Sigma Tau Delta, the College’s English Honor Society, traced the roots of super-stardom in its second “Faculty Research Talk” of the semester, titled “When Readers Become Fans: Extreme Responses to 19th Century American Poetry,” a lecture by David Blake, associate professor of English.
Blake’s talk focused on his latest research project, which is the study of American “celebrity” poetry in the 19th century. He focused on the effects of popular poets gaining celebrity status. Writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were featured in Blake’s talk.
He introduced his research by explaining when the emergence of celebrities occurred. Blake said most people believe celebrities are a 20th century phenomenon, which is a result of “Hollywood building up a star system.” However, Blake believes that poets in the 19th century were the first celebrities.
In the 1840s and 1850s the public demanded famous speakers. If one group had Ralph Waldo Emerson speak, another group demanded someone just as popular.
Blake then proceeded to talk the extreme fan responses to celebrity poets. He explained how poetry had a very “personal intimacy” about it. Fans felt deeply connected with the words of poets and would become obsessed.
Comparing the past and present, Blake said people feel they have a “domestic connection” with celebrities today. “They are really intimate strangers to us, but we feel we know Britney Spears and what she’s going to do next,” Blake said.
Some examples Blake used of extreme fan responses to American poetry involved Whitman and Poe. He told the story of Whitman receiving a letter from a passionate, female fan who wanted to “make love to him in the mountains.” When Poe died in 1848, a group of women would try and “communicate with Poe’s spirit” for hours.
Blake received a positive response from the audience in the room. “It was nice to see celebrities not just in the 20th century,” Brittany Yard, sophomore English major, said.
Blake’s next project will be a book on politics and celebrities in the 20th century.