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The Frenzy of Renown: FAME AND ITS HISTORY by Leo Braudy (Oxford University: $27.50; 649 pp., illustrated)

December 21, 1986|Raymond Carney | Carney is a Fellow of the Stanford Humanities Center. His "American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra" has just been published by Cambridge University Press. and

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:

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