A disciple of Whitman and Ruskin: William Harrison Riley, transatlantic celebrity, and the perils of working-class fandom

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Abstract

This article focuses on the attempts of working-class intellectual, William Harrison Riley, to act as a transatlantic bridge between two of his literary heroes, John Ruskin and Walt Whitman, and on what this reveals about the operations of nineteenth-century celebrity culture. Exploring the ways in which Ruskin and Whitman constructed public profiles as generational prophets or seers, the article suggests that in some ways these figures sought to escape the traditional dynamics of celebrity construction, but in other ways exploited or reinforced them. Stressing their credentials as democratising figures who could connect to the working classes, Whitman and Ruskin simultaneously pursued rhetorical strategies that also stressed their own exceptional status. In both cases, their lofty elevation relied upon the existence of disciples, while seeming to offer these disciples the opportunity to transcend fandom and the fundamental hierarchical principles underlying celebrity culture. In this context, William Harrison Riley is of particular interest as a working-class writer who sought something like equality with Ruskin and Whitman, both by joining Ruskin’s Utopian Guild of St George, and by trying to negotiate Ruskin’s support in raising Whitman’s British profile. The costly failure of his enterprises reveals how problematical it is to attempt to overturn the hierarchies of celebrity and fan, and suggests that celebrity is a reflection within literary culture of wider social stratification in nineteenth-century consumer capitalism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-81
Number of pages19
JournalCritical Survey
Volume27
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015

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