National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
of Clifton Fadiman,
Winner of the
DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN LETTERS AWARD
Delivered by Al Silverman
I found myself not long ago in a quaint New England secondhand book store where I bought a copy of a book by Catherine Drinker Bowen titled Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. When I got home I discovered, nestled within its pages, a graceful little essay on the book by one Clifton Fadiman.
Among its several hundred well-chosen words, Mr. Fadiman referred to this Bacon biography as being of interest not merely to scholars but, he wrote, "to the curious, intelligent reader."
Clifton Fadiman's whole life, it seems to me, has been a lightening rod for the curious, intelligent reader, that person intoxicated by the written word, willing to become engaged by both popular art and literature--the two of course often fusing into one.
It started for Kip--that's the name everybody calls him by--when he was nine years old and had begun keeping a journal of what books he read. He remembers one entry in particular, a three-word literary judgement on Edgar Allen Poe: "Poe is prudish."
At age twenty-three, fully unprudish, Fadiman served at Simon & Schuster for ten years, ending as its chief editor. For another ten years, from 1933 to '43, Kip was book critic of The New Yorker. Then came another ten-year stint; (he says he always liked to keep jobs in ten-year increments), this as the host of "Information Please," the most erudite and entertaining show ever to be heard on radio. His ten-year-and-gone routine was disrupted when he became an editorial presence with The Encyclopedia Britannica, where he remains a presence to this day. And in 1944 he became a member of the board of judges of the Book-of-the-Month Club. So he is coming up to his fiftieth anniversary with the Club.
In his alleged spare time over the years, Kip has translated two volumes of Nietzsche that stayed in print for twenty-five years, compiled hordes of distinguished anthologies for adults and children, written hundreds of essays, including at least fifty Introductions to novels by such as Tolstoy, Conrad, Melville, and Stendhal. His lifetime of reading and then writing about what he has read, has influenced and inspired generations of readers.
Today, in his ninetieth year, Kip has eased off a bit on his commitments. He still reports on six or more submissions a month sent to him by the Book-of-the-Month Club. He can no longer read these books because his eyesight has failed him, but the Club sends him taped readings of these manuscripts, and he listens to them all and reports on them in the inimitable Fadiman style.
I was priveledged to see that style at work for seventeen years, and it was like a lifetime of inspiration for me. At those Book-of-the-Month Club judges' meetings, Fadiman was the commanding figure always. With every book under discussion he offered reactions tinged with wit and humor and some skepticism. But he treated every book with tolerance and seriousness. And through those years he was a discoverer. It was he, for instance, who urged a novel called The Catcher in the Rye on his colleagues. "That rare miracle of fiction," he called it, "a human being created out of ink, paper, and the imagination."
What Kip Fadiman always asked of a book was first, did it have lucidity, and second, did the book have a mind behind it?
Framed over his bed back in Florida are four lines in Anglo-Saxon from a tenth-century poem called "The Battle of Maldon." These lines express this man's life.
Mind shall be firmer
Heart shall be keener
Mood shall be more
As our might lessens.
The National Book Foundation proudly presents this medal and a $10,000 cash award from the Foundation's Board of Directors to Clifton Fadiman for his distinguished contribution to American letters.