The Wine Lover's Daughter: a memoir
Anne Fadiman (2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Throughout the middle third of the twentieth century, Clifton Fadiman was a name to conjure with: publisher, critic, anthologist, appearing frequently on radio and television, he was the very model of a public intellectual. The Wine Lover's Daughter is his daughter Anne's memoir of his life, and her life in his orbit. It's a brief cultural history of the times he lived and worked in, and a loving rumination on influence and memory. He lived long enough to trim down his literary estate, so that her task as executrix wouldn't swallow up her own life, but she still has plenty to work with with.
Anne traces the arc of his journey from the crowded, impoverished streets of Jewish Brooklyn, to Columbia University, to a career that would have fully occupied three or four lesser men. His original goal was to remain at Columbia as an English professor, but the department had a Jewish quota of one, and his friend Lionel Trilling got the job.
You could say he was overcompensating on many fronts: his mother picked his fancy first name out of the phone book; his older –and taller– brother preceded him through Boys' High and Columbia, and helped him acquire the plummy elocution that became his hallmark in broadcasting. He was famously witty, and he practiced self-deprecation as a style of 'English manners', but also as a way of staying ahead of anyone who might consider him lower-class.
He cared about that: he had a deep commitment to hierarchies of quality. "My father was partial to all things fabricated with skill and effort: boots, books, bridges, cathedrals, and, especially, food. He preferred cheese to milk, pâté to liver, braised endive to salad." Between his bookworm childhood and the Great Books at Columbia, he had as much knowledge as any man about what was classically considered great in literature. On a fateful trip to Paris, he discovered the pleasures of wine. A couple of years after the end of Prohibition made it possible, he began investing in a similarly curated library of the best vintages he could afford.
Anne was the younger child of his second marriage (he'd been divorced, and her mother, widowed.) She grew up in ease and comfort, marinated in culture, language, and English manners; after Harvard, she became a journalist, like her mother. Later, like her father, she began writing essays; the age gap of nearly fifty years made it possible to get out of his considerable shadow. (Though he still gets more hits on Google – she checked.)
She grew up expecting to inherit his taste in wine, as well. It seemed natural, since she'd grown up speaking the language, at the table of the man who later compiled a giant book called The Joys of Wine. "My father wrote in Joys that 'to take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history,' a pronouncement I found a tad grandiloquent but whose sincerity I did not doubt." He loved wine, and felt at home with it. He knew its quality first-hand.
Alas, these things are genetic, and Anne inherited her taste buds from her mother. To her, everything bitter tastes too strong. At the end of the book, she makes a fascinating detour through the laboratories of scientists who study and measure the senses of taste and smell. (At least, I found it fascinating, but then, I would.) Fadiman says, "My researches made me feel different from my father not only in matters of gustation and olfaction but also in character. He liked to leave some things a mystery. I'd rather find everything out."
Any Good Books