Leo Braudy, chairman of the department of English at USC, says he began his study of the causes and consequences of fame at least in part because of a "Heartburn"-like experience in the early 1970s when his ex-wife published a painful book about their marriage and divorce. As an ambitious writer, Braudy had strived for years to achieve attention for himself and his work, and, as he explains, in one sense, to figure so prominently in her narrative was the fulfillment of a dream: "I . . . believed that writing in the public eye--reviews, articles, books--was one of the highest forms of cultural achievement. To be put in a book oneself was the necessary next step."
And yet, of course, as Carl Bernstein and many another literary husband would also find out, Braudy discovered that to become a public figure cut both ways. To appear in his ex-wife's book (or to appear in the public eye in any other way for that matter) was to be caught in a fiction beyond one's control: "To 'go public' was to be entrapped by the gaze of others, to be reduced by their definitions, and to be forced into shapes unforeseen in the innocent aspirations of the golden world of fame." If nothing is free, fame too has a price, and the sometimes exorbitant psychological and social price individuals have been willing to pay over the centuries for public attention or approval becomes one of the subjects of Braudy's book.
His own personal experience of the decidedly mixed blessings of even minor renown informs every page of this stunning study of the history of fame and of the famous. Like a Robin Leach for intellectuals, Braudy takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the life styles of the rich and famous through the centuries, exploring both how their fame was achieved and its consequences on their lives, racing through the centuries and leaping from continent to continent faster than you can say Concorde. In fact, "The Frenzy of Renown" might be read, with considerable pleasure, merely as a kind of high-brow People magazine for the history buff. There are "star" biographies galore here, and "up-close and personal" inside stories, from eras before the "star" was supposedly born. Braudy demonstrates that long before public relations firms began managing the careers of politicians and astronauts (or turning one into the other), figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon, Walt Whitman and P. T. Barnum were busily engaged in manufacturing and disseminating fictions about themselves strictly for public consumption with all of the cleverness and avidity of the most dedicated PR man.
But to treat Prof. Braudy's book as a glorified "Who's Who" of history or even simply as a mere scholarly analysis of how fame has been achieved and manipulated over the centuries is to do it an injustice, for it is much more ambitious than that. Notwithstanding his chosen title, Braudy's real subject is less fame than something breathtakingly larger, of which fame is only a symptom, something which Braudy in his Introduction calls the "history of Western ideas of what an individual is." Or, as he puts it even more grandly in a subsequent chapter, the true subject of his book is the "history of the shapes taken by individual desires for public expression." That is to say, at its most profound and daring, and Braudy is nothing if not daring, his book is less a biographical dictionary of big names and how they were achieved, than a profound attempt to understand how someone becomes anyone at all--how individuals have defined themselves and their accomplishments in 2,000 years of Western culture.
In Braudy's vast historical panorama, figures like Alexander, Dante or Lincoln are treated not only as being famous men in themselves, but as each embodying a new and potentially revolutionary definition of how one exists and expresses oneself in the world. Each represents an exemplary instance of how one construes the relationship between one's desires and the possible means of expression of them in society.
There is no space here to recount the fascinating twists and swerves of the changing definitions of selfhood that Braudy traces in his hefty volume, but perhaps a brief excerpt from his discussion of the differences between the senses of selfhood represented by Jesus and his historical contemporary Augustus Caesar will give a taste of his method and of the scope of his surmises:
"The strikingly overlapped careers of Augustus and Jesus--the one carried out before the full public gaze, the other in relative obscurity--define a crucial contrast. Whether Stoic or emperor, writer or soldier, all prominent Romans believed that appearance in public was necessary to self-definition; the only question was how that public nature was used. But it would be the promise of Christianity to define an arena for individual nature beyond the political. . . . To the imperatives of Roman public behavior, the teachings of Jesus contrast a transcendental inwardness, a private devotion that links man and God without the intermediary of public institutions and that focuses not on this world but on the world to come. . . . However institutionalized Christianity later becomes, the example of Jesus contains a radical potential to sanction withdrawal from public life and its standards, to become an anti-institutional alternative to established orders of all sorts."
As eloquent as Braudy is about the definitions of selfhood represented by such earlier figures, it is nevertheless obvious that his personal interests are most strongly focused on the transformations the self has undergone in 19th- and 20th-Century culture, and especially in the last century or so of American culture. If, as Gertrude Stein argued, America was the first nation to enter the 20th Century, it is in 19th- and 20th-Century America that the furthest frenzies of modern expression have been enacted. As Braudy suggests without ever quite making it explicit, it is in America that the individual's imagination is most problematically and creatively expressed. It is in America that modernism has taken to the streets and that something that might be called the post-modern personality, in all of its expressive glory and anguish, has been born. Braudy devotes almost half of his volume to the modern American expressive predicament.
America is a land of exhilarating, confusing, but ultimately stimulating expressive contradictions for Braudy. The contemporary American self is torn between a quest for transcendence and a sense of existing only to the extent that it can stage its performances in public with the approval of an audience. In terms of the previous quotation, the American self is torn between the values of Jesus and those of Augustus, divided in its allegiances between its desire to be true to its most private, secret feelings and its need to perform them in assertively public forms of interaction. It is confused between its need for publicity and its craving for anonymity, between its desires to be unique and its attempts to stay in touch with everyone else.
As Braudy demonstrates, our supreme artists and leaders have been racked by these contradictions, even as they often attempted to deny them. America is the land where Emerson and P. T. Barnum rubbed elbows with each other. Or more bizarrely still, it is the land where figures like Thoreau, Whitman, or contemporary stand-up comedians attempt to embody all contradictory possibilities in one dazzling performance.
The contradictions and counterpulls of self-definition traced in this profound book are intellectual history at its best and most breathtaking. If Braudy began his book as an attempt to understand his own confusions about his sense of himself, the highest praise we can pay it is to say that it helps each one of us to make some sense of the confusions of our own daily lives.