Social Process

Chapter 11: Fame

Charles Horton Cooley

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FAME I suppose, is a more extended leadership, the man's name acting as a symbol through which a personality, or rather the idea we form of it, is kept alive and operative for indefinite time. As ideas about persons are the most active part of our individual thought, so personal fames are the most active part of the social tradition. They float on the current of history not dissolved into impersonality but individual and appealing, and often become more alive the longer the flesh is dead. Biography, real or imaginary, is what we care for most in the past, because it has the fullest message of life.

Evidently fame must arise by a process of survival; if one name has it and another does not, it is because the former has in some way appealed more effectively to a state of the human mind, and this not to one person or one time only, but again and again, and to many persons, until it has become a tradition. There must be something about it perennially life-giving, something that has power to awaken latent possibility and enable us to be what we could not be without it. The real fames, then, as distinguished from the transitory reputations of the day, must have a value for human nature itself, for those conditions of the mind that are not created by

(113) passing fashions or institutions, but outlive these and give rise to a permanent demand.

Or, if the appeal is to an institution, it must be to one of a lasting sort, like a nation or the Christian Church. As Americans we cherish the names of Washington and Lincoln because they symbolize and animate the national history; but even these are felt to belong in the front rank only in so far as they were great men and not merely great Americans.

The one great reason why men are famous is that in one way or another they have come to symbolize traits of an ideal life. Their names are charged with daring, hope, love, power, devotion, beauty, or truth, and we cherish them because human nature is ever striving after these things.

It will be hard to find any kind of fame that is wholly lacking in this ideal element. All the known crimes and vices can be found attached to famous names, but there is always something else, some splendid self-confidence, some grandiose project, some faith, passion, or vision, to give them power. It may not be quite true to say,

"One accent of the Holy Ghost
The heedless world hath never lost";

but it is certain that there is nothing to which the car of the world is so sensitive as to such accents, or which, having heard, it is less willing to forget. Every scrap of real inspiration, whether in art or conduct, is treasured up, when once it has been recorded, and is fairly certain to prove are perennius.

A great vitality belongs, however, to anything which can bring the ideal down out of its abstractness and make

(114) it active and dramatic. A dramatic appeal is an appeal to human nature as a whole, instead of to a specialized intellectual faculty, to plain men as well as educated, and to educated men through that plainer part of them which is, after all, the most fully alive. So men of action have always a first lien on fame, other things being equal Garibaldi, for example, with his picturesque campaigns, red shirt and childlike personality, over the other heroes of Italian liberation. And next to this comes the advantage of being preserved for us in some form of art which makes the most of any dramatic possibilities a man may have, and often adds to them by invention. Gibbon, Macaulay, Scott, not to speak of Shakespeare, have done much to guide the course of fame for English readers.

Perhaps it was this survival of salient personal traits, often trivial or fictitious, that Bacon had in mind when he remarked "for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and drowneth that which is weighty and solid."[1] But, after all, traits of personality may be as weighty and solid as anything else; and where they are inspiring it is right that they should be immortal. The merely trivial, of this kind, seldom endures except by association with something of real significance.

It is noteworthy that what a man did for humanity in the past is not the chief cause of fame, and not sufficient to insure it unless he can keep on doing something in the present. The world has little or no gratitude. If the past contribution is the only thing and there is nothing

( 115) presently animating in the living idea of a man, it will use the former, without caring where it came from, and forget the latter.

The inventors who made possible the prodigious mechanical progress of the past century are, for the most part, forgotten; only a few names, such as those of Watt, Stephenson, Fulton, Whitney, and Morse being known, and those dimly, to the public. Some, like Palissy the potter, are remembered for the fascination of their biography, their heroic persistence, strokes of good fortune or the like; and probably it is safe to conclude that few men of this class would be famous for their inventions alone.

As Doctor Johnson remarks in The Rambler,[2] the very fact that an idea is wholly successful may cause its originator to be forgotten. "It often happens that the general reception of a doctrine obscures the books in which it was delivered. When any tenet is generally received and adopted as an incontrovertible principle, we seldom look back to the arguments upon which it was first established, or can bear that tediousness of deduction and multiplicity of evidence by which its author was forced to reconcile it to prejudice and fortify it in the weakness of novelty against obstinacy and envy." He instances "Boyle's discovery of the qualities of the air"; and I suppose that if Darwin's views could have been easily accepted, instead of meeting the bitter and enduring opposition of theological and other traditions, his popular fame would have been comparatively small. He is known to the many chiefly as the. symbol of a militant cause.

It is, then, present function, not past, which is the

(116) cause of fame, and any change which diminishes or enhances this has a parallel effect upon reputation. Thus the fame of Roger Bacon was renewed after an obscurity of six centuries, because it came to be seen that he was a significant forerunner of contemporary scientific thought; and Mendel, whose discovery of a formula of heredity was at first ignored, became famous when biology advanced to a point where it could appreciate his value. There are many cases in the annals of art of men, like Tintoretto or Rembrandt, whose greatest fame was not attained until the coming of a later generation more in harmony with them than were their contemporaries.

It is because fame exists for our present use and not to perpetuate a dead past that myth enters so largely into it. What we need is a good symbol to help us think and feel; and so, starting with an actual personality which more or less meets this need, we gradually improve upon it by a process of unconscious adaptation that omits the inessential and adds whatever is necessary to round out the ideal. Thus the human mind working through tradition is an artist, and creates types which go beyond nature. In this way, no doubt, were built up such legendary characters as Orpheus, Hercules, or King Arthur, while the same factor enters into the fame of historical persons like Joan of Are, Richard I, Napoleon, and even Washington and Lincoln. It is merely an extension of that idealization which we apply to all the objects of our hero-worship, whether dead or living.

And where a historical character becomes the symbol of a perennial ideal, as in the case of Jesus, his fame becomes a developing institution, changing its forms with successive generations and modes of thought, according to the needs of the human spirit. This, apparently, is

( 117) the genesis of all life-giving conceptions of divine personality.

There are aspects of fame that cannot be understood without considering the special influence upon it of the literary class. This class has control of the medium of communication through which fame chiefly works, and so exerts a power over it somewhat analogous to the power of the financial class over trade; in both cases the forces of demand and supply are transformed by the interests of the mediating agent.

One result of this is that literary fame is, of all kinds, the most justly assigned. Candidates for it, of any merit, are rarely overlooked, because there is always a small society of inquiring experts eager and able to rescue from oblivion any trait of kindred genius. They are not exempt from conventionalism and party spirit, which may make them unjust to contemporaries, but a second or third generation is sure to search out anything that deserves to survive, and reject the unworthy. "There is no luck in literary reputation. They who make up the final verdict upon every book are not the partial and noisy readers of the hour when it appears; but a court as of angels, a public not to be bribed, not to be entreated, and not to be overawed, decides upon every man's title to fame. Only those books come down which deserve to last."[3] In this way, by the reiterated selection of an expert class with power to hand on their judgments, there is a sure evolution of substantial fame.

"Was glaenzt ist für den Augenblick geboren,
Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren. " [4]

The popular judgment of the hour has little to do with the matter, one way or the other. An author may be a

(118) "best seller," like Walter Scott, or almost unread, like Wordsworth, and fare equally well with the higher court; though in this as in all departments of life most contemporary reputations prove transitory, because their "fitness " is to a special and passing phase of the human mind, and not to its enduring needs.

However, literary reputation also has its symbolism, and a name may come to be remembered as the type of a school or a tendency rather than strictly on its own merits. Sainte-Beuve, an authority on such a matter, remarks in his essay on Villon: "But the essential thing, I see clearly, even in literature, is to become one of those names convenient to posterity, which uses them constantly, which employs them as the résumé of many others, and which, as it becomes more remote, not being able to reach the whole extent of the chain, measures the distance from one point to another only by some shining link."

Democracy does not in the least alter the fact that literary fame is assigned by a small but Perpetual group of experts. In one sense the process is always democratic; in another it is never so: there is democracy in that all may share in the making of fame who have discrimination enough to make their opinion count, but the number of these is always small, and they constitute, in this field, a kind of self-made aristocracy, not of professed critics alone, but of select readers intelligently seeking and enjoying the best. The fame of men of letters, philosophers, ;artists, indeed of nearly all sorts of great men, reaches the majority only as the people outside the grounds hear the names of the players shouted by those within. We know who it was that was great, but just why he was so we should, if put to it, be quite unable to tell.

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This certainty and justice of literary fame, which distinguish it sharply from other kinds, depend not only upon the literary class but upon the precision of the record-the fact that the deed upon which the fame rests is imperishable and unalterable-and also upon the extremely personal and intimate character of the achievement itself, which makes it comparatively independent of external events, and capable of being valued for its own sake at any time and by anybody competent to appreciate it. It is more fortunate in this respect than political achievement, which is involved with transient institutional conditions.

For similar reasons the other and non-literary sorts of fame are certain and enduring very much in proportion as they interest the literary class. The latter, being artists or critics of art, have a natural predilection for other arts as well as their own, and cherish the fame of painters, sculptors, actors, and musicians. Actors, especially, whose art leaves no record of its own, would scarcely be remembered were it not for the enthusiasm of literary admirers, like Lamb and Hazlitt and Boswell. As to painting or sculpture, thousands of us who have little direct knowledge or appreciation of the great names have learned to cherish them at second band through the fascination of what has been written by admiring men of letters. On the other band, the comparative neglect of inventors, engineers, and the captains of industry and commerce is due in great part to their not appealing_ strongly to the literary type of mind.

If one's work has no universal appeal to human nature, nor any special attraction for the literary class, it may yet survive in memory if there is a continuing technical

(120) group, with a recorded tradition, to which it is significant. Professions, like law, surgery, and engineering; the branches of scientific research, as astronomy, geology, and bacteriology; long-lived practical interests, like horticulture and breeding; even traditional sports and pastimes, like golf, yachting, pugilism, and football, have their special records in which are enshrined the names of heroes who will not be forgotten so long as the group endures. A tradition of this kind has far more power over time than the acclaim of all the newspapers of the day, which indeed, without the support of a more considerate judgment, is vox et proeterea nihil.

I can see no reason to expect that the men of our day who are notable for vast riches, or even for substantial economic leadership in addition to riches, will be remembered long after their deaths. This class of people have been soon forgotten in the past, and the case is not now essentially different. They have no lasting spiritual value to preserve their names, nor yet do they appeal to the admiration and loyalty of a continuous technical group. Their services, though possibly greater than those of statesmen and soldiers who will be remembered, are of the sort that the world appropriates without much commemoration.

A group which is important as a whole, and holds the eye of posterity for that reason, preserves the names of many individual members of no great importance in themselves. They help each other to bum, like sticks in a heap, when each one by itself might go out. English statesmen and men of letters have. a great advantage over American in this respect, because they belong to a more centralized and interrelated society. To know Burke and Goldsmith and Johnson is also to know Garrick and

( 121) Boswell, and Mrs. Thrale, Fox, North, Pitt, Sheridan, Walpole, and many others, who, like characters in a play, are far more taken together than the mere sum of the individuals. Indeed a culture group and epoch of this kind is a sort of play, appealing to a complex historical and dramatic interest, and animating personalities by their membership in the whole. We love to domesticate ourselves in it, when we might not care greatly for the individuals in separation.

So every "great epoch" — the Age of Pericles in Athens, of Augustus in Rome, of the Medici in Florence, of Elizabeth in England, gives us a group of names which shine by the general light of their time. And in the same way a whole nation or civilization which has a unique value for mankind may give immortality to a thousand persons and events which might otherwise be insignificant. Of this the best illustration is, no doubt, the Hebrew nation and history, as we have it in the Bible, which unites patriarchs, kings, prophets, apostles and minor characters in one vast symbol.

Another influence of similar character is the knowledge and feeling that the fame in question is accepted and social, so that we are part of a fellowship to be moved by it. I take it that much of the delight that people have in reading Horace comes from the sense of being in the company not only of Horace but of hundreds of Horace-spirited readers. We love things more genially when we know that others have loved them before us.

The question whether fame is just, considered as a reward to the individual, must on the whole be answered: No, especially if, for the reasons already given, we except the literary class. Justice in this sense has little to do

( 122) with the function of fame as a symbol for impressing certain ideas and sentiments and arousing emulation. What name best meets this purpose is determined partly by real service, but largely by opportuneness, by publicity, by dramatic accessories, and by other circumstances which, so far as the individual is concerned, may be called luck. " So to order it that actions may be known and seen is purely the work of fortune," says Montaigne, "'tis chance that helps us to glory. . . . A great many brave actions must be expected to be performed without witness, and so lost, before one turns to account; a man is not always on the top of a breach or at the head of an army, . . . a man is often surprised betwixt the hedge and the ditch; he must run the hazard of his life against a hen-roost, he must dislodge four rascally musketeers from a barn; . . . and whoever will observe will, I believe, find it experimentally true that occasions of the least lustre are ever the most dangerous." [5] It is no less true, I suppose, in the wars of our day, and of a hundred soldiers equally brave and resourceful, only one gets the cross of honor. In a high sense this is not only for the man who happens to receive it, but for a company of nameless heroes of whom he is the symbol.

And so in all history; it is partly a matter of chance which name the myth crystallizes about, especially in those earlier times when the critical study of biography was unknown. We are not certain that Solomon was really the wisest man, or Orpheus the sweetest singer, or Sir Philip Sidney the most perfect gentleman, but it is convenient to have names to stand for these. traits, In general, history is no doubt far more individual, more a matter of a few great names, than is accomplishment.

( 123) Mankind does things and a few names get the credit. Sir Thomas Browne expressed the truth very moderately when be said that there have been more remarkable persons forgotten than remembered.

We hear rumors of the decay of fame: it is said that modern life . . . favors less and less the growth and preservation of great personalities";[6] but I see no proof of it and doubt whether such a decay is conformable to human nature. Other epochs far enough past to give time for selection and idealization have left Symbolic names, and the burden of proof is upon those who hold that ours will not. I do not doubt there is a change; we are coming to see life more in wholes than formerly; but I conceive that our need to see it as persons is not diminished.

Has there not come to be a feeling, especially during the Great War, that the desire for fame is selfish and a little outgrown, that the good soldier of humanity does not care for it? I think so; but it seems to me that we must distinguish, as to this, between one who is borne up on a great human whole that lives in the looks and voices of those about him, like a soldier in a patriotic war, or a workman in the labor movement, and one who is more or less isolated, as are nearly all men of unique originality. The latter, I imagine, will always feel the need to believe in the appreciation of posterity; they will appeal from the present to the future and, like Dante, meditate come l'uom s'eterna.

The desire for fame is simply a larger form of personal ambition, and in one respect, at least, nobler than other forms, in that it reflects the need to associate ourselves

( 124) with some enduring reality, raised above the accidents of time. "Nay, I am persuaded that all men do all things, and the better they are the more they do them, in hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue; for they desire the immortal." [7]

It is the "last infirmity of noble minds," if it be an infirmity at all, and few of the greatest of the earth have been without it. All of us would regard it as the mark of a superior mind to wish to be something of imperishable worth, but, social beings as we are, we can hardly separate this wish from that for social recognition of the worth. The alleged "vanity" of the desire for fame is vanity only in the sense that all idealism is empty for those who can see the real only in the tangible.

And yet it would be a finer thing to " desire the immortal" without requiring it to be stained with the color of our own mortality.


  1. From the Advancement of Learning.
  2. No. 106.
  3. Emerson, Spiritual Laws.
  4. Goethe.
  5. Of Glory.
  6. John Burroughs in his essay, Recent Phases of Literary Criticism.
  7. Plato, Symposium.

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