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Symbolic capital and the performativity of authorship: The construction and commodification of the nineteenth-century authorial celebrity

Whitney Helms, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Victorian and Antebellum writers were the first literary figures to construct and perform their authorship within the sphere of celebrity. Unlike their Romantic predecessors who endured fame as an unexpected consequence of their popularity, the Victorians and their contemporaries understood celebrity as a condition of authorship. This dissertation takes as its subject the origins and development of symbolic power for authors as it was expressed in the trappings of celebrity and mass culture and argues that authorship became no longer strictly a profession of writing, but rather a performative endeavor that could be presented through diverse commercial markets. Investigating the changing conditions of the production and consumption of literature, this study contends that the public enterprises in which authorship was now being performed were not cheap acts of mass entertainment, as many would claim, but were in fact new forms of cultural capital and legitimate literary labor. Focusing on Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wilkie Collins, and Oscar Wilde, four of the greatest nineteenth-century authorial celebrities, this work traces the historical growth of celebrity culture within the authorial profession from the inception of the Victorian and Antebellum periods to the fin de siècle. In doing so, it seeks to understand how each of these writers effectively reconciled publicity and self-commodification with respectability and authorial legitimacy. Incorporating cultural studies, new historicism, gender studies, and the discourse of the recently emerging study of celebrity culture, each chapter is a microhistory that focuses on the respective promotional tours of these authors. Because the tours offered Dickens, Stowe, Collins, and Wilde with a new medium in which to perform their authorial role, they illustrate the ways in which notions of authorship and literary labor were being reconceived in popular culture. Specifically, they show how celebrity and visibility played increasingly major roles in the public reception of these writers' work within a mass market. Together, the chapters of this dissertation offer detailed discussions on four canonical writers while also providing an analysis of the larger structural, cultural, and social forces that helped to develop and sustain the nineteenth-century authorial celebrity within the literary realm.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Helms, Whitney, "Symbolic capital and the performativity of authorship: The construction and commodification of the nineteenth-century authorial celebrity" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3559159.