A Short History of Celebrity

A Short History of Celebrity

A Short History of Celebrity

A Short History of Celebrity


Love it or hate it, celebrity is one of the dominant features of modern life--and one of the least understood. Fred Inglis sets out to correct this problem in this entertaining and enlightening social history of modern celebrity, from eighteenth-century London to today's Hollywood. Vividly written and brimming with fascinating stories of figures whose lives mark important moments in the history of celebrity, this book explains how fame has changed over the past two-and-a-half centuries.

Starting with the first modern celebrities in mid-eighteenth-century London, including Samuel Johnson and the Prince Regent, the book traces the changing nature of celebrity and celebrities through the age of the Romantic hero, the European fin de siècle, and the Gilded Age in New York and Chicago. In the twentieth century, the book covers the Jazz Age, the rise of political celebrities such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, and the democratization of celebrity in the postwar decades, as actors, rock stars, and sports heroes became the leading celebrities.

Arguing that celebrity is a mirror reflecting some of the worst as well as some of the best aspects of modern history itself, Inglis considers how the lives of the rich and famous provide not only entertainment but also social cohesion and, like morality plays, examples of what--and what not--to do.

This book will interest anyone who is curious about the history that lies behind one of the great preoccupations of our lives.


This is a history book. Insofar as it offers a theory of itself, it is a theory of historical sedimentation, transformation, re-creation. It is the theory that we live, wittingly and involuntarily, the assorted versions of our selves and our society which history has deposited within us. Nothing much to say about that except that history is not a vast undifferentiated force coming at us with a capital H, but an irresistible series of tiny, invisible infiltrations which sidle along our bloodstream and oscillate in our thoughts and feelings.

Insofar as we become conscious of these invasions, we do so by way of shaping them into narratives grand or small, but even the grandest are made up and made out of the bits and pieces of the many disjointed experiences and unintelligible events of the past, rearranged and re-created for a different present.

The usefulness of fame for the purposes of this simple historical lesson is that the concept serves to pick out those lives and ways of life which shaped themselves into the significant constellations of the past and provided quite a lot of people with stars to steer by. When we add to that the general scholarly agreement that modernity may usefully be taken as picking up speed from round about the middle of the eighteenth century, then a history of the fairly new concept of celebrity may tell us plenty about what is to be cherished and built upon as well as what is to be despised and ought to be destroyed in the subsequent invention of modern society.

My most pointed moral is that the business of renown and celebrity has been in the making for two and a half centuries. It was not thought up by the hellhounds of publicity a decade ago. Consequently, if we load its discussion and evaluation down with the mass of time, we might be able to lend some gravity to the shallow and violent lightness of being attributed to fame in our day. What follows is full of such historical examples, of individual life stories which neither constitute a sample nor provide epitomes.

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