The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman
The essayist, critic, and radio mainstay Clifton Fadiman is an entirely fitting subject for a book, but even more appropriate is to have that book be a brilliant love letter from his daughter. Anne Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter extols his greatness as a father, his literary efforts, and his love of good wine, yet still acknowledges that he was a man with his share of shortcomings.
A brief account of his professional life is in order. Born in 1904, Fadiman’s life was one immersed in literary pursuits. He was a judge of potential books for the Book-of-the-Month Club and served on the board of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He did commentaries on the Public Broadcasting System and wrote book reviews. He was integral to the radio show and later brief television program Information Please, wrote for The New Yorker, and was senior editor of Cricket. His bibliography includes essays and criticism, translations, anthologies, children’s books, a high school textbook, and “nearly a hundred books to which he wrote forewords or after words.” And, to top it off, he created The Lifetime Reading Plan, the fourth edition of which was published two years before his death and features works ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh in 2000 BC to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958. He died in 1999, essentially blind but still reviewing books and still drinking wine, but he “drank only with dinner,” Anne Fadiman recalls. “My father would never have drunk wine or anything else while he was working ….”
The stories here are not just an accumulation of cute anecdotes about her father; each serves to reinforce a point Anne Fadiman makes. None is more illustrative of their close connection and the power of purpose in life than one moment described in the chapter “VIP.” Semi-retired to Florida, Clifton Fadiman (age 86) and Sam Aaron, his collaborator, wrote a new edition of Joys of Wine. Two years later Fadiman began to lose his sight due to acute retinal necrosis and considered suicide so he would not be a burden on his family. Reading had been a central focus in his life, and he feared that dimming eyesight would take that and his purpose in life away. His wife and daughter convinced him to attend the Visually Impaired Persons (VIP) center for six months. He did so with great trepidation but came home after the first day delighted with the things he had learned, such as how to fill a coffee cup or operate a tape recorder. This enabled him to continue reviewing manuscripts for BOMC which meant he could still work! And, the other patients at the VIP were of a certain age and remembered him from his old radio shows. After three weeks, the leader asked Fadiman to conduct a seminar called Fadiman’s Conversation Club. They all listened to a Larry King show and discussed it the next day. Once again, he was popular—a VIP—but one who was filling a need for others and for himself. Anne quotes from the “Battle of Maldon” to sum up his fight in old age: “Spirit must be greater as our strength diminishes.” It is valuable lesson for all who are growing older.
Over the course of two chapters related to her taste for wine, she confesses that at some point after her father’s death she realized that she really did not like wines. Chateau Haut-Brion—a very elegant wine—was loved by her father, a wine “drunk by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Locke.” At a dinner party, she confesses, “half an inch of Haut-Brion was left in my glass. If my father could read that sentence, he would weep.” These two chapters provide an interesting excursion on how we taste, the receptors on our tongue, and how smell interacts with the taste buds. Despite her dislike of wine, finding her father’s cellar book long after his death brought back a wave of memories of times with him and the vintages he had so much enjoyed. “I might not want to participate [drink wine] … but the words made want to fall on my knees.”
Anne Fadiman writes that as “the balance of dependency resettles, relationships often sweeten and simplify.” At eighty-six, her father had written to her, “I think often of how much you have done for your ancient father.” Befitting his literary learning, he continued, “This particular Lear has more sense than the original: I know a Cordelia when I see one. Love, Daddy.” The Wine Lover’s Daughter captures the essence of her father and the lessons she learned from him. It is touching without being cloying, revelatory without being scandalous.