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Thackeray’s Celebrity and Mr.Roundabout’s Communal Talk
Research Society for Victorian Periodicals 45th Annual Conference, University of Salford (2013)
  • Amy R. Wong, University of California, Los Angeles
In May 1862, an anonymous critic for the Dublin Review had these scathing remarks to offer on William Makepeace Thackeray’s role as editor of Cornhill Magazine: “He parades the authors of various papers like an auctioneer vaunting his goods, or like a vulgar host who recommends his wine by telling his guests that it was purchased at a first-rate house” (285). More precisely, the reviewer refers to Thackeray’s editorial persona, Mr. Roundabout, who introduces Cornhill’s features to its readers in the first issue as if he were a dinner host proffering nutritious fare. Thackeray, however, likely conceived his persona as an antidote to the crass commercialism that was increasingly associated with the new mass print media (Cornhill itself sold an unprecedented 120,000 of its first number). Mr. Roundabout, after all, is idiosyncratic, old-fashioned, and commercially un-savvy. Of his stories, he writes: “[w]hen they are gone to the printer’s these little things become public property” (15). The reviewer nonetheless imagines he has seen through Thackeray’s ruse—Mr.
Roundabout is no humble host but rather celebrity- author Thackeray who has opportunistically
thrown the weight of his name behind Cornhill, even as the practice of anonymous editorship largely
remained the norm.

My paper argues that far from acting as an ineffectual mask for Thackeray’s celebrity, Mr. Roundabout brings to the foreground certain democratic and egalitarian notions that actually undergird celebrity. As Nicholas Dames notes in his discussion of Thackeray’s complex engagement with the concept of celebrity throughout his life, the Victorians after the mid century were just beginning to understand how “someone who is a celebrity to one person or group is, within a mass culture, a celebrity to all” (33). This articulation emphasizes the way in which celebrity is a cocreative phenomenon, generated and maintained by both the celebrity himself and his audience. I contend that an important means through which Mr. Roundabout complements such an understanding of Thackeray’s celebrity is his chatty and gossipy style. In my view, Mr. Roundabout’s speech patterns constitute Thackeray’s attempt to co-opt everyday talk’s openly interactive, cocreative properties. Specifically, I am borrowing the critical notion of co-creation from current studies in linguistic anthropology that describe the way in which talk—even the most mundane forms such as dinner conversation among family—involves formally complex negotiations among different participants. Thackeray repeatedly figures Mr. Roundabout as an individual with very little control of what he talks about, as if he leaves it up others. Mr. Roundabout, consistent with his name, picks up subjects at random, even characterizing his own stories as “inevitable” (14). There is a sense, overall, that Mr. Roundabout lacks controlling authorial direction and prefers to take up whatever talk might be circulating around him. His open talk, therefore, is the formal expression that enables his egalitarian understanding of his stories as “public property.”

Together, Thackeray’s celebrity and Mr. Roundabout’s egalitarianism construct a new model of authorship that abjures control and ownership in favor of co-creation and collectivity. The logic of possessing that which belongs to no one and to everyone—central to both a new, mass market phenomenon and to a form of language as seemingly fundamental as talk— powerfully unites these two very different figures, one modern and astute in commercial matters, and the other behind-thetimes and oblivious before the workings of the literary marketplace. Significantly, through their union, Thackeray imagines a way in which he might achieve mass- market success while simultaneously disavowing that he sells anything at all 
Publication Date
July, 2013
Salford, Manchester, United Kingdom
Citation Information
Amy R. Wong. "Thackeray’s Celebrity and Mr.Roundabout’s Communal Talk" Research Society for Victorian Periodicals 45th Annual Conference, University of Salford (2013)
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