The fascination David Blake ’85 has with celebrity connects the dots between Whitman, Eisenhower — and now Trump.
“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1885, in perhaps his most famous of poems, “Song of Myself,” contained in surely his most famous of books, Leaves of Grass. “And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Thirty-some years ago, David Blake ’85 read those words as a Colgate student in Professor Linck Johnson’s American Literature class. Whitman’s braggadocio — the unfiltered scream for attention; the lionizing of one’s own self — struck Blake in a profound way. “I remember reading Whitman and thinking, What’s with this guy?” Blake said.
Three decades hence, Blake’s fascination with fame and celebrity has not diminished. In fact, it’s been a guiding force in a teaching career Blake began, just a few months after his Colgate graduation, at Deerfield Academy, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts. Since 1999, Blake has explored the manifestation of fame as a professor of English at The College of New Jersey. It was the theme of his first book, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (Yale University Press, 2006), and his most recent, Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics (Oxford University Press, August 2016), which won the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Award for the year’s best book in Media and Cultural Studies. Last spring, aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Blake began teaching a course on the history of fame, from the ancient Greeks to the French Revolution.
“I’ve always studied celebrity as a function of capitalism and democracy,” Blake said. “But there’s a long history of cultures being interested in the meaning of fame, glory, and reputation that goes back to the ancient world. The Roman poet Ovid saw fame as a ‘spur to virtue,’ an idea that influenced generations of thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.”
Blake encountered no shortage of great thinkers while an undergraduate at Colgate. An English and history double major, he happily fell under the sway of influential professors such as Peter Balakian, last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, whom Blake calls “my greatest mentor.” They remain friends today.
“Peter made sure you understood that reading literature was a moral and political activity,” Blake said. “Meaning was not trivial to him. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, these were moral books with moral decisions at their core.”
Blake began to write Liking Ike in 2006 after he came across archives in the Eisenhower Library about the advertising agencies that helped the 34th president get elected — twice. The American Conservative called the book “the most comprehensive treatment yet of the ways in which the two Eisenhower presidential campaigns launched the commodification of American politicians.”
Of course, no discussion on modern-day celebrity politics would be complete without mention of the former reality-TV star–turned U.S. president. Blake notes the contrasting manner in which Eisenhower and Donald Trump embraced appearances — or what he calls aesthetics.
“Ike and the advertising agencies who worked for him saw aesthetics as being useful in conveying information,” Blake says. “For Trump, aesthetics seems to be at the center of what the administration is doing.”
— Christopher Hann