The Invention of Celebrity
By: Antoine Lilti
Publication Date: June 2017
Reviewed by: Holly Connors
Author Antoine Lilti has penned an in-depth analysis of the origins of "celebrity" with his new book, The Invention of Celebrity.
Lilti begins his exploration of celebrity in 1778 (with many references throughout the book to earlier dates/events), with an examination of the then eighty-five year old Voltaire. Upon returning to Paris after a thirty-year absence, the author notes that the philosopher was in great demand by the people of the time, with people eager to catch a glimpse of the man. And, notes Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a French writer of the time, "An epidemic curiosity made people rush to catch sight of Voltaire's face, as if the soul of the writer were no longer in his writings but in the way he looked." (pg. 15). Sound familiar? The name "Voltaire" could be replaced with just about any present-day celebrity. And that, in essence, is the author's premise - that while "we" (present day celebrity watchers) like to think that "celebrity" is a fairly modern creation, it really isn't. Long before movies, or television, or social media helped spread images and news of various celebrities, Lilti notes that the foundations of celebrity were already well-established - in fact, many aspects of celebrity were developed in Europe during the Enlightenment.
The Invention of Celebrity is broken down into seven chapters that explore Voltaire in Paris; Society of the Spectacle; A First Media Revolution; From Glory to Celebrity; Loneliness of the Celebrity; The Power of Celebrity; and finally, Romanticism and Celebrity. Within each chapter are numerous sections that look at various aspects of that topic, and include such varied and interesting discussions as private lives/public figures; a European celebrity; the burden of celebrity; and celebrity in America.
One of the many interesting topics the author examines is the "Invention of the Fan(atic)" and to do this he takes a careful look at the life, and death, of Francois Joseph Talma, a stage actor born in 1763. What, asks Lilti, caused "...thousands of Parisians to follow Talma's funeral procession and readers from all over Europe to read in the newspapers the accounts of his last days and all the details of his career?" (pg. 43) Lilti argues that celebrity is not the same as success because it goes beyond that person being well-known/liked in his field to a desire by others to learn about the personal/private life of that person. Indeed, the author argues, that with celebrity, people desire a closeness to that person and "...media events do the best job of creating this illusion of long-distance intimacy." (pg. 44) In contrast, George Washington "...firmly refused all requests to talk about his private life" (pg. 203) but this didn't keep his peers from building him up as a hero, and thus, celebrity. How this differed from others before, and after Washington, is but one way celebrity status is achieved.
The author of The Invention of Celebrity, historian Antoine Lilti, is Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and has written several books on public figures and sociability. He does an excellent job in his newest book examining the development of celebrity, both in Europe and America, with detailed examples of many public figures and the stories behind their fame. This is not a light, Saturday afternoon read, but rather a detailed examination that will reveal many interesting facts and events behind so many well-known, as well as lesser-known, figures of the past several centuries. Indeed, The Invention of Celebrity is an excellent read for those intrigued by the development of fame.
Quill says: Exhaustively researched, with in-depth analysis, this book is not a light read, but is definitely an interesting read for those who have more than a passing curiosity for the history behind the rise of "celebrity."