By Sahir Avik D’souza
Sixteen days after I was born, Clifton Fadiman died. He was born ninety-five years previously, which was two years before my great-grandfather was married. His life thus somehow seems to have encompassed four generations of my family. In those years, he married and had children, one of whom became a writer just like her father.
When I first read Anne Fadiman’s essays, in Ex Libris, her collection of pieces on books and reading, I did not know who her father was. I met him in her writing. Her work frequently draws on her family (including her mother Annalee, brother Kim, husband George, and children Henry and Susannah) and that was how I learnt of Clifton Fadiman. In one essay, he was “my father, who, in order to reduce the weight of the paperbacks he read on airplanes, tore off the chapters he had completed and threw them in the trash”.
In another, she writes, “my father … admitted that in the full flush of his youthful vanity he had routinely corrected menus at posh Manhattan restaurants and handed them to the maître d’s on his way out”. In The Wine Lover’s Daughter, a memoir she wrote about her father, she writes how he would “compliment me implicitly” when she was an adult by discussing literature with her: one letter he wrote her mentioned as many as forty separate writers!Embed from Getty Images
This was the Clifton Fadiman I first encountered in Ex Libris: a father, doting, learned, old, funny, sardonic, literary-minded. I did not know much about his career (since, as I have noted, our lives only overlapped for sixteen days). What I did know was that he was stupendously widely read and that he bequeathed his deep passion for books to both his children, but especially to his daughter. She writes, “Our father’s library spanned the globe and three millennia” and “between them, our parents had about seven thousand books”. Three millennia! Seven thousand! No wonder she grew up loving and living in books.
She also grew up in her father’s shadow, something she writes about in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. She describes starting out as a writer and considering dropping her surname just so that nobody would accuse her of getting places because of him. But, she realised soon, “I was Anne Fadiman. Why should I have to pretend to be someone else?” But it can’t have been easy because, as I was to learn gradually, Clifton Fadiman cast quite the shadow.
He was a literary man; he worked in radio and television, was an editor both for books and for magazines, did proofreading, wrote essays, edited anthologies, reviewed books, wrote children’s stories; and I don’t believe that was the end of the list. Over time, as I read his daughter’s books and essays, I began to see what a colossus Clifton Fadiman really was. Because he did not write fiction or very much personally originated non-fiction, he does not have the canonical legacy of the other great American writers of his century. But his fingerprints can be seen in a startling diversity of work.
That he was a man of astonishingly wide interests became clear to me when, a year or so ago, I found a book on my parents’ bookshelves called The Mathematical Magpie, edited and compiled by Clifton Fadiman. This is a collection of stories, essays and other pieces of work, all centred on numbers in some way.
More recently, we renovated a room in our house, which meant that the roughly thousand books housed there had to be taken off the shelves and later put back. As we did this (a wonderful few weeks spent physically handling each book in that room), I found a bulging volume called The World of the Short Story: A Twentieth-Century Collection, selected and edited by … Clifton Fadiman. A gift to my mother in 1991, the book predated not only our shared love of Anne Fadiman, but also my parents’ marriage. And just a few days ago, on one of the small science shelves in our living room, what should I chance upon? The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, edited by Timothy Ferris, with a foreword by … yes, Clifton Fadiman, General Editor!
I recount this not to show you the variety of books in my home, but rather the variety of books in Clifton Fadiman’s life. He was interested in everything and, like the best critics, he gave the impression of having read everything there was to read. One sees this in his major work, The Lifetime Reading Plan, which he saw through four editions, and which contains short guides to an astounding number of writers and their works. In his introduction, Fadiman writes, “The books here discussed may take you fifty years to finish … These books are life companions.”
And this interest in everything was inherited by his daughter. In her second collection of essays, At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman writes a series of ‘familiar essays’ on the following topics: nature, Charles Lamb, ice-cream, staying up late, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letters and e-mail, moving house, and coffee, amongst a few others. What is a familiar essay? She explains in her preface, “The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader”, and “today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).” Her essays use her own experiences or recollections as jumping-off points to examine similar situations in literature and other fields. For instance, in her essay on moving house, she references Austen’s Persuasion, in which Sir Walter is forced to lease his massive home to tenants and move into a smaller, more affordable house.
I am far more familiar with her work than her father’s, but in The Wine Lover’s Daughter she introduced us to her father as she knew him. She writes of him with fondness and also with honesty. He was a huge influence on her thinking, her career and her interests (as I have discussed already). But as she grew older, the younger Fadiman began to question the older on some of his habits, particularly his in-built condescension to women. He himself admitted to her once, “I was a male chauvinist”. He threw an expensive party for his son’s twenty-first birthday, but not for his daughter’s. He referred to women as “girls” (but never to men as “boys”). He held his son to higher standards than his daughter.
“My father believed there were certain things only a man should do … [He] also believed that, as a general rule, women were more superficial thinkers than men. How could they not be, with so much of their mental effort siphoned off to dresses, hats, and where to put the sofa?” In later years, she found that he recognised these views within himself. In Ex Libris, she writes that she once asked him about an essay in which he had referred to writers as “men”; he replied candidly, “I was thinking about males. I viewed the world of literature – indeed, the entire world of artistic creation – as a world of males, and so did most writers. Any writer of fifty years ago who denies that is lying. Any male writer, I mean.”
But, the younger Fadiman writes, the older Fadiman was not a misogynist (he called the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment “the act of barbarians”), but a product of his times, just as she, attaining maturity in the 1970s, the era of Ms magazine and second-wave feminism, was a product of hers. And through her writing, she immortalises her father for who he was, while also pondering who he was to her. In the nascent stages of her career, he once wrote in a letter, “Anne [is] trying to establish herself as the writer she essentially is.
So far the path has been difficult … With a little luck, she may be heard from in the future.” In her memoir of him, she calls this “a plug, if a modest one, by someone solidly in my corner.” And with her work, she more than reciprocates: she is as much in his corner as he was in hers.
All quotes in the essay are from the following books:
Fadiman, Anne. At Large and At Small. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Fadiman, Anne. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Fadiman, Anne. The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Fadiman, Clifton and John S. Major. The New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th edition, HarperCollins, 1999.
Sahir Avik D’souza is a student and writer based in Mumbai. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @sahiravik