So social action for the novelists and the journalists alike justified itself in private lives and conspicuous leisure. Sure, the money had to be made, but its blossom was made manifest in such fruits of the spirit as (and supremely) works of art, exquisite but unassuming dress, careful and uncondescending courtesy, the reticence of high, withheld intelligence, discreet but massive generosity towards the nation, a complex and interestingly ironic attitude to life.
Against these grand, middle-aged and bounteous qualities, exuding the certainty of success, the narratives of spontaneity, passionate (probably erotic) expression, vivid impulsiveness, hot allegiance, financial insouciance thrust themselves forward on the side of youth. Calm and fulfilled marriage on one side, the reckless love affair on the other; this is the twist-point of value as the First World war trundled over the horizon, and it was in these terms that celebrity was called onstage to enact the constellation of ideas.
Drama thrives on the collision of values in which either the admirable or the hateful is destroyed. In this short fresco of American life culminating in 1920, the gangster as celebrity is one favourite such action, particularly in the United States where social forms were so plastic, and success so defined in terms of physical action and sudden reward - gold mines, railroads, herds of cattle, newspapers, murder, So the ambiguous dramas of Al Capone, John Dillinger, the Pinkerton agency, and the grisly escapade in a garage on St Valentine's Day have a brightly lit corner in the moral imagination of the epoch, and in ours, its inheritor.
01 December 2010
From Fred Inglis' A Short History of Celebrity (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2010), a sort of Limburger cheese of a book -