Released February 25, 1999
Centre professor's book is published by Oxford University Press
DANVILLE, KY -- Tom Baker, visiting assistant professor of history at Centre College, is getting good reviews on his book recently published by the prestigious Oxford University Press. The volume explores the life and work of Nathaniel Parker Willis, a colorful 19th-century writer who might be considered the forerunner to the likes of the Oprah Winfrey Show and People magazine.
According to Baker, Willis was the first journalist to understand and cultivate the idea of celebrity. "Celebrity is not just a twentieth century, Hollywood phenomenon," says Baker. "Willis was instrumental in creating the celebrity market -- and the idea that to really know someone, we must know their private life. He made a living writing about people's private lives. Yet h`as a celebrity himself, and the interest in his private life became a problem for him."
Born in 1806, Willis learned the printing trade by inking presses for his father, who printed hymnals and religious tracts. Willis early showed an ability for writing religious poetry, but he gravitated toward magazine articles and discovered that many Americans shared his curiosity about the lives of famous people.
Willis published a gossip-filled travel book in 1835, which was a huge success, and he went on to become extremely popular -- and well paid -- for finding and sharing secrets about famous people of his day. Mary Todd Lincoln and Edgar Allen Poe were among his close friends, he was photographed by Matthew Brady, and he made the pages of the New York Times, which dubbed him "the most talked-about author in America."
When Willis died in 1867, his funeral was attended by luminaries such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But within 20 years, his name was virtually forgotten. Baker's book is the first full-length biography of Willis and serves to establish the man's contributions to American society.
Although Willis' name is not widely known today, an increasing number of scholars are beginning to explore his impact on society. Baker says that Willis probably was the first writer to use the word "celebrity" in print, and he might well be called the father of celebrity journalism, which now is omnipresent.
Baker has a bachelor's degree from Trinity College (Conn.) and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina. He joined the Centre faculty in 1998.
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