By definition, celebrities exist in public as an association of physical traits or projected values. Celebrity was problematic for Emerson in three areas. First, celebrity heightened Emerson's anxieties about his friendships and intimate relationships. Emerson's relative comfort in the public arena of the lecture hall, as compared with the private arena of intimate relationships, carries mixed results when attention to his body rather than his ideas becomes the focus of his success. Second, celebrity accentuates the tension between interest in public persons and the social conformity that Emerson consistently urges his readers to shun. Third, celebrity's attention to the physical person leads to misinterpretations of Emerson's lectures. From the first generation of Emerson's biographers forward, critics have disparaged contemporary audiences as insensitive to the complexities of his lectures. This essay, however, considers the possible uses of the celebrity for the culture that both created and mistook him. Viewed in the light of Emerson's celebrity, misinterpretation of his lectures reveals his audiences' appreciation for intellectual accomplishment and their desire for the spiritual uplift brought by physical proximity to “genius.” In addition, because Emerson's celebrity encouraged a range of interpretations of his cultural relevance, it required individuals to examine Emerson's reputation for themselves, and it thereby fostered the kind of self-reliant thinking that Emerson himself advocated. Emerson's case reveals that, in an age of mass culture, the ability to interpret celebrities' significance is a key to critical thinking and a valuable form of literacy.

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