19th Century Kardashian

One would think that the celebrity of the Kardashians, the Hilton sisters, and a few other talent-free upright mammals was a 21st century phenomenon.  But one would be wrong.   As Mark Twain recollects in his Autobiography:

The “lyceum [lecture] circuit” was in full flower in [the 1860s and 1870s].  There were a number of good drawing names:  Henry Ward Beecher; Anna Dickenson; John B. Gough; Horace Greeley …  Beecher, Gough, Nasby and Anna Dickenson were the only lecturers who knew their own value and exacted it.  In towns their fees were $200 and $250; in cities $400.  The lyceum always got a profit out of these four (weather permitting), but generally lost it again on the house-emptiers.

There were two women who should have been house-emptiers — Olive Logan and Kate Field — but during a season or two were not. …  Olive Logan’s notoriety grew out of — only the initiated knew what.  Apparently it was a manufactured notoriety, not an earned one.  She did write and publish little things in newspapers and obscure periodicals, but there was no talent in them, and nothing resembling it.  …

Her name was really built up out of newspaper paragraphs set afloat by her husband, who was a small-salaried minor journalist.  During a year or two this kind of paragraphing was persistent; one could seldom pick up a newspaper without encountering it.

“It is said that Olive Logan has taken a cottage at Nahant, and will spend the summer there.”

“Olive Logan has set her face decidedly against the adoption of the short skirt for afternoon wear.”

“The report that Olive Logan will spend the winter in Paris is premature.  She has not yet made up her mind.”

“Olive Logan was present at Wallack’s on Saturday evening, and was outspoken in her approval of the new piece.”

“Olive Logan has so far recovered from her alarming illness that if she continues to improve her physicians will cease from issuing bulletins tomorrow.”

The result of this daily advertising was very curious.  Olive Logan’s name was as familiar to a simple public as any celebrity of the time, and people talked with interest about her doings and movements, and gravely discussed her opinions.  Now and then an ignorant person from the backwoods would proceed to inform himself, and then there were surprises in store for all concerned:

“Who IS Olive Logan?”

The listeners were astonished to find that they couldn’t answer the question.  It had never occurred to them to inquire into the matter.

“What has she DONE?”

The listeners were dumb again.  They didn’t know.  They hadn’t inquired.

“Well, then, how does she come to be celebrated?”

“Oh, it’s about SOMETHING, I don’t know what.  I never inquired, but I supposed everybody knew.”

For entertainment I often asked these questions myself, of people who were glibly talking about that celebrity and her doings and sayings.  The questioned were surprised to find that they had been taking this fame wholly on trust, and had no idea who Olive Logan was or what she had done — if anything.

— The Autobiography of Mark Twain, pp 379-380.

There’s a golden line running from Ms. Logan to Ms. Kardashian. As the first was famous for nothing in the 19th century, so Ms. Kardashian is an iconic figure for the same exact talent-set in the 21st.

Empty fame is, apparently, a long-time staple of American life.


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