Eighteenth century obituaries fathered current celebrity cult

November 6th, 2008 - 12:27 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Nov 6 (IANS) The sudden rise in popularity of obituaries in the 18th century provided much of the impetus for the current world’s obsession with the celebrity cult, a new study has found. Elizabeth Barry, associate professor at the department of English, University of Warwick, has challenged perceptions that celebrity is a phenomenon born with the Romantic movement of the early 19th century.

Barry said people from all walks of life could now become famous for being eccentric, rather than for historically momentous achievements.

She claimed the modern public fascination with celebrity figures such as Kerry Katona and Jade Goody can be traced back to the rise of newspapers and magazines and the popularity of the obituaries in the 18th century, according to a Warwick release.

Obituaries were one of the most-read sections of 18th century publications. They were intended to provide an account of the life of someone who had recently died as a way of illustrating how the life you led would be rewarded or punished in death.

However their rise in popularity was because the people featured in obituaries became the objects of scandal and public fascination, or indeed Britain’s first celebrities.

The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789 gave an account of the life of Isaac Tarrat, a man known to hire himself out to impersonate a doctor and tell fortunes in a fur cap, a large white beard and a worn damask night gown.

Another subject, Peter Marsh of Dublin, was made famous by his convictions about his own death in 1740. After being hit by a mad horse which died soon after, Marsh convinced himself that he would also go mad and die. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that he duly died “of a conceit that he was mad”.

Barry said “celebrity - short-lived fame - became a feature of British society, and the untimely or dramatic death began to create as well as test this new kind of fame. The obituary plays a key role in this process and represents an important mechanism for introducing modern notions of fame and celebrity into British society”.

These findings appear in a current issue of the International Journal of Cultural Studies.

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