Through extended readings of the works of P. T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Fanny Fern, Bonnie Carr O’Neill shows how celebrity culture authorizes audiences to evaluate public figures on personal terms and in so doing reallocates moral, intellectual, and affective authority and widens the public sphere. O’Neill examines how celebrity culture creates a context in which citizens regard one another as public figures while elevating individual public figures to an unprecedented personal fame. Although this new publicity fosters nationalism, it also imbues public life with personal feeling and transforms the public sphere into a site of divisive, emotionally intense debate.
Further, O’Neill analyzes how celebrity culture’s scrutiny of the lives and personalities of public figures collapses distinctions between the public and private spheres and, as a consequence, challenges assumptions about the self and personhood. Celebrity culture intensifies the complex emotions and debates surrounding already-fraught questions of national belonging and democratic participation even as, for some, it provides a means of redefining personhood and cultural identity. O’Neill offers a new critical approach within the growing scholarship on celebrity studies by exploring the relationship between the emergence of celebrity culture and civic discourse. Her careful readings unravel the complexities of a form of publicity that fosters both mass consumption and cultural criticism.