Fame, David Bowie once sang, is bully for you, chilly for me.
By which I’m pretty sure he was suggesting that celebrity, at least for him, had been at best a mixed blessing.
Barack Obama, appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” a couple of years ago, seemed to regret being one of the world’s most famous people. In particular, the president lamented, he missed the ability to just walk down the street talking with a friend unnoticed.
“With all due respect,” Mr. Seinfeld countered, “I remember very well not being famous. It wasn’t that great.”
Compared with these great men, my own fame is a humble, diminutive thing. But I still wonder sometimes whether, in the great scheme of things, my experience of celebrity has been bully, or chilly.
On a rainy, windswept day last spring, my friend Timothy Kreider and I paid a visit to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, the colonnade of busts of writers, statesmen and inventors that stands upon one of the highest spots in New York City. In its heyday, back in 1900, inclusion here was what it meant to be famous in America. When the Munchkins sing to Dorothy, “You’ll be a bust, be a bust, be a bust, in the Hall of Fame!” in “The Wizard of Oz,” this is what they meant.
But this Hall of Fame is no longer famous. Largely forgotten now even by New Yorkers, it looks more than a little careworn. These days, the Hall of Fame is best known for kicking two of its inductees out: Last summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed. As it turns out, leading an insurrection to preserve the option of enslaving other people isn’t the best long-term strategy for veneration.
Robert E. Lee (@GeneralVirginia) doesn’t have a lot of followers on Twitter, which is surprising, given that this is at least one yardstick of eminence in the 21st century. By this measure, the most famous person in the world right now is Katy Perry (109 million), followed by Justin Bieber (106 million) and Barack Obama (102 million).
Donald Trump, at 53 million, isn’t even in the Top 10.
In considering the question of fame, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the current occupant of the White House is less interested in the good works he might bring about than the fame that comes with the position. After all, when you’re famous — as he once noted — they let you do anything.
We now live in a country in which it is more important to be famous than to achieve anything worth being famous for.
The question of fame — and mortality — weighed on my mind this week as I prepared the first donation of my work to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where my meager artifacts will be preserved alongside the ephemera of Amelia Earhart, Julia Child and Adrienne Rich. “It’s a little creepy,” I told Jane Kamensky, the director of Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. “It’s like preparing for death.”
“Jenny, try thinking of it instead as picking out a nice burial plot,” she replied, in a comment that failed to cheer me.
Here was the novel I wrote in 1982 about a wizard who owns an enchanted waffle iron; over there were the reel-to-reel masters from 1978 of my touching 15-part radio serial, “The Squid Family.”
It was, as Jacob Marley said in a slightly different context, “a ponderous chain.” Were these really the works I wanted to live on after I’m gone? Would it not be wiser to follow the instructions on the front of one of the manuscripts, upon which I had written, “If you had any sense you would burn this.”
Some artists have done just that. In September 1860, Charles Dickens burned “the accumulated letters and papers of 20 years,” perhaps to hide evidence of his teenage mistress. Claude Monet, in 1908, had a change of heart regarding 15 of his own paintings and attacked and destroyed them all with a paint brush and a knife. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, meanwhile, was so distraught over the death of his wife that he placed a notebook with all of his recent poems inside her coffin.
I don’t have the courage to burn my own work, perhaps because I’m reluctant to conclude that the older woman I’ve become is any more sensible than my younger self. Is it so impossible that, 100 years from now, some scholar digging around in the library at Harvard will conclude, “Yes, ‘The Squid Family’ — that was when she peaked”?
But then, if the not-famous Hall of Fame teaches us anything, it’s that we’ll never know what we’ll be remembered for, or if, quite frankly, we’ll be remembered for anything at all.
Bully for you, chilly for me. John Keats, dying in Italy at 25, asked to have words put on his tomb — “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” a despondent epitaph probably meant by Keats to suggest that everything he had done had come to nothing. You can see these very words on his headstone today, if you visit the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where Keats is buried not so far from fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Or most of him.
It would probably have come as cold comfort to Keats to know that a couple centuries after his death, he’d be revered as one of our greatest poets.
A better consolation was the devotion of his friend Joseph Severn and the memory of the love of his fiancée, Fanny Brawne. Because in the end, we aren’t here to be famous, or to be followed.
We are here to love one another, and to be loved.
In an unstable, fragile world — one in which even Halls of Fame can fall from grace — well, as Keats once wrote, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Jennifer Finney Boylan (@JennyBoylan), a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and the author of the novel “Long Black Veil.” Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.