In late 2004, The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Tom Wolfe that promised to take readers inside “Wolfe’s World,” offering new insights into the famous writer’s life and work.11xCharles McGrath, “Wolfe’s World,” The New York Times Magazine (31 October 2004): 35. The piece highlighted the differences between Wolfe’s public and private identities. Its author, Charles McGrath, visited Wolfe’s home, interviewed Wolfe and his friends, and wrote about the decent and sensitive family man he discovered hidden beneath the writer’s public persona as a lavishly costumed controversialist. A brilliant photograph accompanied the profile, depicting Wolfe in a rare unguarded moment, his face twisted in laughter. One of the main challenges in locating and understanding the real Wolfe, McGrath suggested, was Wolfe himself, a “master of self-concealment” who had stymied interviewers for thirty years even as he cultivated an attention-grabbing public identity. Here, finally, McGrath implied, was the real Wolfe, the unvarnished Wolfe, the Wolfe who had eluded countless other writers.
McGrath’s profile depicted Tom Wolfe as, at least partly, a throwback, a figure from “another era,” most reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Whether or not McGrath knew it, much the same was true of his own article. In almost every particular—from its promise to reveal the private (and therefore “real”) Wolfe to its account of the writer’s struggle to achieve happiness and success—the profile adhered to the conventions of celebrity journalism established in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This is not to discredit McGrath’s piece but to show that it, like every other contemporary media profile of the famous (and there are many), participates in a long tradition of American obsession with and writing about celebrities.
It is this tradition that Charles L. Ponce de Leon masterfully illuminates in his 2002 book Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890–1940. Ponce de Leon makes two main contributions to our understanding of the development of celebrity culture in America. First, he shows that American fascination with celebrities is best understood in light of the social and economic developments associated with modernity. Second, he demonstrates that even seemingly superficial reporting about celebrities carried powerful ideas about matters as fundamental as human identity, the good life, politics, race relations, class status, and gender roles. It still does. Behold, even entertainment personality John Tesch has a history and a worldview.
Like most commentators on these matters, Ponce de Leon is critical of the American love affair with celebrity. Unlike many commentators, however, he understands celebrity culture not as an alien parasite on modern social and economic arrangements but as their logical consequence. The features of modernity that many of us prize to one degree or another—the spread of the market economy and democracy, the growth of industry and urban spaces, increased individualism and social mobility, the erosion of traditional sources of authority and the expanded scope for self-invention—have combined to produce modern celebrities and a culture obsessed with prying into their private lives.