What We Talked About When We Talked About Fame

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded me an Enduring Questions grant to develop a new course at The College of New Jersey on the meaning of fame from Antiquity to the Enlightenment.  In my previous research and teaching, I had always seen fame as a form of the exalted individualism we find in capitalism and democracy.  The grant helped my students and me explore what fame meant before these powerful historical forces emerged in the 18th century and how it shaped such works as The Iliad, The Aeneid, the Gospel of Mark, and the Confessions of St. Augustine.  In October, the NEH magazine, Humanities, published my reflections on teaching this course in an essay the editors titled “Addicted to Fame: From the Greeks to Lady Gaga.”

Teaching this course was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, especially because my TCNJ students offered such fresh, insightful perspectives on both the material and their experience growing up in our attention-mad society.  I think you will agree that their contributions to this essay were invaluable. Here’s the introduction:

Fame is a bee,” Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her last poems. “It has a song— / It has a sting—.” “Ah, too,” she added, “it has a wing.

The poem captures Dickinson resigning herself to how ephemeral fame can be, how effortlessly it moves from one person to the next, pleasing, wounding, and deserting them as it travels across the earth.

Dickinson’s comparison came to mind as I prepared a course at The College of New Jersey on the history of fame. On campuses across the country, one can find fascinating classes dedicated to the study of stars like Beyoncé, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen. My course took a different approach. It focused not on individual personalities, but on the long line of thinkers who have grappled with the meaning of fame.

An Allegory of Fame, (circa 1630), by Bernardo Strozzi.

Today’s college students are part of a fame culture that is far more absorbing than the one in which their parents grew up. Waves of publicity crash over them daily, with Twitter, Instagram, and BuzzFeed now added to the mix of dorm-room posters and fan magazines. But young people no longer see themselves as just spectators. Listen to the most savvy among them, and they’ll offer detailed strategies for “creating a personal brand” and “curating a digital identity. As the phrase goes, they aim to optimize their presence in an attention-based economy.

My aim was to build a course that could defamiliarize fame by exploring its roots in the ancient world. I wanted students to see that fame was not always associated with glamor and excess. I wanted them to appreciate how previous cultures had integrated fame into treasured stories about virtue, character, mortality, and public life. But like Dickinson’s bee, our discussions took flight and frequently landed us in fields far removed from antiquity. In the end, my students discovered the remoteness of the past; what they taught me is its unmistakable presence today.  Continued at Humanities:


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.