Book Review: The Frenzy of Renown – Fame and Its History by Leo Braudy

What makes fame so alluring to audiences and yet so disillusioning for the object of fame? How have the criteria for what deserves or attracts fame changed in different historical eras? What makes people famous? Is it their exemplary conduct as public figures? Or is it their uncompromising resistance to a social paradigm which is trying to absorb them? The Frenzy of Renown is both a who’s who of western history’s heavyweights and an insightful exploration of the human urge to be recognized.

Leo Braudy, Professor of Literature at the University of Southern California, has created a rich historical study of fame spanning from Alexander the Great’s appropriation of the Homeric epics all the way to Marilyn Monroe’s unnecessary emulation of Jean Harlow imagery, and beyond. The Frenzy of Renown is an intriguing approach to some of history’s most significant figures, especially in that it analyzes why and how these famous figures became, and remained, so recognized.

Cartoon by John Porcellino

To give you a fair taste of the book without spoiling it, consider Alexander the Great, one central illustrative example of fame covered by Braudy. The ascent of Alexander the Great (a student of Aristotle, mind you) set the mold for millennia for military, political, and cultural conquest. Braudy shows how Alexander, when he became most famous during his life, took on a semi-divine identity and thereby sacrificed his own human life to the icon he was consciously creating, an object of fame. When Alexander crossed that line into grandeur, he left behind his humanity and became intent on enhancing the mystique which surrounded him. To that end, he murdered all those closest to him. He murdered some of his commanders, he murdered the captain of his guard, and he murdered his publicist/historian Callisthenes (Aristotle’s great-nephew), whose job it was to send accounts of Alexander’s Asiatic conquests back home to the heart of the growing empire. Alexander even murdered his best friend who had once saved his life (though he didn’t have the nerve to do it until he was in a drunken rage), because he couldn’t have somebody walking around saying that they’d saved Alexander the Great’s life. Beyond being Great, Alexander was also sociopathic and unhinged, and Braudy does a fantastic job of deeply exploring the paradox that powers fame, what makes the object of fame so admirable and, so often, at the same time unfit for society.

To whet your intellectual appetite, some of the other figures covered in the book include, but are certainly not limited to, Ceasar Augustus, St. Augustine, Dante, Lord Byron, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Walt Whitman, Charles Lindberg, P.T. Barnum, and Ernest Hemingway.

You had to meet him to understand...

The major themes in The Frenzy of Renown draw a swinging historical pendulum between the public notion of fame, like Ceasar or Cicero in the Roman Forum, and the private notion of fame, like Jesus or St. Antony retreating to the wilderness for purity. During the course of the book, Braudy illustrates the deep abiding paradox which characterizes fame and the urge to fame, as well as the grand and often painful illusion that fame is some sort of spiritual perfection which, once attained, means that the famous person never has to change. All famous objects somehow manufacture a story about themselves, a story designed for public consumption. Furthermore, once fame is achieved the story usually overtakes the actual human being behind the fame, undermining the sense of self which was supposed to be secured by fame.

Fame is impossible without an audience, though the nature of the audience (and the relationship between audience and famous object) changes considerably throughout history, from patrons of the classical artists conferring social and cultural validity, to God and the pantheon of Saints conferring spiritual divine approval, to the modern mass audience which has arisen since the printing press and other broadcast technologies, which in many ways creates the famous person in its own image, investing the aspirations of the obscure admirers into those who have made their way into the spotlight.

Cartoon by Tom Gauld

The Frenzy of Renown is a truly fascinating book written in an eminently readable style, filled with the most compelling and interesting historical figures of the past and present. Being a 600 page non-fiction, the book does demand your time and attention, but it delivers on all counts. If you don’t think you’ll spend the time to read it, ask me some questions, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.

Check out The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, by Leo Braudy.

About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
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