What We Talked About When We Talked About Fame

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded me an Enduring Questions grant to develop a new course at The College of New Jersey on the meaning of fame from Antiquity to the Enlightenment.  In my previous research and teaching, I had always seen fame as a form of the exalted individualism we find in capitalism and democracy.  The grant helped my students and me explore what fame meant before these powerful historical forces emerged in the 18th century and how it shaped such works as The Iliad, The Aeneid, the Gospel of Mark, and the Confessions of St. Augustine.  In October, the NEH magazine, Humanities, published my reflections on teaching this course in an essay the editors titled “Addicted to Fame: From the Greeks to Lady Gaga.”

Teaching this course was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, especially because my TCNJ students offered such fresh, insightful perspectives on both the material and their experience growing up in our attention-mad society.  I think you will agree that their contributions to this essay were invaluable. Here’s the introduction:

Fame is a bee,” Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her last poems. “It has a song— / It has a sting—.” “Ah, too,” she added, “it has a wing.

The poem captures Dickinson resigning herself to how ephemeral fame can be, how effortlessly it moves from one person to the next, pleasing, wounding, and deserting them as it travels across the earth.

Dickinson’s comparison came to mind as I prepared a course at The College of New Jersey on the history of fame. On campuses across the country, one can find fascinating classes dedicated to the study of stars like Beyoncé, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen. My course took a different approach. It focused not on individual personalities, but on the long line of thinkers who have grappled with the meaning of fame.

An Allegory of Fame, (circa 1630), by Bernardo Strozzi.

Today’s college students are part of a fame culture that is far more absorbing than the one in which their parents grew up. Waves of publicity crash over them daily, with Twitter, Instagram, and BuzzFeed now added to the mix of dorm-room posters and fan magazines. But young people no longer see themselves as just spectators. Listen to the most savvy among them, and they’ll offer detailed strategies for “creating a personal brand” and “curating a digital identity. As the phrase goes, they aim to optimize their presence in an attention-based economy.

My aim was to build a course that could defamiliarize fame by exploring its roots in the ancient world. I wanted students to see that fame was not always associated with glamor and excess. I wanted them to appreciate how previous cultures had integrated fame into treasured stories about virtue, character, mortality, and public life. But like Dickinson’s bee, our discussions took flight and frequently landed us in fields far removed from antiquity. In the end, my students discovered the remoteness of the past; what they taught me is its unmistakable presence today.  Continued at Humanities:

 

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Herman Melville’s April Fool, The Confidence-Man

This weekend we celebrate the 160th anniversary of Herman Melville’s troubling novel The Confidence-Man; His Masquerade. Published on what was then called April Fool Day, the novel features a series of confidence tricks performed on a Mississippi River boat, named the Fidèle, on April 1 sometime in the 1850s. The Confidence-Man raises many questions (for example, exactly how many con men are on board?), but each of the tricks depends on an expression of confidence in the world. When passengers question the con man or refuse to buy into his schemes, he urges them to open their hearts and speak with sincerity. “Ah, now,” he says in the guise of the buoyant Frank Goodman, “irony is so unjust: never could abide irony: something Satanic about irony. God defend me from Irony, and Satire, his bosom friend.” To state the obvious, Melville is winking at his reader. From its first paragraphs to its apocalyptic end, the novel provides a textbook example of irony: it says one thing and means another

Melville’s novel captures the ways in which Americans could reinvent themselves as they pushed further west. In the turbulence of the antebellum period, the Confidence Man urges his victims to look charitably on their fellow passengers and faithfully place their trust in him. When they resist, he accuses them of being faithless, of leading cynical lives, of disliking humanity and being misanthropes. What makes the Confidence Man so successful is that he swindles his victims not only of their money, but of the skepticism and critical thinking they need to successfully navigate their lives.

The Confidence-Man is a difficult, problematic novel, one that unsettles its readers and gives them no footing in the text or the world. Nineteenth-century critics struggled to make sense of the book; “ineffably meaningless and trashy,” one reviewer called it, a “reckless perversion of high abilities,” wrote another.

160 years later, Melville’s probing and destabilizing novel may have found its time. As reports of fake news and paid internet trolls swirl around our digital frontier, as our leaders urge us not to question their actions and to place our trust in their hyperbolic vision of the world, The Confidence-Man is more urgent than ever, though the cause for that urgency would no doubt lead our great mariner to even deeper despair.

 

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Liking Ike wins a 2017 PROSE Award

Thanks very much to the Association of American Publishers for giving its 2017 PROSE Award in Media & Cultural Studies to Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics.

According to the AAP website, the PROSE Awards, “annually recognize the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in over 40 categories. Judged by peer publishers, librarians, and medical professionals since 1976, the PROSE Awards are extraordinary for their breadth and depth.”

It is great to have Liking Ike included in such a distinguished group of books.

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Happy Ike Day!

Today marks the 60th anniversary of Ike Day, the star-studded celebration of President Eisenhower’s 66th birthday that was held in the midst of his re-election campaign.   Over ten years ago, I heard about this forgotten moment in American political history and started the research that led to Liking Ike.

Actress Irene Dunne celebrating Ike Day by posing with cake

Actress Irene Dunne celebrating Ike Day with the president’s favorite cake

Time magazine has helped me commemorate the anniversary by publishing my reflection on Ike Day and the 2016 presidential campaign.  Here’s a sample:

Produced by the McCann-Erickson advertising agency and funded by some of the nation’s wealthiest families (the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Olins among them), the Ike Day program barely acknowledged its role in the presidential race. There was no talk of policy, no reference to political parties and no mention of Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson. And yet, to many in the press, the telecast struck a note of political genius. “As a demonstration of how to win friends and influence voters,” the Philadelphia Inquirer commented, the program “was worth dozens of speeches.” The Washington Post concluded, “without a single plea for partisan votes, it was the most politically effective program of the week.”  Continued at Time magazine.

And finally, for those of you who love cooking as much as history, you might be interested in Mamie Eisenhower’s special recipe for Ike’s Favorite Cake.  All over the country, volunteers baked cakes according to this recipe and brought them to Children’s hospitals, Veterans facilities, and nursing homes in honor of Ike.  I have not baked one of these myself, but as Carl Anthony illustrates, Mamie was well known for her elaborate cakes.

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Liking Ike, the Movie

Well . . . not exactly, but on the eve of its publication, Marshal Zeringue invited me to “dreamcast” a Liking Ike film for his terrific site Campaign for the American Reader.

From the post:

Liking Ike centers on the personalities who helped promote Dwight Eisenhower’s campaigns for the presidency and his own ambivalence about the new worlds of television, advertising, and celebrity. The story lies in the remarkable set of characters, which makes casting especially fun.

Dwight Eisenhower – Ike, Montgomery, CamerasA general so conflicted about politics that he wants to be drafted to the Republican nomination rather than enter the race himself. Wary of the publicity machine and celebrities who campaign on his behalf, he nonetheless adjusts to the expectations of his Madison Avenue advisers. Intoxicated by the magical power of television, they boast that they want to “merchandise” Ike’s warm smile and personality.  My pick . . . Ed Harris

Continued at My Book, the Movie:

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Stars! Stars! Stars!

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission has recently released its latest “Pivotal Moment,” part of the E-memorial that will be included in its four-acre urban park at the base of Capitol Hill.  Titled “Winning the Presidency,” this seven-minute documentary is narrated by Tom Brokaw and features some excellent footage from the 1952 campaign.  Eisenhower MSG '52 Rally -- Stars!I was delighted to see this image from the “midnight rally” held at Madison Square Garden at the height of the Draft Eisenhower movement.  With Ike in Paris serving as Supreme Commander of NATO, the organizers turned to Stars! Stars! Stars! for political excitement.  Among the glamorous attendees were Clark Gable, Ethel Merman, Irving Berlin, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall.  You can see “Winning the Presidency” and learn all about the work of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission at their website. For more on the rally (and to learn how Bogie and Bacall eventually rescinded their support for Eisenhower and backed his opponent, Adlai Stevenson), check out Liking Ike.

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Liking Ike chosen to be TNM’s Weekend Reader

Thanks to The National Memo for selecting an excerpt from my new book, Liking Ike, for its Weekend Reader. From the introduction:

A reality star is now a major party presidential candidate, but it turns out, celebrity politics are not a new thing.

Ike Sun from AdIn Liking Ike, author David Haven Blake explores the crucial and often overlooked role that celebrities and advertising agencies had in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Even by today’s standards, many Americans will be surprised to learn that celebrities of the time were a constant presence in political strategies, and particularly in Eisenhower’s campaigns.

Using original interviews and archival material, Blake explains how Madison Avenue executives used celebrities as tools in politics as the age of Television began.

 Continued at The National Memo

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The Broadway Song That Nominated A President

The astounding success of Hamilton, its capacity to engage audiences from third graders to the president and first lady, reminds us that Broadway musicals have a healthy tradition of mining political history. From 1776 to Evita, songwriters have been fascinated by political power. What drives people to become leaders?  How do they rally supporters around them? What reservations do they have about their failures and successes? Hamilton castFrom costumes to choreography to the musical score, Broadway storytellers have amazing tools at their disposal, but as Lin-Manuel Miranda might agree, nothing attracts an audience like a tale of scrappy ambition carved out of the past.

Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam stands the traditional partnership between politics and musical theater on its head. Although based on real life events, the musical played a special role in the making of American history. Long before Dwight Eisenhower had joined a political party, let alone agreed to run for office, Call Me Madam was advocating for an Eisenhower presidency, and evidence suggests that Berlin’s musical significantly contributed to his election. –

Continued at Oxford University Press blog

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The cover for Liking Ike

Final Cover Liking Ike

“See, life and the real stuff of life aren’t always the same thing, Warden — like, one don’t always give you the other, you follow? So sometimes, to get your story across, you gotta work a different angle or two, use a few tricks, zap it up with a bit of spectacle — I mean, what’s spectacle? it’s a kind of vision, am I right?” — the character Cecil B. DeMille in Robert Coover’s novel The Public Burning

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Coming Soon

In July 2016, Oxford University Press will be publishing my book, Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics.  Over the next months, I will be populating this site with blog posts, videos, and images related to the Eisenhower stars and what they tell us about American political culture today.

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