Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

V: The Image: Hero or Celebrity

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Boorstin's The Image

It is because the Kane family possessed and used the ability to "manufacture public opinion," that it is necessary to look more closely at Elisha Kent Kane in order to gain an understanding of how he became a national hero. Daniel J. Boorstin's book, The Image, is a helpful tool for this project. Boorstin's thesis is that fame and experiences are often manufactured products created by the press. He argues that during the "Graphic Revolution" (which he defines as the advent of mass consumer reading * ) Americans began not just to report actual events and heroic endeavors, but to fabricate events and celebrities for their own purposes.

For example, if an old business wants to drum up sales it may throw a grand party celebrating its long commitment and service to the community. The press will show up and report this celebration and thus create an event of supposed importance when in fact nothing of importance has happened. Boorstin calls such events "pseudo-events" and notes that the press can create not just pseudo-events, but also pseudo-heroes, which he labels "celebrities." Boorstin explains that "The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name."  (62)

Hero or Celebrity?

In this analysis I do not intend to suggest that Kane was not a hero, for even by Boorstin's criteria he certainly lives up to heroic status. But what I do want to show is that Kane certainly worked diligently at promoting both his projects and his own celebrity. Boorstin's dichotomy between the "real" hero and the constructed celebrity, though helpful, fails to account for the fact that many heroes, Kane certainly included, are a mixture of both.

Boorstin's model works well for people such as De Haven, who, as a member of the Wilkes Expedition and captain of the Grinnell Expedition, was certainly a hero. He notes that heroes traditionally scorned the press; in this sense, De Haven again fits the role. The question that must be asked is whether a person who did heroic things is a hero if nobody knows about them. De Haven, despite his amazing accomplishments, was never more than a footnote in history. Boorstin's theory is right about celebrities such as those created by P. T. Barnum and were nothing but press. Joice Heth, an old slave woman whom Barnum purchased and claimed was the 160 year-old childhood nurse of George Washington, was famous only because of Barnum's fabrication, not because of anything she did or, in fact, was. (63)

Whether or not Kane would have become a national hero without the help of his own promotion is a question that can never be certainly answered. However, by looking at Kane both as the hero that he was, and as the celebrity that he (and later others) created, we can better understand how he became the icon of the Romantic age. This creation of "Dr. Kane" as both celebrity and hero becomes especially interesting during the last five years of his life. It is during this time that Kane became the celebrity that he wanted to be as well as suffered the price of his fame-the loss of privacy. To understand this period of Kane's life it is necessary to introduce the other hero/celebrity of our story, Margaret Fox.

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