age, and he proved himself a
master of this ubiquitous medium. Of FDRs fireside chats, a New York
newspaper reporter noted that, while painting a verbal picture
expansive enough for a museum mural, Roosevelt reduced it to the
proportions of a miniature hanging cozily on the wall of a living
Others thought that radio would purify politics. In 1928 Mississippi
Senator Pat Harrison waxed that the venomous darts (of the demagogue)
cannot pass through the airan optimism soon dispelled by the likes of
Father Charles E. Coughlin, who won an enormous following in the 1930s
by using radio to spread an increasingly proto-fascist brand of
In its early decades, television vastly expanded broadcastings impact:
the Army-McCarthy hearings, political conventions, and the 1960
Kennedy-Nixon debates established televisions center stage
significance. Radio and televisioneven before the advent of cable and
24/7 coveragehad become the essential means for communicating
Contemporary Celebrity Culture
Those two factorscable and 24/7 coveragehave transformed contemporary
celebrity culture. Whereas earlier celebrity was broadly encompassing,
encouraging general agreement at least in mainstream culture,
contemporary celebrity is carefully niched, appealing not to wide
swaths of society but to minute slivers. The consequences of this
narrow-casting range from a fundamentally decentralized and
trivialized culture of special interests to a society that is
polarized on such national issues as red/blue politics and gay rights.
Another consequence of contemporary celebrity harkens back to the
ballyhoo of Barnum and his gleeful use of illusion and spectacle to
make humbug out of reality. Boorstin found contemporary
media-generated celebrity dependent on pseudo-events, and French
sociologist Jean Baudrillard has argued that a culture dominated by
simulacra is not capable of discriminating between reality and the
illusion or simulation of reality. The popularity of reality
television where participantsregardless of talentare convinced of
their own celebrity clearly continues the tradition of humbug. Instead
of Major Bowes gong, Simon tells them they are pitiful, or the Donald
declaims, Youre fired! Do they believe in their fame fallibility? Of
Contemporary celebrity is eons from an age when heroes were placed on
pedestals: today, rather than reverential and upward-looking, the
perspective is eye-to-eyean immense psychological sea change. The
disposable culture spawned by todays 24/7 media seems relentless,
devouring anything in its path while leaving its audience permanently
unsated. But the show will always go on: bling bling!
^1 Quoted in Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Boston:
Little, Brown, 1973) 40, 5354.
^2 See Warren Susman, Personality and the Making of Twentieth Century
Culture, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in
the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 271¬85.
^3 Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America
(New York: Atheneum, 1971) 57.
^5 John Milton, Lycidas, The New Oxford Book of English Verse,
12501950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972) 294.
^6 R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1955) 110.
^7 Lewis vi.
^8 Lewis 34.
^9 F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the
Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941)
^10 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (London: Dent, 1901).
^11 Boorstin 57 and passim.
^12 William Allen White, The Autobiography of William Allen White (New
York: Macmillan, 1946) 428.
^13 Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: A Drama in Four Parts (New York:
Macmillan, 1908) 33.
^14 See Theatre Scrapbooks, 18771903 , vol. 3: article Concerning the
Stage, c. 1890, University of Virginia Manuscript Room.
^15 Amy Henderson and Dwight Bowers, Red, Hot & Blue: A Smithsonian
Salute to American Musicals (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1996) 10.
^16 Vachel Lindsay, quoted in Susman xxvi.
^17 Quoted in William Leach, Brokers and the New Corporate Industrial
Order, Inventing Times Square: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads
of the World, ed. William R. Taylor (New York: Russell Sage
Foundation, 1991) 99.
^18 Leo Lowenthal, Literature, Popular Culture, and Society (Englewood
Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1961) 11014.
^19 Howard Gutner, Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 19281941 (New York:
Abrams, 2001) 120.
^20 Cited in Amy Henderson, On the Air: Pioneers of American
Broadcasting (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1988) 22.
^21 Henderson, On the Air, 186.
^22 Henderson, On the Air, 188.
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