The wit of the social climber
Or, Clifton Fadiman's imposter syndrome
If you’ve managed to work your way into a room where you don’t quite belong, wit is one way to stay there. How better to distract both yourself and others from your imposter syndrome than with a steady stream of clever quips? Anyone who wants to question your credentials will be too busy chuckling to formulate an objection.
That was the life of Clifton Fadiman, one of mid-century America’s leading public intellectuals. As books editor for the The New Yorker, host of the radio and television show Information Please, judge for the Book-of-the-Month club, an editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, and, per his book-jacket copy, “America’s authority on just about everything — including authorities!” he saw it as his sacred duty to educate and enlighten his countrymen (and to a lesser extent, his countrywomen). He was, as Michael Chabon calls him in an aside in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a “famous smart person.” But it was his fallback career; he would have loved to be an English professor at Columbia, his alma mater, but when the opportunity arose he was told “We have room for only one Jew,” and it wasn’t him.
And so Fadiman spent his life absorbed in “activities that have resulted in my becoming a kind of hemi- demi-semi-professor, or perhaps only a hemi-demi-semi-quasi-professor.”
“I have been a kind of pitchman-professor, selling ideas, often other men’s, at marked-down figures, which are easier to pay than the full price of complete intellectual concentration,” he wrote. “I do not apologize for this. It is the best I and my many peers can do. And I am convinced the job is necessary.”
In his words, he would help the hillbilly become the hillwilliam.
For his whole life, his daughter Anne recalls in her winning memoir The Wine Lover’s Daughter, Fadiman was dogged by “the conviction that he was awkward, counterfeit, permanently stuck in Brooklyn.” He cultivated a love of the finer things, like cheese (“milk’s leap toward immortality”) and of course wine (“I know no other liquid that, placed in the mouth, forces one to think.”) And he quipped effortlessly and incessantly, walking around his house “singing nonsense songs and chanting macaronic rhymes to whose significance only he held the key.”
On Information Please, he was the “Toscanini of Quiz” as listeners would send in questions to stump the assembled experts in hopes of winning a set of encyclopedias. All of this, Fadiman knew, was a pretext for wordplay:
I will contend that many of the most diverting puns ever ad-libbed were shot into the air week after week by the four experts, to fall to earth I know not where. Once they were required to identify a certain Middle Eastern potentate. John Gunther confidently supplied the correct answer. “Are you Shah?” I ventured. “Sultanly,” he replied.
He collected puns (“the rhymes that try men’s souls”) and had them ever at the ready, like the one about the wit whose best quip was always quoted back to him: A case of the tale dogging the wag. When he couldn’t sleep, he would churn out aphorisms like “How pleasing that the Milky Way is both lactic and galactic” and clerihews such as
Sawed a woman in two, the meanie
Leaving neither fraction
Feeling any great satisfaction
He gamed out improbable situations, like being lost on the way to an Italian restaurant so he could say he’d mislaid the Spaghettisburg address. “I shall, of course, say it risotto voce.”
And he kept a file of Blue Puns, those that “had been tried and found wanton,” like the story of the brash young man who invited a lady up to his place for more than a drink, to which she replied “Don’t care for a whisky and sofa — but I don’t mind coming for a gin and platonic.” In the same vein, he noted, there’s a vas deferens between children and no children.
In his old age, after his eyesight had nearly gone, he would scribble his puns “with a Magic Marker in capital letters ten times the size of his old handwriting” including “Mournday, Bluesday, Whinesday, Tearsday, Cryday, Sadderday, and the Sobbeth (from a calendar issued by the Book-of-Lament Club)” and “between a wok and a hot plate.”
At 88, he estimated that he had read more than 25,000 books in his life, “an achievement that placed him, he said, in the same category as a three-legged chicken.”
Anne Fadiman writes that by the end of his life, Clifton Fadiman had finally settled into his skin. “It is said that old people can keep their minds agile by learning how to speak Italian or play the oboe,” she wrote. “My father learned how to be blind. In the process, he may also have learned how to think of himself as a little less counterfeit.”
The social climber reached the summit, finally an unambiguous “master of a profession which in my more melancholy moments I range about midway between that of the bubblegum chewer and that of the bathroom baritone.”
Quick quips; lightning
“I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.”
— Lily Tomlin
“The advantage of a classical education is that it enables you to despise the wealth which it prevents you from achieving.”
— Russell Green
“A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.”
— H.L. Mencken
Wit as social glue
GWQ No. 138 was worth a jot. I was taken with the idea, advanced in Fadiman’s Wikipedia profile, that he was among “the highly educated, elegant, patrician raconteurs and pundits regarded by TV executives of that era as appealing to the upper-class owners of expensive early TV sets.” But then I learned his TV version of Information Please was canceled after two months. Of quotation, Fadiman observed “We prefer to believe that the absence of inverted commas guarantees the originality of thought, whereas it may be merely that the utterer has forgotten its source.” I still remember my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Bubblegum chewers and bathroom baritones alike are invited to tap the ❤️ below.