Clifton Fadiman, 80, Loves Language for the Pun of It

Times Staff Writer

Clifton Fadiman is known around the world as a versatile and accomplished man of letters--essayist, critic, anthologist, editor. But he makes no claim to distinguished literary achievement. He calls himself merely "an odd job man."

Erudite and energetic at 80, blue eyes flashing as he speaks in a rich baritone, Fadiman each day faces an imposing array of odd jobs, all connected to his love of language. A disciplined and determined reader who averages 80 pages an hour, he estimates that he has read perhaps 25,000 books in the last 75 years.

Fadiman is also a busy writer. He is putting the final touches on a two-book set of "The World Treasury of Children's Literature," for ages 9 to 14, to be published in September; a previous two-volume set, for ages 4 to 8, was published late in 1984 and, despite a $40 price tag, it continues to be a major seller. Fadiman selected the stories and wrote an inspiring introduction--aimed at children--as well as biographical notes about each of the authors.

Among other current odd jobs:

--He commutes from his home in Santa Barbara to New York every three weeks, because he is the ranking member of the Book-of-the-Month Club's panel of five judges. Fadiman has helped to select the club's books for 41 years, and is now responsible for choosing the main selection each month, a task for which he reads two or three books a week. He views that process as work but reads at least an equal number for pleasure.

--He serves on the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, where the odd job, in his words, is "to decide large questions of emphasis with respect to a given field, or to suggest radical revisions in some large important article." He also is author of the Britannica's entry on the history of children's literature, a major survey of the subject.

--He is compiling an anthology of short stories, for which he is writing 63 commentaries and an introduction.

--He is compiling an anthology of historical and literary anecdotes, which he terms "an appropriate odd job for my anecdotage."

--He writes and delivers a weekly essay, "Uncommontary," on First Edition, a PBS series about books.

--He is also a member of Mortimer Adler's Paideia group, which is involved in an ambitious program to reform American education.

Fadiman's keen interest in literature is rooted in personal experience and in a lifelong belief that "the imagination recognizes no closed season."

He began reading at the age of 4. "It was just a question of becoming familiar with 26 letters and putting them together," he said recently. "It can be done in a couple of days. When I opened and read the first page of a book for the first time, I felt this was remarkable--that I could learn something very quickly that I could not have learned any other way.

"I grew bug-eyed over the miracle of language. How could a few punctuation marks plus words made out of 26 letters be put together so as to create images of people, animals, stories, landscapes, streets, towns and even ideas? Here I was, a rather dull boy looking at an unopened book. Then within a short time the dull boy found he was entertained, amused, saddened, delighted, mystified, scared, dreamy, puzzled, astonished, held in suspense--all depending on what was in those pages."

Fadiman is the son of Russian immigrants who "despite their efforts," he said, "were handicapped by having been born in another country." Recalling his early years, Fadiman said he developed "a passionate interest in language. I determined at a very early age to read and speak at least as well as my best teachers did, to speak in complete sentences, to have them grammatically correct, to have them follow one upon the other in reasonable sequence, to enunciate and pronounce clearly so that I could be understood."

An Early Love

As a boy Fadiman's love of reading was readily apparent to others: He walked to and from the public library, a two-mile round trip, holding a book in front of his face, and he developed a sure instinct for stepping off and on curbs without diverting his eyes from the page.

He began working after school in Brooklyn when he was 10. At first there were deliveries for his father, who was a druggist, and errands for a neighborhood butcher. At 14 he worked summers for an insurance company, where he operated an adding machine. "When you're poor," he said recently, "you survive as best you can. You take whatever comes along."

He majored in English at Columbia University, and during those years "I never worked less than eight hours a day, just like many other poor kids." Some chores were routine, like washing dishes, waiting on tables, sorting mail at the post office.

Other odd jobs, however, helped to test and stimulate his love of language. He worked in the university library; he tutored a Wall Street trader "who was a Shakespeare nut, so we studied Shakespeare together;" he tutored others in English and spelling; he lectured on drama, and he worked as "a very humble production assistant" for Alfred Knopf, the book publisher.

A Turning Point

A turning point occurred in 1937 when Fadiman lectured on American literature at New York's New School for Social Research. One of his listeners was Dan Golenpaul, a radio producer who happened to be nursing an idea for a new kind of quiz show, one that would feature learned and amusing guests.

Impressed with Fadiman's erudite manner and lively style, Golenpaul enlisted him at $250 a week to be master of ceremonies of the radio show, which was called "Information Please."

It seemed an enormous sum, assuring Fadiman of a livelihood, and in a state of excitement he rode the subway to Brooklyn to inform his parents. "When I told them the news," he recalled, "they were bewildered. They had always assumed I was going to be a failure."

The quiz show began haltingly "because we did not have the right panel," Fadiman said. "But then Dan latched onto Franklin P. Adams and John Kieran. The formula was simple. People sent in questions, which I directed to the regular panel and to special guests. The questions and answers became the armature on which we sculpted half an hour of lively conversation."

Popular for a Decade

The show zoomed in popularity and rode the airwaves for a decade. It also brought fame and multiple job offers to Fadiman; at one period, in addition to "Information Please," and delivering frequent lectures, he held simultaneously the posts of columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, book critic for the New Yorker and story consultant to motion picture producer Samuel Goldwyn.

Goldwyn hired him to recommend literary projects worth filming. "But he paid no attention to what I sent along," Fadiman said. Goldwyn later changed his mind, however, about one of Fadiman's suggestions and it became a screen classic: "Wuthering Heights."

"Information Please" opened another door to Fadiman's life. One special guest on the program was Annalee Whitmore, a youthful and quiet-mannered author. Whitmore had been the first woman managing editor of Stanford University's Stanford Daily. Later hired as a stenographer at MGM ("I didn't know shorthand but luckily managed to pass a test by jotting down initials and remembering what was said"), she heard one day about a problem in the studio's production schedule. A sudden postponement of one film, starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, required the speedy start of an Andy Hardy feature--for which there was no story.

Wrote a Film Treatment

She recalled: "Over the weekend I wrote a treatment and timidly brought it to the studio. A producer looked at it and said, 'Yes, yes.' He assigned me to work with another junior writer and, with our script staying just a few jumps ahead of the camera, the film was made.

"Suddenly I had an office, a leather sofa and my own secretary. I worked--with about 60 other writers--on 'Ziegfeld Girl' and 'Honky Tonk' and other projects.

"But the glamour wore off quickly," and Whitmore arranged through friends to gain assignment as war correspondent for Time and Life magazines in China. There she worked with journalist Theodore White, and the two later collaborated on a book, "Thunder Out of China."

When the book, which became a best seller, was picked up by the Book of the Month Club, Whitmore met Clifton Fadiman. "We met again," she said, "when I was a scared guest on 'Information Please.' "

Four years later, in 1950, they were married. The Fadimans have a son, Kim, 33, a teacher of kayaking and photography, and a daughter, Anne, a staff writer at Life magazine. (Fadiman by a previous marriage also has a son, Jonathan, 52, who works in international computer sales.)

Odd Jobs Increased

Fadiman's odd jobs multiplied across the years. In addition to "Information Please," he emceed other radio and television programs, including "Quiz Kids" and "This Is Show Business." Writing, editing, translating, lecturing, he worked long hours and he approached each new challenge with a sense of testing himself.

Fadiman is not least an essayist and sharp observer of mankind. In one essay he deplored "the bad temper in our land" generated by various labels including the term "intellectual. . . . An intellectual is simply a man in whom is writ large what makes you and me specifically human--an interest in the rational mind and the ability to use it. As such he is nothing more nor less than the most important kind of person the human race can produce. One early intellectual figured out the use of fire. A recent one figured out how the universe hangs together.

"Between Ugug and Einstein stretches a long line of intellectuals, great and small, able to supply nothing but ideas. These ideas, however, make everything else possible--including attacks on intellectuals, for these very attacks depend on a series of ideas dreamed up by such visionaries as the inventors of the alphabet or those 19th-Century lunatics who worked out the equations that have made radio and television possible. In a way the rest of us, no matter how industrious or transiently used, are parasites living luxuriously on the work of a handful of superior minds."

A Lover of Puns

Fadiman also is a lover of puns, which he calls "the rhymes that try men's souls." In an essay, "Small Excellencies," he noted: "In 'Animal Crackers,' Groucho Marx recalled that when shooting elephants in Africa he found the tusks very difficult to remove--adding, however, that in Alabama the Tuscaloosa. To the contrapuntalist such a statement is quite irrelevant; to the propunent it is pleasing because it shows what language can produce under pressure, in this case showing both the marks of strain and the strain of Marx."

Fadiman continued: "Once on the television show 'This is Show Business,' George S. Kaufman got himself mired in the word euphemism. After playing with it for a few seconds he turned to his fellow panelist Sam Levenson, declared, 'Euphemism and I'm for youse'm,' and closed the discussion."

Fadiman's interests in language and letters have few boundaries. He has studied children's literature for many years, and on his regular cross-country flights to Book of the Month Club meetings he occasionally sparks curiosity among onlookers by absorbing himself in the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter, "Aesop's Fables" or "Grimm's Fairy Tales."

Fadiman is singularly proud of a major piece he wrote for the Encyclopedia Britannica on the history of children's literature. To prepare himself for the task, Fadiman in his 70s learned to read Spanish, Swedish, Italian and Dutch; he was already versed in German and French.

Readers of the Britannica entry may well glimpse between the lines an image of Fadiman 75 years ago, holding a book at eye-level as he walked the streets to and from the library. Noting that children's literature is set off from the literary mainstream by the nature of its audience, Fadiman wrote: "It is often read, especially by pre-12-year-olds, in a manner suggesting trance, distinct from that of adult reading. Universally diffused among literate peoples, it offers a rich array of genres, types, and themes, some resembling grown-up progenitors, many peculiar to itself."

Glancing back over his lifetime of odd jobs in language, Fadiman told a visitor recently: "The first time I read words it seemed like magic. It still does."

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