DECEMBER 26, 2017
IN HIS ERA — one during which evidence of learning and intellect could earn a person respect among certain segments of the American public — Clifton Fadiman (1904–1999) was known to many as a critic, writer, and radio/television personality. Author of Party of One (1955), a collection of essays; The Lifetime Reading Plan (1960), a “classic guide to classical literature”; and its successor, The New Lifetime Reading Plan (1997, with John S. Major), which includes a more diverse selection of writers, his wit and erudition were celebrated for decades. To his family, including his daughter, Anne, he was known also as a collector and impassioned devotee of fine wines. Wine was not just something Fadiman enjoyed — it was a fundamental part of his existence. He even co-authored a book entitled The Joys of Wine (1975, new edition released in 1990), a collection of photographs, paintings, lithographs, sculptures, songs, and artifacts about the subject. “To take wine into our mouths,” his daughter recalls him saying, “is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.”
Her new memoir, titled The Wine Lover’s Daughter, recounts the elementals of her father’s life, and thus, in morsels and tidbits, her own. The chapters tend to take the form of familiar essays, a subgenre Anne Fadiman, ardent admirer of writers such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, has made her own. In the prologue of At Large and At Small, a collection of such essays, she writes:
The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire. […] His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy […] Conversation was at the center of my father’s life, it’s at the center of mine, and it’s at the center of the familiar essay.
This is as good a description as any of the way Anne Fadiman illuminates her own subject matter — life with a father whose work celebrated the beauty of the intellect, and the delights of art and, good taste. As a book-length project, The Wine Lover’s Daughter is as much an homage to the elder Fadiman as it is an expression of nostalgia for a childhood home in which culture and intellect, and their artifacts — wine, yes, but also, and more importantly, books — were revered. “Ours was a word-oriented family,” writes the author, by way of introduction.
My father once wrote a children’s book, based on bedtime stories he’d told my brother and me, about Wally the Wordworm, a small, hungry, bibliophilic invertebrate in a red baseball cap who, unsatisfied by the “short, flat, bare, dull, poor, thin” words he found in picture books, blissfully ate his way through a dictionary from “abracadabra” to “zymurgy.”
But if the elder Fadiman managed to pass on his logophilia to his daughter (in spades), he did not have the same success with his oenophilia. A not-insignificant portion of the book is devoted to Anne Fadiman’s dislike of the inebriant. “Keep on trying the wine,” her father advises when she travels in France at age 15. “Suddenly it will seem right and habitual.” But this never happens. Thus included is an investigative chapter entitled, simply, “Taste,” in which the author enlists a series of experts to help her make sense of her seemingly mutative and somewhat embarrassing disorder.
As with a good bottle of wine, the experience of reading The Wine Lover’s Daughter deepens as the book unfolds. Readers who already appreciate Fadiman may find that the earlier chapters, while entertaining, are less compelling than the essays from either of her previous collections. However, the book pivots in a more serious direction about a third of the way through, in a chapter called “Jew.” Clifton Fadiman’s parents were immigrants from Russia and his feelings about his identity revealed, as his daughter puts it, his “Jewish self-alienation.” When he applied to Columbia, the university’s admissions policies were overtly discouraging. Fadiman even quotes the dean of the college as saying in 1922, “We have honestly attempted to eliminate the lowest grade of applicant and it turns out that a good many of the low grade men are New York City Jews.” Even so, that’s where Fadiman chose to matriculate in fall 1925.
It is at least in part out of this ambivalence, it would seem, that many of Clifton Fadiman’s habits and tastes evolved. (The consumption and collection of wine in particular was considered a gentile pastime.) “The Fadimans had fashioned a little daisy chain of shame; the father was ashamed of the wife and the son was ashamed of the father, though the only one who was ashamed of the son was himself,” Anne Fadiman notes. It is hard not to wonder if it was pride, self-loathing, or both that propelled Fadiman to aspire to a teaching position at Columbia shortly after finishing his studies there. He was told by the chairman of the English Department in no uncertain terms, “We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling.” Mr. Trilling was, of course, Lionel Trilling, whose career as a permanent fixture in a highbrow literary world somewhat overshadowed her father’s, and contributed to Fadiman’s sense of himself as an outsider, even in an intellectual culture he helped to create.
At 88, Clifton Fadiman lost his sight. For a lifetime reader this was a devastating loss. Reflecting on the first night she spent with him in his hospital room after his diagnosis, the author writes: “He told me there were two reasons his life was no longer worth living; he would burden my mother, and he couldn’t read. He asked if I would help him die.”
It is a testament to his will and to his commitment to his daughter to try the world, sightless, with full effort, for six months. With the help of audiobooks, sharpies, and a large ledger, he was able to move forward. “It is said that old people can keep their minds agile by learning how to speak Italian or play the oboe,” his daughter writes. “My father learned how to be blind.”
Fadiman, it should be said, does not over-glorify or gloss over her father’s life or his habits. She acknowledges, for instance, that he had affairs. (When he lost his sight, she was given the task of contacting two of his former lovers.) “He was constitutionally incapable of resisting a conquest, a thumbs-up, an attestation that he was not an outsider, or a fraud, or irretrievably ugly,” she admits to the reader. And she is, at various times, at odds with his elitism (referred to in a fonder moment as “de-meatballization”), his self-deprecation, his obstinacy, and his misogyny. It would be easy to excuse him as being a product of his time, until one realizes that he lived until 1999. Even The New Lifetime Reading Plan, revised just 20 years ago, includes a woeful percentage of women writers and few people of color.
At its most serious, Fadiman’s memoir explores what it means to see, and what it means to lose the ability. In addition, it offers many pleasures: layers of bibliophilia, from children’s literature to Shakespeare, the strange habits of supertasters, pages of vino-notation — in fact, some among us may find ourselves throwing off all fiscal caution and constraint to spend the last of our monthly income on a fabulous case of wine, in a quest to emulate Clifton Fadiman’s utter joy in the art of taste. But what The Wine Lover’s Daughter does most eloquently, as with the best familiar essays, is move beyond the memoir to speak directly to the reader. In this way, the book serves as an elegy, not only for a single person but also for an era, a world that might now seem irrecoverably remote. Clifton Fadiman grew up at a time when knowledge, intellectual and cultural, was highly valued. It’s strange to think that he felt he’d missed out on a golden era of literature, himself. Consider this quote from “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay” in his collection Party of One, published over 50 years ago:
The novel may be suffering from fits, jaundice, and Cheyne-Stokes respiration, but I believe it will live […] It is the familiar essay that is being starved by our time. On what does it live? The vitamin essential to it is the reader’s willingness to hold casual ideas in suspension. In an age of order that vitamin abounds. But not in our age of anxiety.
In other words, as Russian poet Anna Akhmatova writes, “Why is this age worse than what came before?” Decades later, suspended in our own age of anxiety, which feels almost certainly worse than what has come before, significant pockets of the American population seem unable to hold ideas, casual or otherwise, in suspension. Consider our most recent national crisis, in the form of a “tax reform” package that will alter every pocket of American life, being hastily pushed through the Congress before authentic public discourse can occur. This travesty is only part of a larger panorama and problem, one which Fadiman the elder seemed to have his finger on six decades ago. In this moment, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, preoccupied as it is with art, literature, and taste, seems especially poignant. The world that existed yesterday was surely and clearly flawed; but it was nonetheless an era in which living a life of the mind was an aspiration — an aspect of the American dream — as valuable as any other. It is this message — and the intimacy with which it is delivered, by the crackle of the Fadiman family fire, with or without a good bottle of wine — that we all need to hear.