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Clifton Fadiman Didn’t Mind Being Called Schoolmasterish

Portrait of a reader

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, Summer 2017 | Volume 38, Number 3

Posted July 28, 2017

In 1960, a new book promised to point Americans toward enough literature to last them for decades. In The Lifetime Reading Plan, author Clifton Fadiman surveyed roughly 100 celebrated literary works from antiquity to the modern age, providing brief essays on everything from Homer to Herman Melville to Aldous Huxley in hopes that readers would engage with them on their own.

Nearly six decades after its debut—and almost two decades after Fadiman’s death—his Reading Plan remains in print, now in its fourth edition. It’s the most visible legacy of a man who, in his heyday, used print, radio, and television to explain literature to the vast middle of moderately educated Americans, becoming a national celebrity along the way.

Fadiman’s resumé defies easy summary. He helped establish the Book-of-the-Month Club and served on its board for more than a half century. He was also a force in shaping Encyclopedia Britannica, served as book editor of the New Yorker, and moderated a game show, carried on radio and later TV, called Information, Please, in which an erudite panel of commentators fielded questions from audience members, who would win a set of the Britannica if they stumped the experts. Additionally, Fadiman worked in book publishing, as a magazine columnist, anthologist, and familiar essayist, his musings gathered in charming collections such as Party of One, Any Number Can Play, and Enter, Conversing. With typical self-deprecation, Fadiman called himself an “odd job man” in describing his Olympian output.

But whatever his platform, Fadiman never lost sight of his first job as a teacher after graduating from Columbia University in 1925. He always remained a teacher at heart, making no apologies if the concept of his Lifetime Reading Plan seemed “schoolmasterish”:

Let it. The school is a far greater invention than the internal combustion engine. A good schoolmaster is a far more useful citizen than the average bank president, politician, or general, if only because what he transmits is what gives meaning to the life of the banker, the politician, the general. We survive precisely as primitive man survived, that is, by force and cunning. But we live by ideas and faiths of which he had hardly a premonition. 

Fadiman’s Reading Plan—and, in a broader sense, his career as a great explainer of literature and ideas to a popular audience—benefited from good timing. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, more Americans were going to college and being exposed to the humanities that Fadiman championed. After navigating the Great Depression and World War II, then enjoying the fruits of postwar prosperity, Fadiman’s fellow countrymen could exhale a little, with more leisure to pursue higher things. The Reading Plan arrived shortly before John F. Kennedy’s age of Camelot, with its social circle of artists and writers lending an air of glamour to the life of the mind. And radio and television, still relatively young media, seemed promising venues not only to entertain, but to educate.

In this cultural moment, Fadiman imagined his audience. “In general, the Plan is meant for the American, from eighteen to eighty, who is curious to see what his mind can master in the course of his remaining lifetime, and who has not met more than ten percent, let us say, of the writers listed,” he wrote. His Plan, he added, was also aimed at college graduates who had been assigned great books but brushed them off, or high school graduates who might have profited from a college education but couldn’t pursue one, as well as “that great and growing army of intelligent men and women who in their middle years are penetrated by a vague, uncomfortable sense that the mere solution of the daily problems of living is not enough, that somewhere worlds of thought and feeling call out for exploration.” As he wrote the Plan, Fadiman also had in mind “the retired elderly who have found that growing roses and looking at television does not leave them mentally exhausted.”

Fadiman’s empathy with unassuming but intellectually ambitious Americans grew from his own humble origins. He was born in Brooklyn on May 15, 1904. His father, Isidore Michael Fadiman, was a pharmacist, and his mother, Grace Elizabeth Fadiman, was a nurse. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. “Our bloodlines are nonpatrician,” Fadiman wrote of his family. “I am a Brooklyn aristocrat only in the sense that I am a connoisseur of Brooklyn . . . Brooklyn is, or was, not a town, not a city, not a country. It was a world.”

Fadiman found the breadth and variety of Brooklyn stimulating. “It is difficult to live in Brooklyn without becoming a deep thinker,” he wrote. From an early age, books fed his mind too. “My father grew up in Brooklyn in an immigrant family too poor to take him to a restaurant until he reached his teens, but not too poor to fill two black-walnut bookcases with the likes of Scott, Tolstoy and Maupassant,” his daughter, the writer Anne Fadiman, recalled. “‘I read Ibsen when I was eight,’ he told me. ‘Even before that, Ibsen was there. I knew he was a great Norwegian dramatist, part of a world I was somehow moving toward.’”

Books remained Fadiman’s most abiding companions. “Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books,” Anne Fadiman wrote of her father and his wife, the journalist and screenwriter Annalee Whitmore Fadiman. “Whenever we moved to a new house, a carpenter would build a quarter of a mile of shelves; whenever we left, the new owners would rip them out.”

In 1985, when he was 80, Clifton Fadiman estimated that he had read, since childhood, perhaps 25,000 books. For such an expansive bibliophile, reducing his reading to the list of 100 or so recommended titles in the Reading Plan posed an obvious challenge. There was no more perceptive critic of the result than Fadiman himself.  

“Why one hundred books? There is no magic in the number,” Fadiman conceded. “One must choose some arbitrary number, one must stop sometime; and I feel that for our purposes one hundred books more or less cover the ground.”

Fadiman also knew that his list would naturally draw attention not only to what was included, but what was not. “You will at once note omissions,” he told readers. He admitted including little poetry not originally published in English because reading most of it in translation reduced the pleasure of the experience.

“And of course there are other omissions—Plutarch, Bacon, Pepys, many others,” he added. “I could not include all.”

Fadiman left Eastern literature out of his Plan, too. They “simply light no fire inside me,” he wrote. “Limited outlook? Probably so. I have tried Lady Murasaki and the Koran and the Arabian Nights and the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads and All Men Are Brothers and perhaps a dozen other Eastern classics. Unable to read them with much enjoyment, I cannot write about them with much honesty.”

For the fourth edition of Fadiman’s literary guide, published in 1997 as The New Lifetime Reading Plan, Fadiman teamed with a coauthor, John S. Major, dividing responsibility for the entries and expanding the scope of the original. Pointing to an America more culturally diverse and globalized, the works of the fourth edition “now include Lady Murasaki along with Miss Austen, Tanizaki cheek-by-jowl with Faulkner, Ssu-ma Ch’ien as well as Thucydides,” Major told readers.

The virtues of inclusiveness notwithstanding, maybe it’s best to remember that Fadiman’s Reading Plan was conceived as the expression of an individual intellect, not an institutional consensus. Part of the original Plan’s appeal is its window onto one man’s struggle with his literary passions and biases, a book lover’s list of greatest hits as personal biography.

“It could have been written by any one of a great many reasonably well-read Americans,” Fadiman said of the first edition. “I happened to be drawn into a task that has proved pleasant for me, and whose result will, I hope, prove useful to others.”

The striking thing about Fadiman’s first Reading Plan isn’t what it leaves out, but what it manages to get in. He covers, among other greats, Plato and St. Augustine, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Twain, Tolstoy, and Thomas Hobbes, Yeats, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot. Each entry is bite-sized, but like a portrait on a postage stamp, it renders vivid detail within a small space.

Stacking Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as consecutive entries allowed Fadiman to make some useful comparisons; he also cheated a bit by treating a pair of Austen’s novels as one entry, a device that makes his ostensible list of a hundred titles a bit longer. Here’s how he juxtaposes the two writers:

It is unsettling to pass from Jane Austen to Emily Bronte. They do not belong to the same world. They do not even seem to belong to the same sex. All they have in common is that they were both parson’s daughters. One is a master of perfectly controlled domestic comedy. The other is a wild demiurge of undomesticated tragedy. One excludes passion, the other is all passion. Jane Austen knew her limited, highly civilized world thoroughly; her novels grew out of needle-sharp observation as well as native power of mind. Emily Bronte knew the Yorkshire moors, her own family, and little else, and we can hardly say what her one novel grew out of. 

Fadiman favored vivid concision and clarity in his own writing, as well as the writing of others. The more audacious experiments of twentieth- century fiction did not, by and large, interest him. He included James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses in his original Reading Plan, though his heart didn’t seem fully in it. His entry on the book uncharacteristically cites “what a large majority of intelligent critics and readers have come to believe about Ulysses” rather than making a memorable argument of his own. Virginia Woolf’s modernist fiction didn’t make the cut of the first Reading Plan. He allowed a spot for William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, though in an earlier assessment of Sound and Fury in the Nation, he had found that “the theme and the characters are trivial, unworthy of the enormous and complex craftsmanship expended on them.”

But whatever his views on particular authors, Fadiman saw books as something worth arguing about, a zeal his fans found contagious. As a young man, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda found The Reading Plan invaluable. “It was long fashionable to deride Clifton Fadiman as the quintessential middlebrow,” Dirda recalled in his 2003 memoir, An Open Book. “But for me, and I suspect for many other people past forty, The Lifetime Reading Plan opened up the world of great literature . . . In essence, Fadiman made classics sound as exhilarating as Tarzan or Dr. Fu Manchu.”

Not everyone found this approach appealing. Cultural critic Dwight Macdonald thought something was lost when middle men tried to interpret the classics for a mass audience. He argued that “it is one thing to bring High Culture to a wider audience without change; and another to ‘popularize’ it by sales talk in the manner of Clifton Fadiman.”

But Fadiman made no apologies for aiming his message at so-called “average Americans,” a constituency he found consistently underestimated. “One might suppose that (great) books would be of no overwhelming interest to the large ‘mass audience,’” he wrote. “But, despite what some communications tycoons believe, Americans respond more eagerly to the best than the worst—provided the best is offered to them.”

Clifton Fadiman died on June 20, 1999, at age 95. The seemingly casual erudition and self-effacing charm he brought to his literary and familiar essays provided a model for Dirda’s own writing. “When as a boy I read (and reread) Party of One, Any Number Can Play, and Fadiman's other books, I was drawn to their easygoing, conversational style,” Dirda told Humanities. “Fadiman wasn’t an academic critic but rather an enthusiastic reader talking to other readers. When I became a literary journalist, I wanted to write in the same manner—playfully, without smugness or condescension, and as clearly as I could. Above all, Fadiman was an enthusiast who championed the reading of all sorts of books, and so am I.”

Fadiman’s legacy also lives brightly in the work of Anne Fadiman, whose wise and witty essay collections, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small, are very much in the tradition of her father.

Anne Fadiman’s memoir, The Wine Lover's Daughter, will be published this year. “It's a memoir about my father and wine,” she told Humanities. “Wine and books were the two things he loved most; both were symbols of what he aspired to when he left his Brooklyn childhood behind and crossed the East River to Manhattan, where he attended Columbia and later became part of the New York intelligentsia. The book is about the arc of his life (with wine as the central theme, but frequently departing from it) as well about my own relationship with wine and my relationship with him.”

Was the man Americans met in Clifton Fadiman’s books the same man that Anne Fadiman knew? “That's a big question,” his daughter said. “Short answer: My father was every bit as witty, literate, and charming in person as he was on the page, but he was also more complicated. His insecurities and frustrations (except in a light, self-mocking form) never made it into his pages. They were very much a part of his life. Incidentally, he was a wonderful father.”

Although The Lifetime Reading Plan endures, Clifton Fadiman’s familiar essay collections, which include chatty disquisitions on topics ranging from cheese to catalogs to the ideal bedtime book—have lapsed out of print, a development that would not have surprised him. In one of his pieces, “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” he argued that the temperament of modern culture wasn’t hospitable to the unhurried intimacy such essays offered.

One of Fadiman’s pet themes was the decline of attention. Introducing his 1957 essay collection, Any Number Can Play, he was eerily prescient about our e-mail-and-text-addled, Twitterpated age. “Now there is a tendency to absorb the instantaneously received idea, mentally file it, and proceed to the next message transmitted by the tireless mass-communicators,” he wrote. “With so many signals crowding in upon us, there is no time, and soon no inclination, to arrange them in order of importance, reflect upon them, and take proper action. Eventually the alert reception of the signal suffices.”

Fadiman is gone, but his Lifetime Reading Plan continues to offer an antidote to our hunger for information rather than insight. He promised within its pages “a lifetime of conversation with some of the liveliest talkers our civilization has produced . . . That is all I can do. You must make friends all by yourself.” 

About the Author

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. His HUMANITIES essay on Montaigne was listed as a notable essay of the year in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Essays 2016.

Funding Information

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, public radio station WNYC's Archives and Preservation Department has reformatted and published hundreds of hours of historic audio, including vintage programs featuring Clifton Fadiman. SOURCES: The Lifetime Reading Plan —both the first edition of 1960 authored by Clifton Fadiman and the fourth edition of 1997 written by Fadiman and John S. Major; An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland by Michael Dirda; Party of One, Any Number Can Play, Enter Conversing and Party of Twenty, all written or edited by Clifton Fadiman; Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, both by Anne Fadiman; A March 28, 1985, Los Angeles Times profile of Clifton Fadiman written by Marshall Berges; New York Times writer Richard Severo’s June 21, 1999, obituary of Clifton Fadiman. Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by Dwight Macdonald, John Summers and Louis Menand; Author interviews with Anne Fadiman and Michael Dirda.