Carolyn EastmanDec 23, 2021
The Strange Genius of Mr. O.
The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity
University of North Carolina Press 2021
The Strange Genius of Mr. O.: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2021) by Carolyn Eastman is at once the biography of a remarkably odd celebrity---a gaunt, opium-addicted Scottish orator who lectured in a toga--and a tour of the fledgling United States. James Ogilvie arrived in the United States in 1793 as an educated, impoverished, and deeply ambitious teacher. By the time he returned to Britain in 1819, he was a celebrity known simply as "Mr. O" who counted the nation's leading politicians, writers, and intellectuals among his admirers. Following Ogilvie on lecture tours from the Atlantic coast as far west as frontier Kentucky, Eastman reconstructs his path to renown, explaining how and why Ogilvie mattered to the citizens of the early republic. His example inspired countless men and more than a few women to become amateur orators and helped inaugurate America's golden age of oratory. At a time when Americans were eager for national unity, Ogilvie and his audiences hoped that eloquence might knit a divided public together---that educated, elevated oratory might provide a bedrock for citizenship and civic belonging. In Eastman's hands, Ogilvie's remarkable life story has as much to tell us about a fascinating man as it has to reveal about the nation he helped fashion.
Ryan David Shelton (@ryoldfashioned) is a social historian of British and American Protestantism and a PhD researcher at Queen’s University Belfast.