Clifton Fadiman Accepts the 1993 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

February 2016



Al Silverman (introducing Clifton Fadiman): 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.


Clifton Fadiman: It may be that this heart-moving tribute and award which the Foundation is giving me is simply a tribute to my Darwinian powers of survival. I think it’s one of the characteristics of our culture that if a man or woman can stick around long enough to become an oddity, he or she will either appear on an Oprah Winfrey show, or some respected body of American citizens will give him or her a medal, and that is what happened in my case.

Now I must be rank about the pleasure I take in receiving this award. I know from having looked at many of the Academy Award ceremonies what the proper thing is to say. I know that I should take this medal and I should say I would like to share this medal, I would like to share this medal with my six great-grandchildren and the man who fixes our refrigerator. But, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a paragon of virtue. I am a very selfish and very human person, and I must tell you candidly, or as they say on the air, frankly, I must tell you frankly that I take great personal pleasure in getting this award. I intend to take this medal, take it home, share it with no one, and use it to stroke my ego at regular intervals.

So there you have a confession of utter selfishness. I cannot help being made happy by this award and I may as well say so. However, that is a selfish emotion, though a human one and a natural one. But I also feel another emotion which is perhaps self-regarding, and with the three or four minutes at my disposal I want to tell you what I mean. It turns on the meaning of the word “profession.”

There are a certain number of trades or occupations that we apply the word “profession” to, not a great many-the law, medicine, religion, architecture, teaching, certain of the arts and sciences, one or two more. These we call professions. And we call them professions because those who engage in them profess something beyond their necessity to earn a living. Bankers, politicians, and street sweepers, though they may all have individual probity, and indeed many do, particularly the street sweepers, are not professionals in that sense because they do not subscribe to a code which goes beyond the necessary making of a living and the securing of an annual profit. There are certain trades or occupations which are not professions in the sense that the law is one, or medicine, but which occasionally partake of the “professional.” That is, the people engaged in these two trades, while their first objective is to earn a living and secure a profit as big as may be legitimate, are nevertheless motivated by something that has very little to do with any benefit that may come to them as individuals. They feel a certain communal responsibility. In the case of doctors, for example, that communal responsibility is actually made concrete in the Hippocratic oath that doctors swear by. And lawyers, architects, certain kinds of writers and scientists, men of religion all obey, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes vaguely, a code which goes beyond their own selfish necessities. And even when they transgress that code-some lawyers are crooks, some religionists are hypocrites-even when they transgress that code, it is a code that they know they are transgressing.

I think among the non-professions, there are two of which you can say that they are, as it were, infected or tainted by professionalism. The first, which I shall not enlarge upon, happens to be a trade that I have been interested in for many decades, the wine trade, which began as a trade intended to please-and I must use a politically incorrect word-to please gentlemen. The other trade, or perhaps a conglomeration of trades, is the book business-book publishing, book writing of course, book selling, book distribution.

Seventy-one years ago, I got a job with a small, struggling firm known as Simon & Schuster. I understand they are still active. Max and Dick, in the histories of book publishing, are thought of as having inaugurated new methods of promoting, advertising, and selling, and that is true. But people forget that it was Max and Dick, really, who helped editors like myself to select the best books we could possibly get. They published a great many books of ordinary quality. So I learned from Max and Dick, and Alfred [Knopf], what being a professional book publisher is. Now, back of the desire of the best publishers to publish the best books lies something even deeper, and something perhaps now as concrete, and that is a love for the English language. Book publishing, book selling, book distribution, book advertising-all the trades connected with the whole business of books-all these depend upon the resources of the English language, the resources which enable it to produce intricate forms such as the novel, the poem, the biography, which tells us something of the truth of the human condition. I have known many publishers and writers in my time, and the ones whom I respect most are the ones who have the most professional sense of their responsibility to do something more than merely sell books.

In my opinion, the National Book Foundation consists of men and women who represent those in the publishing trade who are most conscious of that responsibility, of that sense of the “professional.” And I think that the annual awards programs they present are symbols or emblems of their faith in good books and in the resources of our magnificent tongue. Each year, what they are doing here is not merely bringing together a group of like-minded friends to enjoy a good dinner and to give awards to three very distinguished writers.

What they are really doing, I believe, is making a statement about the English language, which at the moment is being subjected to so much-what shall I say-tainting, infection, whatever it may be. The time has come for us, it seems to me, to defend our English tongue, and the work of the National Book Foundation is important in doing so.

So these annual awards are a statement of faith. And I take great pleasure in being selected as a small part of that statement, a transient part, an ephemeral part, but nevertheless a part. And I must also add that I thank you for your patience in listening to these halting and inadequate words.