Being Famous…

Since at least the time of Triumphs in Imperil Rome, the phrase “fame is fleeting” recurs, year after year, generation after generation… and yet today, at least the United States, we have more and more people striving not to be well-educated, or the most accomplished in a particular field, but just famous. What’s even more amazing is that there are more than a few famous people, at least in current popular culture who, from what I can determine, never excelled in anything and who are at best moderately attractive and who are not fabulously wealthy. And, almost without exception, that kind of fame comes and then departs relatively quickly.

So what is fame… that so many strive for it?

The dictionary definition that best fits this kind of “fame” is: “the state of being known or talked about by many people.”

Most famous people have acquired their fame and notice through their achievements, and usually it’s for singular achievement or a limited series of achievements. But sustained high level achievement doesn’t always get rewarded, and sometimes those not rewarded are more famous than those who were.

Actress Glenn Close has seven Academy Award nominations without an Oscar, and several noted directors have never won an Oscar – Federico Fellini (12 nominations), Ingmar Bergman (9 nominations), Alfred Hitchcock (5 nominations). On the other hand, Meryl Streep has an unprecedented 21 nomination and three Oscars. Yet who remembers Florence Lawrence, often considered “the first movie star”? Or Lillian Gish or Jean Harlow? Or Paul Muni, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, or Douglas Fairbanks?

I doubt many people, except scholars and literary types, even remember William Golding, whose novel Lord of the Flies sold well over 25 million copies and who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 or John Galsworthy, a 1932 Nobel Laureate, and noted playwright, and author of The Forsyte Saga. And very few likely remember Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, or Edith Wharton. Even in F&SF, how many readers know who Hugo Gernsback was?

And how many people will remember then-prominent political and business figures, such as Alexander Johnston Cassatt, Jay Gould, William Jennings Bryan, Darwin Kingsley, John F. Queeny, Eugene Debs, or even Millard Fillmore?

Yet, for all that, and despite Shelly’s Ozymandias, people still strive desperately for fame.

7 thoughts on “Being Famous…”

  1. Tom says:

    Perhaps they strive for fame because …

    There is a realization that having friends come to your funeral “like leaves covering the ground in the Fall” lacks the risks and egotism of “reality” here and now.

    Hence the popularity of “Social Media”.

    1. Tom says:

      Reading a book at this time in which the concept of achieving a great work depends on

      “… understanding that nothing else mattered …”

      Maybe the problem is that people mistake infamy for fame ( the definition of many other people talking about ‘it’ works both ways).

      1. Tom says:

        The book also brings up the difference between fame and recognition.

        We all “… like to be recognized when we do something well”.

        The problem is that the ‘fame’ in this discussion is one empty of substance.

  2. Here, in Russia, “Lord of Flies” still famous as a dystopia. Forsyte Saga was remembered by generation of my parents because of BBC series back from 1967, that were on TV during 1980th.

    The books of it were translated too (as “critic of borgeus society”). But they were more famous because of their size, not story itself.

    Theodore Drisee is famous too, a lot of business people say “I learned how to do business reading Titan” (i think it isn’t an author’s message).

    Sherwood Anderson was translated, but mentioned only as “a friend of Faulkner and old Hem”). And I dont know who is Edith Wharton.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    The ones that annoy me most are those that are famous simply for being famous, often with some more or less scandalous first publicity of their name. Those with some marketing skills (but perhaps little other skill) turn that exposure (which it often was, pun intended) into additional publicity, generally profitable. Yet there seems to be no accomplishment there, and little discernible core to their personality, aside from the evident desire to profit from attention.

    No less annoying is that such folk could not cash in were it not for the many who eagerly follow their adventures…perhaps the same people that buy tabloids and watch the sort of shows that present a stream of stereotypically dysfunctional people.

  4. Tim says:

    I always felt that fame only applied during the life of the individual. So all the people you list were certainly famous using that interpretation.

    After that you become an historical figure where the memory is kept alive through education and/or monuments.

    Here in England, Boadicea (aka Boudicca) is remembered mainly because of her statue in London and because schools teach that this wronged woman defeated most of a Roman legion and then massacred a lot of romanised Britons before being routed at a battle at some unknown location. She is not famous however; she is a character in history.

    It is up to schools and universities to keep the memories of people in the past alive.

  5. JakeB says:

    What you say is true, but people still love Casablanca, and, as Alexander noted, read ‘Lord of the Flies’. (My own favorite piece of Golding’s writing is ‘The Hot Gates’, but like Golding himself, I am a lapsed classicist.)

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