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Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture between the Wars

Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture between the Wars

A fascinating look at seven American, Canadian, and English women writers—Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Mae West, L. M. Montgomery, Margaret Kennedy, Stella Gibbons, and E. M. Delafield—who achieved popular success in the 1920s and 1930s and whose work is still read today.

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

November 2007
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271 pages | 6 x 9 |

As mass media burgeoned in the years between the first and second world wars, so did another phenomenon—celebrity. Beginning in Hollywood with the studio-orchestrated transformation of uncredited actors into brand-name stars, celebrity also spread to writers, whose personal appearances and private lives came to fascinate readers as much as their work. Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture between the Wars profiles seven American, Canadian, and British women writers—Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Mae West, L. M. Montgomery, Margaret Kennedy, Stella Gibbons, and E. M. Delafield—who achieved literary celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s and whose work remains popular even today.

Faye Hammill investigates how the fame and commercial success of these writers—as well as their gender—affected the literary reception of their work. She explores how women writers sought to fashion their own celebrity images through various kinds of public performance and how the media appropriated these writers for particular cultural discourses. She also reassesses the relationship between celebrity culture and literary culture, demonstrating how the commercial success of these writers caused literary elites to denigrate their writing as "middlebrow," despite the fact that their work often challenged middle-class ideals of marriage, home, and family and complicated class categories and lines of social discrimination.

The first comparative study of North American and British literary celebrity, Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture between the Wars offers a nuanced appreciation of the middlebrow in relation to modernism and popular culture.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. "How to tell the difference between a Matisse painting and a Spanish omelette": Dorothy Parker, Vogue, and Vanity Fair
  • 2. "Brains are really everything": Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
  • 3. "A plumber's idea of Cleopatra": Mae West as Author
  • 4. "Astronomers located her in the latitude of Prince Edward Island": L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, and Early Hollywood
  • 5. "The best product of this century": Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph
  • 6. "Literature or just sheer flapdoodle?": Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm
  • 7. "Wildest hopes exceeded": E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Faye Hammill is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.


The Strand was seething with noise and confusion; then presently, to my bewilderment, I began to be aware that I, myself, was contributing to the hubbub. News vendors all along the way were barking out the headlines on the posters [. . .] and they carried my name in red and black lettering: "Anita Loos in London."

As I listened to those cockney voices, I was chilled by that new danger to my marriage. What if Mr. E were there to hear his [wife's] name being called out in the London street?

I sought refuge from that thought by going back to the hotel. By that time, the phones in both my rooms were ringing. While I answered one, my maid tried to cope with the other but, speaking only French, she added to the confusion. And from that time on, day and night, my phones never stopped ringing.

The British are prone to magnify writers. They pampered Noël Coward, Michael Arlen, Freddy Lonsdale, and Somerset Maugham as if they were matinee idols. And interest in me was heightened by the fact that I'd once lived in the magical world of D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford.

Anita Loos, Kiss Hollywood Goodbye (73)




Literary celebrity, in this account, is part of the "hubbub" of everyday life, yet it also gives access to a "magical world." The celebrity author is magnified, elevated above ordinary mortals. At the same time, she is incorporated into the bewildering modern city, and cannot take refuge from the public, even in her bedroom. Simply by her known presence, she contributes to the chaos, but it is her name and not herself which circulates in the street. Shouted out and repeated, the name becomes part of the "noise and confusion"; its meaning and value are renegotiated as it is translated across languages, dialects, and cultures.


In the London of 1926, the arrival of Anita Loos was a newsworthy event, not only because her book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had made such a sensation the previous year, but also because she was a conduit to the stars of Hollywood, who fascinated the British public. As her comparison with matinee idols suggests, the high-profile authors of the twenties and thirties were constructed in relation to new models of fame emerging from Hollywood. Literary celebrity was increasingly predicated on forms of public performance, and in her autobiographical text Loos deliberately enacts her own celebrity by exaggerating her impact: her name is being barked out "all along the way," and the phones "never stopped ringing." These excessive gestures coexist with an anxiety about her own status which is directly related to gender, and her attempted retreat from the exposure of the street to the private space of the hotel room evokes the ideology of separate spheres. Indeed, Loos's various autobiographical writings betray acute fear that her rise to fame has compromised her femininity and ruined the life of her less successful, envious husband.


This extract from Kiss Hollywood Goodbye (1974) touches on many of the aspects of literary culture and celebrity which will be explored in this study. The book concentrates on seven high-profile women whose books caused a sensation in the early twentieth century: Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Mae West, L. M. Montgomery, Margaret Kennedy, Stella Gibbons, and E. M. Delafield. This is a deliberately varied selection, and these authors are not usually compared in any detail by critics; each tends to be treated as an isolated literary or star phenomenon. Yet they can be connected in many ways, and such connections illuminate the complex transatlantic cultural interchange of the 1920s and 1930s. There are many affinities among these writers, in terms of their careers as well as the thematic and formal aspects of their writing, and they also influenced one another's work. The same cultural discourses surrounding sophistication, urbanity, and the economics of female survival in a man's world informed the work of all these women; and the same literary networks and systems of celebrity, centering on particular magazines, publishing houses, literary prizes, theaters, hotels, and Hollywood studios, structured their public images and professional lives.


Witty and highly individual novels such as Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, or Kennedy's The Constant Nymph were literary events, surprise best sellers which provoked debate precisely because they could not be understood in relation to contemporary literary categories and hierarchies. On first publication, they were received as significant contributions to high culture; later their high sales led to their reclassification as commercial fiction. The same is true of Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (one of the most widely read books of all time), and this novel, like Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady, became a best seller on the strength of a very original central character, attractive enough to generate numerous sequels and achieve a remarkable longevity. The fame achieved by Montgomery and Delafield was contingent on the much greater renown of their heroines. West also invented several memorable characters, the best known being Diamond Lil, protagonist of a play, film, and novel. Yet she used her writing primarily to create and sustain her own celebrity image, and the "Mae West character" eventually eclipsed all her fictional heroines. Her three novels have been largely ignored, yet they were very significant to West's creation of herself as a celebrity. Similarly, Dorothy Parker is primarily remembered for her public personality, evolved through her journalism and disseminated via the sophisticated magazines of New York. The Parker persona—with its distinctive combination of sentiment and cynicism—is also recognizable in the speaking voice of her lyric poems and some of her stories; its allure was such that she achieved the remarkable feat of having a poetry collection in the best seller lists.


The most straightforward purposes of the present study are to reinscribe these fascinating writers into literary history, to probe their relationships with one another and with the canonized authors of their era, and to engage in detail with their writing, particularly those texts which reflect on cultural hierarchy, celebrity, publicity, and performance. Beyond these, the book will address a number of central questions, all with specific reference to the early decades of the twentieth century. First, what was the relationship between celebrity culture and literary culture, and how was this relationship inflected by gender? Second, how did the fame and commercial success of women writers in this period impact on their cultural authority and on the reception of their work? Third, what kind of agency did women writers have in the determination of their own celebrity images, and how far were they appropriated by the media into particular cultural discourses? The project is also concerned to develop more sophisticated critical approaches to middlebrow writing and to evolve a nuanced understanding of the middlebrow in relation to modernism and popular culture.


Literary Culture, Style, and the Middlebrow


The personal style of these women, and their varying degrees of embodied visibility in early-twentieth-century culture, are among my concerns here. Most of them were frequently photographed, usually for publicity purposes; some also became the subjects of cartoons, while publicly exhibited paintings and sculptures provided more solid testimonies to the fame of Parker, West, and Kennedy. The marketing of authors through images was a fast-developing commercial strategy in this period, and it related in significant ways to the highly visual culture of Hollywood, which circulated pictures of stars through fan magazines, advertisements, and consumer products. But the personal style of this generation of female authors is, I would suggest, often a function of their literary style. The way in which these women presented themselves, and were presented by publishers and journalists, often relates to the style projected through the language of their texts and through their fictional characters.


For Margaret Kennedy, Stella Gibbons, and E. M. Delafield, a conventionally elegant style of dress was part of their assertion of a civilized, commonsensical, broadly middlebrow identity, in contrast to the eccentric and unkempt bohemian characters depicted in their novels. Equally, a restrained, realist prose style is constructed as a norm in their texts, in contradistinction to overcolored or radically experimental modes of writing and conversation, which they render parodically. At the same time, they raise questions about these oppositions between civilized and bohemian, realist and experimental, and more broadly about the politics of literary style, and such questioning is very significant to my discussion. L. M. Montgomery collaborated with her publishers' efforts to market her, through photos and media texts, as a genteel lady writer, a suitable mentor for the adolescent girls who formed the principal audience for her wholesome, stylistically accessible stories. Her own rather Romantic aesthetic is tempered by her gentle mockery of Anne's overblown romanticism, flowery phrasing, and desire for frilly dresses with puffed sleeves, all of which are incongruous in prosaic Avonlea, where she lives. But in the early film versions of Anne of Green Gables, Anne's idyllic dreams become the primary reality, with Hollywood starlets embodying her fantasized, glamorous version of herself.


Anita Loos's success, like Montgomery's, was inspired by the image of a child. The diary of her most famous character, Lorelei Lee, is written in an infantile style; indeed, Lorelei's idiosyncratic, inaccurate, and yet oddly charming prose is the outstanding achievement of Loos's career. Lorelei deliberately plays on her youthful, blonde appearance, with its connotation of innocence. Yet, while she satirizes her heroine, Loos actually projected herself in similar ways, using Lorelei's style in her personal writing and endorsing cartoons which represented her as childlike and frivolous. She insisted on her identity as a "girl" even when she was well into middle age—her first volume of autobiography, published in 1966, is titled with one of Lorelei's phrases, A Girl Like I.


Dorothy Parker, like Loos, used her petite, pretty, feminine appearance to disarm, and to lend additional impact to her satire. Parker was adept at exploiting the incongruity between her vicious wit and her unexpectedly ladylike, demure appearance. Her literary style was so distinctive that even her anonymous fashion captions for Vogue are immediately recognizable. Mae West also based her appeal on wit, but in her case, this was combined with the more blatant attractions of a famously curvaceous figure, exaggerated by corsets and extremely high heels, and set off by a dazzling array of jewelry. Her literary style was similarly excessive, often to the point of self-mockery. Both the innuendo of her phrasing and her suggestive modes of dress and performance were honed in response to the interwar climate of censorship. Pungent dialogue is also crucial to West's novels, and she experimented with the representation of different dialects; like Parker and Loos, she was among the pioneers of colloquial, urban language in American fiction. Each of the seven authors chosen for this study, while not embracing a radical modernist aesthetic, is stylistically innovative; and style, in a broad sense, is thematized throughout their work.


The preoccupation with style, taste, imitation, and social performance which characterizes the work of all these authors can be tentatively identified with a middlebrow perspective. The middlebrow has been much abused. In her essay "Middlebrow," Virginia Woolf defines it as "this mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly" (Death, 118), while Q. D. Leavis describes "the staple reading of the middlebrow" with distaste as a set of "respected middling novelists of blameless intentions and indubitable skills" who leave their readers "with the agreeable sensation of having improved themselves without incurring fatigue" (36, 37). More recently, Pierre Bourdieu has written dismissively that "middle-brow art [. . .] is characterized by tried and proven techniques and an oscillation between plagiarism and parody most often linked with either indifference or conservatism" (Field, 128). The term "middlebrow," in order to be an effective critical category for the consideration of interwar literature, needs to be detached from such limiting definitions as these and reconstituted as a productive, affirmative standpoint for writers who were not wholly aligned with either high modernism or popular culture. It is important to recognize the forms of stylistic experimentation which middlebrow writers engaged in, and which are often overlooked because they do not correspond to the experimental strategies of high modernism. In sum, a new critical approach to such material is needed.


Much middlebrow writing has been ignored by the academy because of a misperception that it is so straightforward as to require no analysis, while in fact, its witty, polished surfaces frequently conceal unexpected depths and subtleties. Alison Light says of interwar middlebrow culture that its "apparent artlessness and insistence on its own ordinariness has made it peculiarly resistant to analysis" (11). Further, middlebrow books, especially those which achieve a wide readership, are often denigrated as commercial products, with the highly questionable implication that only experimental art, addressed to a select audience, can escape the contamination of the marketplace. A final problem is that, while the middlebrow has always encompassed both male and female writers and readers, it has, along with popular culture, been persistently gendered feminine, with a belittling and exclusionary intention. Nicola Humble, in her book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s, argues that one important reason for the "critical neglect of the major part of fiction published in Britain in these years is that it was largely written and consumed by women" (2). Her study encompasses some male authors, such as E. F. Benson, Evelyn Waugh, and Angus Wilson, who shared the concerns of their female contemporaries. Similarly, Light notes that the "cultural squint" produced by the literary establishment's "obsession with [. . .] elites" devalues interwar authors such as Noël Coward or P. G. Wodehouse, as well as many women writers. Nevertheless, both Light and Humble concentrate primarily on women writers, and their books demonstrate that the reinscription of the middlebrow into literary history is in part a feminist undertaking, since it involves attention to an undervalued literature which was, indeed, mainly produced by and for women. Humble also argues: "If this is a feminine literature, it is also very much the literature of the middle classes, paying a meticulous attention to their shifting desires and self-images" (3). This is indisputable, and yet many middlebrow texts also often subvert values which are taken to be constitutive of interwar middle-class ideology. The novels analyzed in the present study challenge and reassess the ideals of marriage, home, and family, and complicate class categories and lines of social discrimination. Of particular relevance to my project is the fact that writers who are preoccupied with celebrity often reassess the dynamic between private and public, and so represent a challenge to accepted notions of the inward turning of women's writing in this period.


The increasing number of critics working on the nonmodernist literature of the early twentieth century are hampered by the lack of appropriate terminology to describe their specialism. The period is referred to by literary critics as the "modernist," while cultural critics concentrate on material such as music hall, Hollywood film, and mass-market magazines and novels. What, then, becomes of writing which cannot be easily accommodated to the paradigms of either high modernism or popular culture? This book is a study of that intermediate field of literary production from which some of the most fascinating and enduring texts of the period emerged. The recuperation of the middlebrow, and the development of more flexible and sophisticated approaches, have recently been initiated by critics, and the present study seeks to advance this important project.


The middlebrow has been delineated, by more hostile critics, in terms of pretension and upward mobility—an aspirational form of imitation, an attempt to appropriate forms of culture which are not fully understood. Bourdieu describes this process:


Pretension, the recognition of distinction that is affirmed in the effort to possess it, albeit in the illusory form of bluff or imitation, inspires the acquisition, in itself vulgarizing, of the previously most distinctive properties; it thus helps to maintain a constant tension in the symbolic goods market, forcing the possessors of distinctive properties threatened with popularization to engage in an endless pursuit of new properties through which to assert their rarity. (Distinction, 251-252)


Yet the primary satiric target of many of the broadly middlebrow texts considered in this study is precisely this: pretension, in all its forms. Gibbons, Parker, Kennedy, and Delafield mock those who seek distinction through deliberate eccentricity, intellectual posturing, bogus bohemianism, and social climbing. In their writing for magazines, they trade in the delineation of social "types," which was a staple of periodicals such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time and Tide, and Punch. To conform to one of these types is to fail in the struggle for distinction. Loos's Lorelei Lee is also satirized for her inept imitations of authorship, virtue, refinement, and even blondeness; yet the text invites stronger contempt for those who are taken in by her act. All the authors chosen for this book flatter their readers by constructing them as culturally literate and sophisticated, not to be taken in by highbrow pretension or by lowbrow aspiration. Yet this construction of a position of superiority for implied author and implied reader is itself a bid for distinction and depends on the logic of sophistication. As Jessica Burstein notes: "Like the dynamic of fashion, sophistication works by relentlessly defining itself against its immediate past, or immediate context" (234). The ability to discriminate must be restricted to initiates; in claiming this ability for herself and her readers, an author seeks to distinguish herself from the unsophisticated mass.


More specifically, the early-twentieth-century discourse of sophistication depends on a privileging of urban over rural and metropolitan over provincial. Parker and Loos, prime exponents of New York style, continually identify their texts in this way. Suburban bores are caricatured (though sometimes with a touch of pathos) in Parker's stories for The New Yorker, a magazine which declared it was "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque" but for "persons who have a metropolitan interest." Loos chose Little Rock, Arkansas, as the home of her blonde adventurer because her beloved H. L. Mencken described it as "the Sahara of the Bozart." Lorelei disguises her unpromising origins in her campaign to conquer New York high society, though she occasionally plays on her identity as a "little girl from Little Rock" (Blondes, 92) to generate sympathy.


The privileging of the metropolitan exists, however, in tension with the contemporary urge toward the simple life, and the pastoral fantasies which resulted. All the authors discussed here engage with these oppositions. Cold Comfort Farm, The Constant Nymph, and The Diary of a Provincial Lady are all structured by an exaggerated opposition between London and a rural setting (respectively, Sussex, the Austrian Alps, and Devon), while the island idyll of Montgomery's novels is threatened by the dangerous allure of urban opportunities and visitors from the city. This preoccupation with the city is just one of the many ways in which the authors analyzed in this book engage with the concerns of modernity. Another significant element of their rhetorical modernness is a willingness to address previously taboo subjects, including contraception and teenage sexuality, and even—in the cases of Parker and West—to invest their own celebrity images with a transgressive sexuality.


Modernism and the Middlebrow


Engagement with the modern, for some of the seven writers, is formal as well as thematic. It is true that, on the whole, they tended to regard experimental and avant-garde art with a certain bewilderment, amusement, or even hostility, yet Montgomery was the only one to be wholly intolerant of it. Several of the others responded to modernist innovation in serious ways, and some of their texts have affinities with experimental narrative projects: West's impressionistic evocations of New York, for example, or Loos's emphasis on the materiality of language. A parodic approach is more characteristic of these authors, however: parody of stream of consciousness and free verse occurs in Gibbons, Loos, Delafield, and Parker. Drawing on the more expansive definitions of modernism and modernity which are being developed in recent theory and criticism, it is possible to read them as participants, however tentatively, in modernist experiment. They also interacted textually with canonical modernist authors. Loos's writing, for example, has interesting resonances with the work of both T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, while Delafield implicitly responds to Virginia Woolf's work in her own texts, with a mixture of admiration and opposition. Gibbons's books have many affinities with those of Evelyn Waugh (who is ambiguously located in relation to modernism), and she also establishes complex intertextual connections with D. H. Lawrence.


A theoretical framework for studying the interaction between modernism and the middlebrow has not yet been fully established; such a framework needs to take account of, whilst also challenging, existing theories of modernism's relationship to mass culture. One of the classic accounts is Andreas Huyssen's 1986 book After the Great Divide. Huyssen summarizes his influential theory with the statement 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). A later book, focused on English literature, is John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), which argues that "modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms" (i) and that "the pressure of mass culture [drove] intellectuals to invent new proof of their distinction in a world which increasingly found them redundant" (72). These oppositional models of elite and popular have, however, been questioned or modified by other critics. Some demonstrate that many modernist writers were intensely preoccupied with the marketplace, while others point to the interdependence and mutual borrowings between avant-garde and popular forms in the period. Michael North includes in his 1999 book Reading 1922 a chapter entitled "Across the Great Divide." It opens with an account of Gilbert Seldes's simultaneous involvement, in 1922, in two projects: the publication of The Waste Land in The Dial (of which Seldes was then managing editor) and the planning of a new book, The Seven Lively Arts, which established American popular culture as a legitimate object of critical enquiry. North argues that Seldes's career demonstrates "the larger social and cultural connections between popular culture and literary modernism," revealing both as "part of a larger cultural change in which public life and private came to be dominated by representations, by images" (141).


While North persuasively counters Huyssen's construction of modernism as antipathetic to popular entertainment, he does not move beyond Huyssen's conception of early-twentieth-century cultural production as entirely composed of modernist art and popular entertainment. Huyssen defines the popular culture of the period as "serialized feuilleton novels, popular and family magazines, the stuff of lending libraries, fictional bestsellers and the like" (49), and high culture in terms of modernist writing, making no mention of the vast area of literary production which falls into neither category. North, although demonstrating the connections between the two supposed opposites, maintains the dualistic understanding of early-twentieth-century culture, not acknowledging the presence of a middle ground. Yet the rise of middlebrow culture in this period performed the very task of destabilizing the categories of high and low which North himself seeks to achieve. Nicola Humble argues: "Middlebrow fiction laid claim to the highbrow by assuming an easy familiarity with its key texts and attitudes, while simultaneously caricaturing intellectuals as self-indulgent and naïve" (29). This is an important point, yet middlebrow fiction did not always simply "lay claim" to the highbrow, it frequently expanded and challenged earlier definitions of art and intellectual work. In borrowing from both modernist and mass cultural forms, it diminished the apparent distance between them. Instead of simply responding to high culture, the middlebrow, I would argue, changed the ways in which high culture was understood. The large audience which many middlebrow authors reached gives some indication of the likely impact of such reformulations of cultural hierarchy.


Drawing on the work of Jeffrey Weiss, Michael North also argues that "music hall [. . .] provides a formal model for the avant-garde, a model of ironic juxtaposition in which quick transitions between the high and the low, the comic and the bathetic, the artistic and the commercial deflate pretensions and level out specious distinctions" (152). This deflation and leveling, I would argue, are also accomplished by some middlebrow texts. Indeed, North's description applies perfectly to Cold Comfort Farm, with its sudden switches between an Austenian style and the purple prose of the popular rural novel; or to Dorothy Parker's poetry, which combines the disciplined formal purity of Horace and Catullus with the idioms of New York cocktail parties. Texts such as The Constant Nymph or The Diary of a Provincial Lady, which are obsessively preoccupied with fine distinctions between cultural levels and between different conceptions of taste, art, and culture, ultimately render those distinctions suspect. And the ambiguous cultural status of these texts, with their peculiar and unstable cross-class appeal, itself works to disrupt boundaries between high and low, commercial and artistic. These books critique the commodification of art, yet as highly profitable commodities they become part of the cultural battle which is dramatized in their pages.


The journals in which the work of my chosen authors was published and reviewed also had complex attitudes toward modernism. Vanity Fair, the New York magazine where Dorothy Parker was a staff writer and Anita Loos also published, devoted a significant amount of space to experimental artists and writers, even as it satirized their excesses and those of their imitators. Its attitude is epitomized in the anonymous paragraph of introduction prefixed to Stein's "Have They Attacked Mary. He Giggled," published in its pages in 1917:


Somehow, it seems as if the surest test for the detection of a modern philistine is the poetic work of Gertrude Stein. The reader who takes a delirious joy in the poem which we publish here, who constantly stops his reading to say "Isn't it great—" "Isn't it wonderful?," etc., is not a philistine. On the contrary, the individual, male or female, who begins foaming at the mouth at Miss Stein's second "page," who shrieks "This is insanity" at the third or fourth, and ends by writing a letter of protest to the Editor of Vanity Fair, IS one. Decidedly this second individual is one. Is one decidedly. (Amory and Bradlee, 20-21)


The reference to letters of protest is not an idle one—Vanity Fair in fact drew criticism from some of its advertisers for reproducing paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso which were thought to be "decadent and distorted" (Bradlee, 11), and the editor, Frank Crowninshield, had to negotiate between aesthetic principles and commercial considerations. Vanity Fair's choice to print this poem invites serious attention to "difficult" writers such as Stein, while its parody of her encourages a healthy detachment. Gently ridiculing both the champions and the detractors of modernism, the magazine implicitly advocates a balanced approach and seeks to attract both enthusiastic and skeptical readers of modernist writing.


In Britain, the literary weekly Time and Tide, where E. M. Delafield was a regular contributor and Stella Gibbons an occasional one, published essays and stories by Bloomsbury Group authors and reviewed their novels favorably, but also featured comic cartoons representing them and printed correspondence from readers who found their work unreadable. In the balance they struck between mockery of highbrow pretension and serious attention to avant-garde writing and art, periodicals such as Time and Tide or Vanity Fair can be identified with the middlebrow, as I have defined it. The middlebrow provided a vantage point from which high culture, popular culture, and middlebrow culture itself could be critically observed, and permitted the magazines to publish a range of material to appeal across a fairly broad audience, without risking identification as a mass market product. Vanity Fair and its sister publication Vogue (which had American and European editions) were also important vehicles of the expanding culture of celebrity, featuring many portraits of successful artists and entertainers, as well as nominations for the hall of fame. This was easily reconciled with the sophisticated ethos of the editors; in effect, they encouraged readers to distinguish themselves as culturally literate and socially aware by dropping the right names, and such strategies constituted a resistance to the forms of celebrity available through mass popularity, as opposed to serious artistic or public achievement.


The middlebrow is fundamentally connected with the history of literary celebrity. Most recent studies of celebrity authors, however, make only passing reference to middlebrow culture. The exception is a book by Joe Moran, who points out in Star Authors that literary celebrity is "the product of a historically close relationship between certain kinds of authors and a 'middlebrow' print culture, which was ultimately answerable to the marketplace but which also aimed to make literature accessible to the broader populace" (33-34). Moran explains further: "Since they tend to straddle the divide between the restricted and extended subfields of cultural production, celebrity authors are ambiguous figures. As cultural signifiers they often contain elements of the idea of the charismatic, uniquely inspired creative artist associated with the autonomization of the cultural field, but they also gain legitimacy from the notion of celebrity as supported by broad popularity and success in the marketplace" (7). Questions of "brows" and cultural hierarchy are, indeed, intimately linked to literary celebrity, and their relationship is complicated by issues of gender. I understand the term "literary culture" to include all these subjects, and in this study, I analyze gender and celebrity as dimensions of authorship and as aspects of Anglo-American literary culture in the early twentieth century.


Celebrity Authors


The history of literary celebrity has been rendered in strikingly male terms. Leo Braudy, in The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (1986, revised 1997), discusses famous writers, politicians, and public figures from Alexander the Great to the present. Of the thirty-eight individuals mentioned in the list of chapter and section headings, only one (Emily Dickinson) is female. Even very recent—and extremely valuable—studies pay only limited attention to famous women. Aaron Jaffe's Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (2005) concentrates on T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis, though it does include illuminating discussion of women modernists, arguing that they were ill-served by modernist modes of self-fashioning and publicity. Loren Daniel Glass's Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States (2004) is centrally concerned with gender, but argues that literary celebrity is intimately connected with masculinity, since masculine posturing allows celebrity authors to protect themselves from the supposedly feminized mass audiences who in fact ensure their success. His chapters are on Mark Twain, Jack London, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer. Joe Moran's Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America (2000) likewise includes chapters on four male authors and one female (Twain, Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Kathy Lette). Both Glass and Moran concentrate on America, and only Jaffe adopts a transatlantic approach. Whilst these books, then, will certainly inform the critical framework of this study, they do not touch on the specific field of literary production which it concentrates on. Limits of geography, period, genre, or gender have excluded the material and the writers I am working with from these, and all other, existing books on celebrity. In general terms, these seven writers have received very limited critical attention, and more specifically, the effect of their fame and commercial success on the reception of their writing has rarely been considered, even though their careers can be seen to represent new paradigms for female literary success.


In recent years, a series of books and articles have immensely improved our understanding of the processes by which celebrity images are constituted and circulated, and the meanings which are invested in them. But in this burgeoning field of celebrity studies, literary celebrity is still only a small subsection, developing rather belatedly. Most specialists in celebrity work in the fields of media studies and sociology, rather than literature, and concentrate on film and the media, or music and sport stardom. Some of this work offers very useful methods, theories, and precedents for the analysis of celebrity authors. But as with the books on literary celebrity, most of these studies concentrate exclusively on America, and there is also a distinct emphasis on the contemporary. Only a few critics have adopted a systematically historical perspective on fame, though several influential theorists (notably Boorstin, Cawelti, Lasch, and Schickel) have looked backwards only to trace a narrative of decline. According to these models, which show the influence of Adorno, the advent of mass media transformed "genuine" artistic fame based on achievement into a culture of high-profile yet disposable celebrities, whose renown is founded more on their personality than their work. More recently, other critics have challenged this line of thinking on the basis that it is too uniformly hostile to popular culture, and that it dismisses the actual achievements of authors, artists, and actors by exaggerating the role of marketing and packaging in producing their fame (see Gamson, Marshall, Moran).


The nature of celebrity is a current obsession in the media as well as the academy, with the result, as Moran writes, that celebrity has become "an unstable, multifaceted phenomenon—the product of a complex negotiation between cultural producers and audiences, the purveyor of both dominant and resistant cultural meanings, and a pivotal point of contention in debates about the relationship between cultural authority and exchange value in capitalist societies" (3). In the specific context of the early twentieth century, celebrity became entangled in the complex relationship between modernism and mass culture, since, as Jaffe argues, these "two systems of cultural production long alleged to be at odds" actually overlap "where the elite promotion of authorial originality meets with the mass phenomenon of celebrity" (88). He explains further:


The same way modernists and modernism's literary economists fetishize authorship, celebrities and their publicists fetishize the production of self. The rhetoric of both insists on alleged indifference to consumption, studied insensitivity to existing tastes of consumers, readers, audiences, and publics. Yet, both 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. (90-91)


These tensions can also be discerned in the self-fashioning texts (including autobiography, interviews, letters, and also self-reflexive fiction) published by the authors considered in this book. Partaking of and yet mocking the modernist fetishization of authorship which Jaffe identifies, they also frequently value their own work in terms of its circulation and the profit it generates.


On the whole, though, the authors considered in this study endorse and aspire to a traditional concept of fame as a reward for genuine achievement, as opposed to a more cynical, modern idea of the celebrity as simply "well-known for his well-knownness," as Boorstin put it (97). Such celebrities were epitomized, during the interwar era, in royalty, or women notorious for their sexual liaisons, such as Peaches Browning in the twenties or Mrs. Simpson in the thirties. There are, though, significant differences in the extent to which the authors studied in the book actually sought fame: West and Montgomery, at one end of the scale, were confessedly determined to become famous, while for Gibbons, at the other, fame was as unexpected as it was undesired. All seven, however, became involved in an active relationship with their own fame. Lorraine York notes that Montgomery "developed a strategic and remarkably intelligent negotiation with the celebrity processes that surrounded her and in part tried to define her" (99). This comment could also be applied to the other authors, and York's approach is a useful corrective to theories which deny any agency to celebrities themselves. Certainly, these writers all capitalized on their fame to at least some extent, and they attempted to exercise a degree of control over their own celebrity images, as well as exploring celebrity culture in their writing.


Literary celebrity, as Moran points out, "is different in significant ways from the celebrity produced by commercial mass media," because the "encroachment of market values on to literary production [. . .] forms part of a complicated process in which various legitimating bodies compete for cultural authority and/or commercial success, and regulate the formation of a literary star system and the shifting hierarchy of stars" (3-4). Therefore, the best-selling and fashionable authors of the interwar years often became the focus of debates about literary value and cultural hierarchy. The terms of this debate are, though, intimately connected with the rise of cinema, and this is one reason why literary celebrity, in spite of its distinctiveness, should not be treated in isolation from other kinds of fame. In the early twentieth century, Hollywood had an immense impact on the operations of literary celebrity. First, and most straightforwardly, films made from novels raised the profile of their authors, even though the studios gave little credit to the original books. Gibbons, Kennedy, Montgomery, West, and Loos all had films made from their work, and these impacted significantly on the status of their texts and the later critical response to them. The film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for example, a sumptuous fifties musical starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, functioned to detach Loos's novel from its period, obscure its gender politics, and associate it permanently with the sphere of popular entertainment.


Second, hundreds of writers went to Hollywood after the introduction of sound, to work on dialogue. Most of these were men, with a few exceptions such as Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Rachel Crothers. (Anita Loos was virtually the only author to begin in Hollywood and then move to a New York-based literary career.) Many of the authors who went to Hollywood prospered financially, but, as Richard Fine argues, almost every one was "disquieted or unnerved by the experience" (13), because "the profession of authorship as he had known it" was under attack there (14). Writers were not much respected in Hollywood; they had no creative control over the films they worked on, and their scripts were often completely rewritten by others. Producers often paid only for the cachet of a well-known author's name, rather than for his or her actual input to the film. This debased authors' achievements by measuring their worth in terms of renown rather than quality.


Third, the star system of Hollywood affected the systems of literary celebrity. To keep labor costs under control, early silent films avoided crediting or publicizing actors or creative personnel. But as demand for new films increased, along with public interest in screen actors, stars began to be named and rapidly became the most powerful figures in the industry. Their rising salaries helped inflate the pay of other workers, including writers, and win them credits and acknowledgment. More importantly, it was Hollywood which made the twenties "a period of unprecedented public fascination with celebrity culture in America" (Helal, 78), a fascination nourished through the media and advertising. This prompted a growth of interest in celebrities outside the film industry, including authors. Richard Schickel describes Scott Fitzgerald as "a pioneering paradigm, the beginnings of a model that now holds controlling sway over the way we apprehend cultural work, which is primarily through cults of personality, through authorial image, and not, primarily, through the work itself" (212). This analysis is unduly bleak and clearly derives from a view of late-twentieth-century culture as degenerate. Nevertheless, I would agree with Schickel's dating of a paradigm shift in literary celebrity to the 1920s; developments in that era certainly do inform current constructions of celebrity authorship.


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