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‘The Strange Genius of Mr. O’ reveals the story of America’s first forgotten celebrity

The book by VCU history professor Carolyn Eastman dives into performances, eccentricities, scandals and narcissism — and the nature of fame in America’s founding era.
carolyn eastman and the cover of her book 'the strange genius of mister o - the world of the united states' first forgotten celebrity'

In “The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity,” Virginia Commonwealth University history professor Carolyn Eastman, Ph.D., tells the story of the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of James Ogilvie, whose oratory performances made him a household name in America’s founding era.

The book, published by the University of North Carolina Press, reveals a largely forgotten story about the intersection of political culture and celebrity at a moment when the United States was in the midst of invention.

Eastman, an associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is a historian of early America with special interest in 18th- and 19th-century histories of political culture, the media and gender. She recently discussed her new book with VCU News.

Who was Mr. O and what inspired you to tell his story?

James Ogilvie was an immigrant schoolteacher in Richmond who became a household name as an extraordinarily eloquent performer in the early 19th century. I’ve long been interested in the culture of eloquence of that era — a period when great public speakers inspired ordinary women and men. But I’ll be honest, one of the things that attracted me to following Ogilvie was the hallmarks of his career that looked like celebrity today: the eccentricities, glamorous friends and supporters, scandals, narcissism, and even narcotics addiction. His career looked more like a 20th- or 21st-century celebrity than one from before 1820.

But what I found wasn’t a surprisingly modern celebrity. Throughout, I found that each of his characteristics — and all the twists and turns of his career — cast new light on American history in ways that I found illuminating and often delightful. Because more than anything, I found that his story told us a great deal about Americans during that period — the Americans who loved him, sometimes hated him, and ultimately tried to forget him.

painting of a bearded man gazing downward
Charles Robert Leslie, "Don Quixote" (1823), Maryland Historical Society (MS 194). Leslie used Ogilvie as a model for this image.

How did Ogilvie go from being an impoverished teacher when he arrived in this country in 1793 to becoming one of early America’s first bona fide celebrities?

He would have said it was two things: realizing after a 15-year career as a teacher that he was exhausted and couldn’t teach anymore, and — importantly — his opium addiction. As a teacher, he had discovered that he had an unusual talent for public speaking, and he’d actually given a number of talks in Richmond and Charlottesville to acclaim. But when he set out to become a traveling orator, he was much more likely to fail than to succeed. Ultimately, his success reflected his ability to win the admiration and assistance of powerful supporters, from Thomas Jefferson to Washington Irving to John Quincy Adams.

What do you think made Ogilvie’s performances so compelling? Was there something about his oratory that spoke to audiences at that particular point in the nation’s history?

This was one aspect of the book I enjoyed writing the most, because it’s so impossible to capture the dynamics of performance for an era that had no audio or visual recordings and very little visual culture at all. So I combed through all the written responses to his lectures, letters and diaries, as well as published reviews and criticism, but also guidebooks for public speakers that taught them how to perform effectively.

Ultimately I think Ogilvie, whose father and two grandfathers had all been ministers in Scotland, tied together the power and authority of religious oratory with a dynamic and even theatrical style of address as he talked about issues of public importance. In the end, I believe he made democracy and political engagement both exciting and enchanting.

What did it mean to be famous in early America? Would Ogilvie’s celebrity be recognizable today?

He was one of the earliest American celebrities whose fame wasn’t based on an already established reputation. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had had distinguished military careers during the Revolution. Famous religious orators had become famous because of their perceived faith and dedication to the church. In contrast, Ogilvie was one of the first to become famous for public speaking on secular issues — a talent that wasn’t generally recognized as one worthy of acclaim on its own.

"I wanted to show the humanity of this iconoclastic, sometimes weird individual as well as to show how much his career reveals about a United States in the midst of invention."

Ogilvie has been largely forgotten, even though he was renowned in his day. How did you come across his story?

I had found references to him in letters and diaries when I was writing my first book, “A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution,” but I hadn’t done more than try to identify who he was. The one previous scholar who looked at his career had written two articles in 1941 and 1942 had made fun of him. And as much as I can understand why he might have looked somewhat comical, I feel it’s really important when studying the past to understand people on their own terms. That impulse became increasingly important as I uncovered interesting and complicated aspects of his life, including his unstable emotional life.

Above all, I wanted to show the humanity of this iconoclastic, sometimes weird individual, as well as to show how much his career reveals about a United States in the midst of invention.

What was your approach to researching Ogilvie’s life? Was it difficult to dig up information on him?

Researching his life required a lot of hunting. I traveled to the far northeast of Scotland, where he was born, as well as to Montreal and New Hampshire and Georgia — and all spots in between. Ogilvie’s own letters and papers were lost over time, probably because as a man who spent the last 15 years of his life traveling, he simply couldn’t keep them.

But I found his letters and other papers scattered in archives all over the United States, England, Scotland and Canada. And of course I found reports about him in letters, newspapers and diaries in all the places where he spent time giving public speeches — in 17 of the 19 states in the U.S. at the time. I even found a cache of his manuscript orations in an archive in Kentucky, all unidentified. I recognized them as his because of his distinctively awful handwriting and the subject material.

What do you think readers of “The Strange Genius of Mr. O” will find most surprising? What do you hope they discover in reading the book?

I learned so much about American history in the course of writing this book. Opium and addiction, Americans’ obsession with classical Rome, mental illness, manliness and manly dress, and even what it was like to travel on the terrible roads of the early American republic. What I try to do in the book is convey the pleasure of learning about this highly unusual figure and the women and men who followed his career, as well as learning about all these other aspects of American history.

I also wrote the book specifically for readers like my students and my parents — people interested in history who don’t want to wade through difficult prose or densely argued paragraphs. It weaves together narration and discovery — and even, sometimes, good humor — in ways that, I hope, capture the enormous pleasure I took in researching and writing it. I hope that the book opens up all manner of new questions and interests in this period and the early history of celebrity.

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