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Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity

Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity

Filled with insights into the works of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Rhys, and John Dos Passos, this is a provocative new reading of the relationship between modernist literature and the development of celebrity culture in the early twentieth century.

Series: Literary Modernism Series, Thomas F. Staley, series editor

April 2011
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216 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w photos |

The phenomenon of celebrity burst upon the world scene about a century ago, as movies and modern media brought exceptional, larger-than-life personalities before the masses. During the same era, modernist authors were creating works that defined high culture in our society and set aesthetics apart from the middle- and low-brow culture in which celebrity supposedly resides. To challenge this ingrained dichotomy between modernism and celebrity, Jonathan Goldman offers a provocative new reading of early twentieth-century culture and the formal experiments that constitute modernist literature's unmistakable legacy. He argues that the literary innovations of the modernists are indeed best understood as a participant in the popular phenomenon of celebrity.

Presenting a persuasive argument as well as a chronicle of modernism's and celebrity's shared history, Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity begins by unraveling the uncanny syncretism between Oscar Wilde's writings and his public life. Goldman explains that Wilde, in shaping his instantly identifiable public image, provided a model for both literary and celebrity cultures in the decades that followed. In subsequent chapters, Goldman traces this lineage through two luminaries of the modernist canon, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, before turning to the cinema of mega-star Charlie Chaplin. He investigates how celebrity and modernism intertwine in the work of two less obvious modernist subjects, Jean Rhys and John Dos Passos. Turning previous criticism on its head, Goldman demonstrates that the authorial self-fashioning particular to modernism and generated by modernist technique helps create celebrity as we now know it.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity
    • Critical Problem Solving: Modernism and Popular Culture
    • The Field of Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity
    • Considering Celebrity
    • Why Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity
  • 1. Oscar Wilde, Fashioning Fame
    • Copying Oneself
    • Judging By Appearances in Dorian Gray
    • The Tragic Commodity
    • Deep Thoughts: Embodying the Subject in De Profundis
  • 2. James Joyce and Modernist Exceptionalism
    • Styling the Author
    • "Peeping and prying into greenroom gossip of the day"
    • "Famous Son of a Famous Father": Author, Character, Holy Ghost
    • The Dream of Immateriality
    • E.T.: The Extra-Textual
    • The Ghost of the Author
  • 3. Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Celebrity
    • Elite By Association
    • Unstable Values
    • The Trademark of Time
    • Name of Constant Value
    • A Democracy of One
  • 4. Charlie Chaplin, Author of Modernist Celebrity
    • Happy Endings
    • An Author Is Born
    • Sign of the Times
    • The Object of Celebrity
  • 5. Rhys, the Obscure: The Literature of Celebrity at the Margins
    • That Obscure Abject of Desire
    • Bildung in the Dark
    • The Hidden Rhys
    • Wide Sargasso City
    • Posthuman Beings
    • Celebrity on the Margins
  • Epilogue. "Everybody who was anybody was there": After Modernism, After Celebrity, John Dos Passos
    • The Camera, I
    • The In Crowd
    • Stein and They, Hemingway
    • U.S.A. and Hem
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Jonathan Goldman is Assistant Professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology's Manhattan campus. A scholar of literature's relationship to popular culture, he has made modernism and celebrity his particular field of expertise, coediting (with Aaron Jaffe) a volume of essays titled Modernist Star Maps: Celebrity, Modernity, Culture.


Bart: What's it like being famous, Dad?
Homer: People know your name, but you don't know theirs. It's great.
The Simpsons, "Homerpalooza," 1996


A man should control his life. Mine is controlling me. I don't like it.
—Rudolph Valentino, 1924

Like modernism, celebrity is not all fun and games. My epigraphs above, respectively comic and tragic, illustrate two persistent aspects of twentieth-century celebrity discourse, both of which find a correspondence in modernist literature. The exchange between Simpson père and Simpson fils imagines celebrity as a glorious way of rising above the masses and transcending the anonymity that settles on ordinary citizens of society. However, the consequence of such exceptionalism, as the über-famous Valentino lamented just two years before his death at the age of thirty-one, may be that celebrity makes the self contingent; identity depends on an audience for its continued existence, turning the individual into a stereotype, condemned to perform itself until death. This process, we might say, turns the psychological subject into an object, something that lacks agency over itself. So if celebrity offers a transcendent version of personality, what Roland Barthes, in his essay about Greta Garbo, describes as "a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature" (Mythologies 56), then the celebrated person may become subject to that ideal, something actually less than an individual.

This contradiction between extraordinary self-production and the object that is produced pervades both the popular culture of celebrity that Valentino experiences and helps shape, and that other early twentieth-century system of self-production, the beast known as modernist literature, a category that includes, strikingly enough, many of the texts and authors—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust—that have been used to define high culture in our society from then until now. For a half century after the modernist moment, readers were trained to think of such authors as free from any influence of the popular marketplace, the sphere that would include celebrity. This book, though, contributes to a current that tacks in quite the opposite direction. Here, I investigate the histories of literary high modernism and early twentieth-century celebrity precisely in order to demonstrate that these two supposedly separate aspects of culture are, in truth, mutually constitutive, two sides of the same cultural coin. I will be arguing that the canonical writings of Anglo-American modernism, situated within a newly mechanized society saturated with reproducible images, participate in the phenomenon of celebrity. Modernism generates a figure of the author as a unique, larger-than-life personality, a choreographer of disparate discourses and repository of encoded meaning, though one that can only be read as such after it has been turned into a kind of object. The texts that have come to define elite culture, I will argue, make this idea of the exceptional personality available to popular culture, thus sharing in the re-shaping of celebrity discourse over the final years of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. Through readings of figures from both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the so-called great divide of high and low culture—Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Rhys, and John Dos Passos—I will show how the signature styles of modernism and celebrity produce similar forms of cultural value and together strive to reaffirm the centrality of the individual within mass society.

Critical Problem Solving: Modernism and Popular Culture

By showing that modernism and celebrity perform similar cultural work on the notion of the exceptional individual, I am proposing celebrity as a sort of missing link between two domains that our culture has spent the last century categorizing, respectively, as high and low. For example, in that they share what we might call the cultural logic of celebrity, modernist literature and popular cinema—whose star system of the 1920s constitutes the most visible manifestation of the period's celebrity culture—address the same set of historical concerns, even if they generate different audiences. Once we view modernism's model of the author alongside the production of popular celebrity, we can, I propose, conceptualize the relationship between these supposedly divergent spheres of culture as more of a collaboration than a parting of the ways of cultural production. I will be arguing, that is, against the very division that literary modernism helped create.

Over the last two decades, major studies of modernist literature have demonstrated how its authors attempt to set themselves apart from early twentieth-century popular entertainment by appropriating and subverting certain of its discourses. In the 1990s, such influential writers as Lawrence Rainey, Michael North, and the coterie of critics contributing to the Marketing Modernisms volume persuasively argued that modernism, far from being indifferent to popular culture and the production associated with it, defines itself in relation to that culture, and usually establishes itself as the antithesis of the most commercially successful products. Andreas Huyssen may be considered the ghost in all this critical machinery in that his game-changing After the Great Divide (1986) alerts readers to the idea that "modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture" (vii). Huyssen, by now an obligatory reference in introductions to critical works in the new modernisms/materialist modernisms vein, illuminates how previous critical movements, for example the American New Criticism that helped institutionalize modernism, buy into the modernists' own myth, engaging in a critical approach that one might think of as tautological criticism. In other words, to treat literature as if it disengaged from popular culture one hundred years ago is to treat it in exactly the way modernist writings seem to promote and modernist writers seem to desire. Marshall Berman notes, "Modernism . . . appeared as a great attempt to free modern artists from the impurities, vulgarities of modern life. . . . art and literary critics—have been grateful to this modernism for establishing the autonomy and dignity of their vocations" (30). The critics to whom Berman refers, imagining a modernism untainted by the real world and tailoring their criticism to the same fantasy, tacitly support what Huyssen calls "the great divide" between high and low culture. But Huyssen's argument and the work created in his wake have forced scholars to step out of the shadow of the modernist ideal of cultural autonomy and reassess modernism as partaking of the texts and logic of mass culture.

The material modernisms criticism has rewritten the rules of modernist studies, foregrounding modernism's implication in its manifold material cultures. But it has not been entirely successful in one of its implicit goals: re-evaluating the modernist writings to imagine a great divide that is porous rather than solid. Critics have, to be sure, enlisted the history of the society out of which modernism emerged to reveal new connections between canonical works and mass culture. Rereading modernism within the culture of the commodities marketplace has proved especially rewarding. For instance, in The Public Face of Modernism, Mark Morrisson explains that the moment associated with high modernism, the 1920s, "was the decade in which twentieth-century consumer culture, and the publication and advertising institutions that shaped it, consolidated and became firmly established in their modern forms in both Britain and America" (203–204). Morrisson is primarily concerned with how modernists mobilized consumer culture to promote their writings and their selves: "Many modernists found the energies of promotional culture too attractive to ignore, especially when it came to advertising and publication techniques" (6). While this approach demythologizes the modernists by revealing their engagement with the practical aspects of their profession, Morrisson stops short of extending his critique to the aesthetics of canonical works. In what may be seen as characteristic of much work in this vein, Morrisson does not view the modernists' formal characteristics as a corresponding manifestation of their involvement with the market. He demonstrates that the modernists were quite cognizant of the workings of consumerism, but does not consider how their writings register and readdress the incursions of market culture. Other scholars do parse the most formally dense modernist writings and discover them partly or greatly composed of popular discourses, among them advertising, detective literature, pulp fiction, popular music and jazz, comedy, comic strips, the structures of cinema, radio, vaudeville, cocktails—not to mention racial and gender others. They tend to treat such findings as evidence that Joyce, Stein, Woolf, and company have incorporated such material into their aesthetic projects and converted it into component parts of individuated differential systems. They focus, that is, on the literature's capacity to "contain, suppress, stratify, and transform" cultural discourses.

In other words, many of those approaches that reveal the modernists' use of marketplace culture remain beholden to older formulations. Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz notice this, writing that "even the most surprising elucidations of modernism's promotional strategies . . . can be said to be under the sway of the anti-commodification paradigm inasmuch as they keep its terms in the foreground instead of asking what other questions it has tended to overshadow" (745). In so doing, such criticism subtly, probably unwittingly, reinforces the high art/mass culture bifurcation it sets out to destabilize. It depicts a modernism that reaches over the great divide for popular material, but makes such appropriations visible in a way that reaffirms its distance from popular texts.

The Field of Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity

If the heyday of the marketing modernisms movement constitutes the last identifiable quantum leap in modernist studies, the next leap forward is springing out of celebrity, a cultural phenomenon that the critics discussed above engage with, although they rarely make it their central focus. Rainey, in his Institutions of Modernism, writes that "the theme of authorial self-construction has been crucial to a great deal of recent scholarship," including his own, which focuses on "new strategies for reputation building—involving theatricality, spectacle, publicity, and novel modes of cultural marketing and media manipulation" (4). His use of the term "new strategies" clearly alludes to the celebrity culture emerging alongside modernism, but he does not push this logic to consider the aesthetic of the literary text itself as a product of and a participant in the larger cultural imperative to produce celebrity. Even more germane here, Jennifer Wicke argues that "the social sea change which sweeps in celebrity in its wake is registered and even embraced by the particularities of Ulysses as a text" ("Enchantment" 129), but leaves analysis of those particularities from this perspective to the next critical wave.

Indeed, the scholarship represented by Rainey and Wicke invites an investigation of modernism through the lens of celebrity culture, as testified to by recent critical works. I wish to highlight three such works that influence my study beyond the degree to which they are actually cited in these pages. Aaron Jaffe's Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity offers up the instrumental idea of the "imprimatur"—the stylistic signature of the author as brand name. Jaffe particularly paves the way with his argument that "the same way modernists and modernism's literary economists fetishize authorship, celebrities and their publicists fetishize the production of self" (34). This fetishizing produces a new version of authorship, one that undergirds Faye Hammill's Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture Between the Wars. Hammill examines the "celebrity author [who] is magnified, elevated above ordinary mortals" (1) in order to understand the way public recognition of her figures of study inflects their writings and their reception, often relegating them to second-tier, middlebrow status. Hammill spurs on my focus on modernist technique by noting that "attention to style is connected in various ways to literary celebrity" (209). Mining a similar vein, Loren Glass's Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the United States, 1880–1980 argues for a specifically twentieth-century (the long twentieth century) version of celebrity; he traces the American history of authors whose self-creation matches their celebrification, arguing that "the modern consciousness of the literary genius emerges in tandem with the public subjectivity of the mass cultural celebrity" (23). These works jointly illuminate the correlation between celebrity and modernist authorial self-fashioning.

They are supported by or engage in tacit dialogue with a host of other twenty-first century publications, including Karen Leick's Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity, Lorraine York's Literary Celebrity in Canada, David Haven Blake's Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity, Joe Moran's Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, Michael Garval's 'A Dream of Stone': Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture, Tom Mole's Byron's Romantic Celebrity, and, more briefly but just as influentially, John Frow and James F. English's essay "Literary Authorship and Celebrity Culture." Aside from Leick's thorough materialist chronicle of Stein's fame, these texts, evidence of a genuine scholarly movement toward celebrity-literature studies, investigate iterations of fame that differ crucially from the version that concerns my work, a version which, as I will show, is specifically grounded in the modernist period.

Where Jaffe, Hammill, and Glass leave off, I pick up, wedding their various notions of the author's imprimatur to my readings of modernist technique. What makes modernism modernism is style; thus this book's ultimate goal is to read formal characteristics anew, to forge an argument about why the way the modernists wrote is what we think of when we think of modernism. There are many modernisms, of course, and not all of them announce themselves as engaging in the making new of narrative and linguistic techniques. But it is style that created the sense of a literary moment, that led to the institutionalizing of the high modernists, and that is their most obvious legacy. Modernist writings promote technique, the use of "formal density, textual dissonance, and the rejection of the realist codes" (Latham 120) as a doctrine by which the text should be understood. Georg Lukács writes of Joyce: "the stream-of-consciousness technique is no mere stylistic device; it is itself the formative principle governing the narrative pattern. . . . Technique is here something absolute, it is part and parcel of the aesthetic ambition informing Ulysses" (18). Lukács summarizes a modernist ethos that not only elevates form, but also weaves that elevation into the reading experience. But my own view parts ways with Lukács; making technique the text's governing principle, I contend, does not make it absolute. Modernism makes style its basis for objectifying the inimitable individual, the modernist author as exception to the norm. In so doing it claims to disavow its relation to its cultural-historical context, while implicitly acknowledging it. As Raymond Williams puts it:

The particular achievements of Joyce and Virginia Woolf are as historical, in every real sense, as the achievements of Dickens and George Eliot. . . . the question of good prose, of what is called style, can be abstracted from the whole experience of these years in which a land and a people have been transformed. (117–118)

Williams argues for a treatment of style that thinks beyond the achievements of the author to perceive that aesthetic projects originate in culture. This tactic has proved difficult for even revisionist modernist critics, in part, I would argue, because such an approach necessarily undermines values that have underwritten much of the scholarship—such principles as the individual agency and cultural authority of the author.

This book proposes that celebrity can help us surmount this problem. In a sense, I am pointing out that style is not the way modernists went about writing about things, but rather that style constitutes the thing they were writing about most: the creation of the new style of individual—or rather, that the individual is simply the thing they were writing, period. While English and Frow find that "what the text is 'about' is the story it tells, not the storyteller" (52), I argue that the discourse of celebrity tells us otherwise. A text such as Ulysses constitutes the idealization of the author through an idiosyncratic aesthetic that draws on the celebrity of such figures as Wilde and Chaplin. In order to see what modernism shares with popular celebrity, we need to understand how modernist style constitutes an entirely new kind of author—as not only the art object par excellence, but also the master choreographer of the culture that contains him as such an object. We need to understand modernist technique, I am suggesting, not merely as a difficult way of encoding popular material for a specialized domain of art—the implication of previous criticism—but as an expression of the same need for the subject to become an object that drives popular culture. This view of modernism brings it in close proximity to celebrity, allowing us to historicize modernist style as a means of self-production within the text that accompanies, and in fact supercedes, the self-production of marketing and promotional activities. It is through style, and the attendant productions of irreproducibility and difficulty, that high modernism defines itself and achieves at once its convergence with and separation from mass culture.

Considering Celebrity

The period of literary modernism, which I identify roughly with the beginning of the twentieth century through 1940, witnessed the development of a new kind of celebrity that flourished especially during the years between World Wars I and II. Richard Schickel hyperbolically claims that "there was no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century" (Intimate Strangers 31). Where fame had once been "the by-product of concrete, commonly agreed upon, perhaps even measurable achievement" (31), Schickel sees the new celebrity as tossing aside longstanding hierarchies of achievement. The many sociologists and cultural historians who share this view—and they are indeed legion—often consider celebrity to be the "democratizing" of fame. Critics who align fame with tradition and celebrity with novelty are often reproducing the thematic of social researcher Leo Lowenthal. In 1943, Lowenthal surveyed biographies published in the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century and identified a dramatic change in the subjects represented, which he cast as a "considerable decrease of people from the serious and important professions and a corresponding increase of entertainers" (111). Along with this development, he claims, the form and structure of biographical texts undergo a comparable stylistic transformation, visible even in the biographies categorized as "serious and important." His bias against entertainers aside, Lowenthal's study reveals an important change in the figures on whom the public would lavish attention, and a transformation in the narrative conventions governing them.

Scholars have found two visual media central to this celebrity makeover: photography and cinema. Leo Braudy writes, "The photograph, with its exaltation of a momentary state of physical being, and the motion picture, which further emphasized its subject's immersion in a passing time, helped create the more uneasy relation we now share with those in the spotlight"—in contrast with earlier, pre-photographic versions of fame (554). If, as he claims, this new celebrity depended to some degree on photographic reproduction, then it did not arrive fully formed in the year 1900, but rather evolved over the second half of the nineteenth century. Writing of technological advances over the last decades of the 1800s, John F. Kasson notes, "The passion for studio portraits, awakened with the rise of photography, not only seized people of all classes but helped to make possible a new celebrity culture" (18). According to Nancy Armstrong, even by the 1860s photographic portraits "were no longer reserved for people of birth, wealth, or prominence" (Fiction 129), and thus could contribute to the elevation to celebrity status of figures of less traditional categories.

As photographic images spread, mass-produced images were consumed, and their subjects recognized, throughout the Western world. We might think of how the widespread celebrity of a figure such as Harry Houdini seems impossible before his heyday in the early years of the 1900s, or of the differences between the international fame of stage legend Sarah Bernhardt in the late 1800s through the turn of the century and that of Charlie Chaplin almost immediately afterwards. According to recent writings about celebrity by such cultural critics as Richard Dyer and P. David Marshall, the proliferation of images made it possible for a modernized, mechanized, capitalist society to maintain and promote itself through an individual:

As Dyer states, the star is universally individualized, for the star is representative of the potential of the individual. From the time of the Enlightenment, Western thought has concentrated on affirming the concept of the individual. Despite evidence to the contrary—the disintegration of individual power through the establishment of mass society—the individual continues to represent the ideological center of capitalist culture. (Marshall 17)

Marshall explains how the celebrity that depends on fame generated by film and television serves to reaffirm the individual in a society that seems bent on rendering people anonymous through the very same media.

While the critical consensus holds that celebrity is dependent on the reproducible image, the image in question has to be an intertextual sign, invoking multiple forms of cultural production. One influential study of celebrity, Miriam Hansen's Babel and Babylon, considers the discourse of the Valentino cult during the 1920s, including cartoons, fan letters, etc., to read his films. Charles Eckert's essay "Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller" takes a similar approach to argue that the star's value as commodity is written into the cinematic experience. These treatments of celebrity suggest a strategy that can revise both verbal and visual texts by acknowledging that celebrity discourse—the production of a subject who purportedly exists outside of the text—is an essential dynamic of the text itself. I will be drawing on such studies of celebrity in visual media to think about the verbal counterpart. Part of this project entails looking beyond treatments of the individual celebrity and how its specific audience reads its image, and considering the celebrity sign in relation to other signs in a manner that parallels the production of relational value of commodities in the marketplace.

It is this kinship to the commodity, the idea that celebrity can "like gas engines or soda crackers or other consumer goods, be mass manufactured" (Leff xiii)—as opposed to an idealized, organic form of renown—that inspires the view of celebrity as little more than the symptom of a debased culture. We have a signature example in Daniel Boorstin's internally corrosive tautology that "the celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness" (57), a formulation that tradition has reworded into the catchier sound bite that celebrities are famous for being famous. With this in mind, the critical impulse might be to argue that modernism sought to correct this supposed imbalance of achievement and renown by reclaiming celebrity for an artistic elite. And yet, I would argue, modernism, in order to produce the individual, relies on a logic of displacement and the formation of a system of relational value that is similar to Marx's definition of the commodity. As Jaffe explains, both celebrity and modernism "presume a notion of production that cannot be confined to a single productive source but that instead measures production in terms of both the circulation and the relative valuation of its commodities" (34). It is this similarity that forces us to understand the modernist text as a component of early twentieth-century culture rather than as the "autonomous, self-regarding artifact" (Eagleton 140) it wants to be.

Why Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity

That early twentieth-century literature is fascinated by the explosion of celebrity all around it is clear from the period's proliferation of narratives about celebrities or characters who take on attributes of celebrity culture. A short survey of such works might include Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson (1911), which portrays a calamitous conflict between a hack-magician-cum-celebrity-diva—the title character—and an institution of British aristocratic traditions, Oxford University. (Oxford loses.) It might take account of some standards of the U.S. literary canon, such as Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) for its title character's ascent from working class to lithograph; Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920) for its portrayal of Fanny Ring, a figure of societal transition; F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1924) for its depiction of the self-fashioned American of the Jazz Age (Gatsby loses); and Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust (1937) for its riotous finale depicting Hollywood celebrity culture gone wrong (everybody loses). Arguments will be made for the inclusion of Woolf, W. B. Yeats, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, and a wonderment of others. Furthermore, the modernists' obsession goes beyond fictional ponderings. Writers such as Stein, Yeats, Fitzgerald, Lytton Strachey, Wyndham Lewis, Janet Flanner, and James Agee devoted pages to theorizing celebrity and/or individual celebrities. The Paris avant-garde swooned for Chaplin and Josephine Baker as post–World War II intellectuals would swoon for Marilyn Monroe and Madonna; Ernest Hemingway wrote the introduction to the memoirs of Montparnasse icon Kiki (a volume banned by U.S. customs, putting it in the company of Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover). These texts suggest the inevitability that modernist aesthetics would incorporate the logic of how celebrity works and what celebrity is. Such is my concern, rather than with the writings that fictionally represent celebrity, and rather than with celebrity authorship as actual fame—with the degree to which the modernists achieved renown in their time, and their strategies for doing so. (Otherwise Hemingway, who pops up occasionally here, would be a more prominent topic.)

Celebrity and its logic suffused modernism via style more discreetly than in its fictional portrayals of fame. Notoriously suspicious of mass-reproducible images, modernist technique conceives of the author as an idealized, incorporeal entity, a self that carries on a perplexed relation to the body and to any picture of that body. This dynamic is thematized, in one example, by Proust's treatment of the writer Bergotte:

in Bergotte's case, my preconceived idea of him from his name troubled me far less than my familiarity with his work, to which I was obliged to attach, as to the cord of a balloon, the man with the goatee beard, without knowing whether it would still have the strength to raise him from the ground. (418)

The narrator experiences discomfort as he attempts to reconcile Bergotte's writing with the unseemly person before him. The moment illustrates high modernism's resistance to locating the subject in materiality, which is subject to the laws of nature, alluded to here by the gravity that would keep Bergotte's body from sailing upward with the balloon.

Instead, modernist style, an objectified version of Jaffe's authorial imprimatur, serves to identify the authorial subject with the text. By situating the subject within writing, modernism, we might say, fantasizes that it can insulate the subject from material culture. Modernism thus advances the idea of the author, and therefore the celebrity, as a paradigmatic subjectivity, all the while replicating the process by which one turns the self into an object. As this subjectivity is located within writing and not the body, it might be said to in fact constitute the text, which therefore emerges as a variation on the celebrity sign. Thus modernist style comes to serve as a modified version of the trademark, as I will be showing in the chapters that follow.

I have organized those chapters as a roughly chronological—there remain overlap and analepses—series of readings. For illustrative purposes, each examines particular figures—in the case of Joyce's Ulysses and Dos Passos's U.S.A., mostly one particular work—for what they reveal about the ongoing interrelation of the cultural phenomena of modernism and celebrity. The study begins at the end of the Victorian era, a transitional and yet formative moment for both literary and celebrity discourses. My first chapter finds foundations of both systems in the syncretism underpinning Wilde's life and work. I argue that Wilde not only inaugurates modern celebrity by reducing his identity to a set of visual emblems, but also, late in his career, prefigures celebrity's influence on modernism by rejecting the image as a bearer of the subject.

On his 1882 lecture tour of America, Wilde was confronted with bourgeois notions of the individual—particularly the model of the subject that supposes that a true identity exists within the body's interior. In response, he invoked aristocratic traditions of identity, decking himself out as an object on display. Wilde's signature long hair, flamboyant clothing, and eccentric accouterments fashioned him into a distinct and instantly identifiable image that functioned like a commodity, a sign whose value accrues in relation to other signs and other individuals as it circulates on the market. Wilde would spend the rest of his life and literary career reckoning with this gesture. In The Picture of Dorian Gray he collapses the division between body and subject by producing an image, the portrait, which supernaturally embodies Dorian's subjectivity. While the portrait remains sequestered, Dorian's body circulates and spreads corruption, suggesting that to keep the subject out of circulation empties the individual of value. Having set in motion the traits of modern celebrity, Wilde eventually fell victim to the very phenomenon he had defined, enduring a celebrity trial and going to prison for making public what society wanted hidden. Written from jail, his De Profundis recognizes that by turning himself into an object, Wilde has relinquished control of his meaning. His body confined and no longer able to circulate, Wilde replaces the image with writing: De Profundis will fashion him as a complete subject. As I will show, modernism adopts this strategy. Thus Wilde consequently raises the question of how much the modernist notion of the imprimatur owes to the version of celebrity that Wilde develops on his U.S. tour. Indeed, one underlying theme of this book is its portrayal of modernism as a distinctly transatlantic phenomenon; the figures focused on are in varying degrees all products of cross-fertilization between Europe and North America.

Wilde's turn away from the visual component of celebrity presages high modernism's suspicion of images and anxiety about containing meaning within a system of signs that is governed by one authorized consciousness. Much of what we recognize as modernist style emerges from these concerns, as I argue in the second and third chapters. In Chapter 2, I read Ulysses to show that Joyce follows Wilde's example by locating the subject within the text. Joyce's distinctive collage of narrative styles produces the author by activating meaning that, unrelated to the diegesis—the events and characters that compose the narrative—invokes the author's virtuosity, and thus his inimitability. Style therefore functions as a trademark of Joyce's originality, the hypervisual text taking the place of the image. Indeed, one might propose that with Ulysses, one need not read the novel at all, as at a glance trained readers can recognize Joyce's writing and thus derive the text's ultimate meaning: the author as exception. That the final word of high modernism, which, everyone knows, is supposed to be ingested slowly, carefully, and reverently, can actually be gulped down by simply flipping through its pages, digested quickly and easily like popular entertainment, is not the intended suggestion of my study. But it is perhaps the most provocative.

As Ulysses's formal machinations are only legible in terms of the exceptional author, the novel literalizes Barthes's and Michel Foucault's post-structuralist notions of the author as a discourse that restricts signification and interpretation. It also, however, contravenes these approaches by foregrounding the apparatus that creates the author, renouncing all reference to an author anterior to the novel and located in a physical body. Raising Wilde's stakes, Joyce imagines himself as origin and referent of the text, subjugating all possible readings of the novel to the author. Among other implications I explore here, I consider how through Joyce we can see modernist style taking over the role played in the nineteenth century by the Bildungsroman; authorial self-fashioning supplants the coming-of-age character as fiction's chief way of understanding the creation of the individual. By establishing the author as both a function of the text and the means of decoding it, Joyce enacts the fantasy of a complete, bounded subjectivity, uncontaminated by culture. There is no longer a need for the Bildungsroman genre and its narrative of the subject who acclimates to society and vice versa.

Joyce makes an inevitable site of inquiry for this project, not only because of the machinations of his texts, but also because of the immense body of criticism that they have spawned, much of which may be said to enact the cult of the author that I see as a manifestation of celebrity. While Joyce may be peerless in both of these regards, Stein probably comes close. In Chapter 3, I argue that Stein, like Joyce, uses the idiosyncrasies of style to produce herself as an author. She does so, however, only while challenging the notion that value inheres in the celebrity in isolation from other figures, other objects of self-production. Indeed, Stein's work takes a step beyond Joyce in its revision of popular celebrity value. Stein establishes the importance of linking celebrities within a closed circuit to produce a network of individuals who, in relation to one another, enter into a mutually defining association of individuals who exist above the ordinary. Considered another way, Stein enlists the tradition of the artistic coterie and updates it for the age of celebrity.

Stein's writings produce this relational system through name-dropping. Implicitly debunking the value of the celebrity image, Stein puts similar stress on the celebrity name. Stein proposes that even a celebrated name accrues value only by assuming a place within a system of signifiers composed of other names. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas makes it clear that Stein is not only the centerpiece of this system but also its composer. Here, Stein's name-dropping consigns celebrities to domestic narratives and equates them with her acquaintances, including her cars and dogs. She turns her Paris home into a salon, art gallery, and tourist attraction, transforming interior space into a collection of people and objects that produce her as cultural authority. Only these relationships, she makes clear, generate significance—not the object in isolation. Like her re-inscription of domestic life, such characteristic techniques as her penchant for repetition and accumulation insist that meaning, like any form of value, resides only in the accretion of individual signs that circulate around her exceptional personality.

Just when early celebrity culture was peaking, during the 1920s, the appeal of the image as the repository of a unique subjectivity declined for the high modernists, and also for one figure of mass popularity: Chaplin. My fourth chapter examines how Chaplin manages to combine modernism's production of the author, founded on a distrust of images, with the logic of visuality that idealizes Chaplin himself as an author responsible for producing the visual traces of his body. Chaplin's author-production, unlike that found in Wilde, Joyce, and Stein, functions while the image remains visible. Yet Chaplin, drawing on the traditions of slapstick, which first created his fame, resists investing the image with subjectivity. Paradoxically, Chaplin's films invoke the familiarity of the Tramp, Chaplin's signature, in order to indicate that the author is located elsewhere. Rather than wholly rejecting the image, though, Chaplin transforms it into a signifier of his audience. Modern Times recoups the image as a sign of Chaplin's popularity and his historical moment, enlisting recognition of the Tramp to foreground the act of identification that unites Chaplin's mass audience. Chaplin stages the modernist desire to situate subjectivity in the ontology of the text instead of in an image of the embodied subject; this impulse to separate the subject from visuality expands the role of the icon and authorizes celebrity images to crystallize our culture. In this way, modernism, having rejected the celebrity image but absorbed much of its logic, may be said to indirectly usher in a culture in which celebrity images constitute the telling of history.

Viewed together, Chaplin's shaping of the celebrity icon and the modernist authorial self-production enact the creation of an idealized embodiment of the self that demonstrates mastery over the culture—precisely because of his or her disconnect from that culture. It is with this in mind that I turn in my fifth chapter to the strange career of Rhys, whose life and work, like that of Wilde, proceed along parallel lines. In the 1920s, Rhys followed a familiar modernist script, forging a distinctive written style and a bohemian expatriate existence. But Rhys did not mirror her contemporaries' self-fashioning either in or out of her writing. Rhys's protagonists in her short works and such novels as Good Morning, Midnight, since closely identified with her own life experiences, almost exclusively constitute the abject figure in the realm of her fiction; they are exceptional by virtue of being below, rather than above the mass. Yet it is the materials of celebrity that position these women: they are on display, objects of the gaze of the plebeian and pedestrian, and, however they try to fit in with the crowd, unique. Rhys, on the other hand, was to drop out of sight. For almost the entirety of the 1940s she lived in obscurity, having been actually presumed dead. Her fortunes swung finally after the appearance of Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel about Bertha Rochester, the most famously hidden character in English literary history. My readings of these texts and of Rhys's biography argue that celebrity underwrites her work. As Rhys is central to the inception and development of the scholarly discipline of postcolonial studies, I suggest that the discourse of celebrity emerges as an organizing principle of that field. Celebrity, I conclude, provides great explanatory power for texts beyond the modernist moment, enabling a new understanding of the way critical fields are imagined.

That explanatory power extends to modernist writers whose reputations are as ambiguously constructed as that of Rhys. So, in a (somewhat idiosyncratic) epilogue, I address another modernist rarely thought of as an embodiment of celebrity authorship: Dos Passos. I use a brief reading of Dos Passos's U.S.A. to frame my backwards glance at some of the implications of my study. Dos Passos's trilogy, I argue, in fact signals a critical consideration of the modernism and celebrity intersection, long before this book, or Huyssen, or the new modernisms. U.S.A. serves as an appropriate final object of study because it revisits several dimensions of my argument, including the idea of a visually distinct literary style (as in Joyce), the identification of celebrity with a historical moment (as in Chaplin) and the idea of celebrity networking (as in Stein). Most dramatic, though, is Dos Passos's reappraisal of modernist authorial self-fashioning, which he portrays as generating an insidious ideological model of the individual. His primary strategy for this, I demonstrate, lies in U.S.A.'s characterization of form in its "Camera Eye" sections. These passages depict modernist style's emphatic production of subjectivity as corollary to a disengagement from culture and politics. To launch his critique, Dos Passos invokes Stein, and more clearly Hemingway, his friend and obverse, in a rhetorical gesture that warns against modernist exceptionalism even as it partakes of this new version of the individual, therefore signaling the cultural ubiquity of celebrity discourse.

Celebrity culture provided modernists with the methods of commodification and objectification that enabled them to generate this new form of subjectivity. As my readings imply, however, the creation of the self that Wilde, Joyce, Stein, Rhys, Dos Passos, and Chaplin perform leads to their entrapment within their own textual strategies. By producing the self as an object valued in circulation and through its relation to other objects, these figures rely on the recognition of the audience for their identity; this dependence opens the door to the dislocation of the self and the lack of agency that Valentino bemoans. It begins, of course, with Wilde, whose self-stereotyping brings about his self-destruction. Braudy writes, "It is in Wilde's own life, where painter, sitter, and canvas become one, that we see the coming shadow of twentieth-century show business self-destruction written plain in his active agitation for the trial and publicity that lead to his death" (581). My later sites of inquiry may be said to have followed suit, though with less tragic consequences. In varying ways, they all enact the pattern of having the object exert control over the self. In the case of Joyce, the need to control textual meaning and produce an audience of authorized readers leads him to disseminate the guides that both explain his novel and reduce it to a schematic. Stein, by locating value in the links between proximate celebrity signs, undermines both the text's capacity to establish stable value at all and, certainly, her pretense at a democratized form of celebrity. With Chaplin the creation of the image, even as a sign of a disembodied subjectivity, most clearly controls identity. Chaplin becomes subject to the Tramp image to the extent that, first of all, he can hardly appear publicly without it making an appearance, and secondly, his films can only be read through the prism of his celebrity. Rhys spends years republishing the same script; then she lives it. Dos Passos repudiates an aesthetic as he reaffirms its cultural ascendancy. Ultimately, these resonances among my readings portray the relationship of modernism to celebrity as not only that of twin cultural phenomena with shared origins and systems, but also as manifestations of the same impulse. In the pages to follow I intend to show that modernism can be read as an offshoot of celebrity culture, and that modernist literature should very much be read as the literature of celebrity.



“Goldman's thesis is ably pursued and very useful. He situates 'celebrity' as the 'missing link' between high and low culture in modernism, and I think he has a point.”
James Joyce Quarterly

“Modernism is the Literature of Celebrity is a magical book and a path-breaking study. . . . A series of stunningly prescient and apposite chapters on Wilde, Joyce, Stein, Chaplin, Rhys, Dos Passos, and Hemingway, among others, follows through on the book’s bracing, provocative, and polemical premise for the centrality of celebrity in delineating what modernist literature was, and is. The book displays Professor Goldman’s command of every aspect of literary scholarship, including his range within the genre of the novel, and his ease and substance in entering mass media forms, especially those of photography, film, and mass-mediated celebrity discourses. He brings the brio of a first-rate theorist of modernity to bear on mass culture and all its forms. . . . Each chapter explores fresh territory and original terrain: modernism will hereafter be unthinkable absent Jonathan Goldman’s critical flags and unrecognizable without this dazzling, luminous book.”
Jennifer Wicke, University of Virginia

“Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity is an important book, in which Jonathan Goldman makes a strong case for the position taken in the book’s title, supporting it with elegant readings of texts by an interesting range of modernists. It is well informed, clearly written, and very persuasive—a real contribution to modernist studies.”
Robert Scholes, Research Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Co-Director, Modernist Journals Project, Brown University

“This book makes a very fresh, original, and substantial contribution to the study of both modernism and modern celebrity, and it is also a most enjoyable book to read. It is engaging in style and persuasively argued, and makes some unexpected and very insightful connections among a diverse range of authors. It is also founded on an impressive body of research. I strongly recommend it.”
Faye Hammill, University of Strathclyde, author of Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture between the Wars


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