Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is one of the great works of 20th-century American reported literature, a minutely attentive, humanly and epistemologically curious, heart-shattering, and at times oddly uplifting investigation into the ill-fated interactions between a Hmong immigrant family with a sick daughter and the medical system in California. Published in 1997, Fadiman’s book sold slowly at first, by word of mouth. Over the past 20 years, it has continued to sell, while being recognized as an exemplary blend of immersive reporting techniques and literary and moral purpose.
Fadiman’s close attention to the incommensurate strengths and weaknesses of both the Eastern tribal belief-system of the Hmong and the empiricism of Western doctors enabled her to identify the gaps through which her subject falls without being condescending or cold—or allowing the reader to forget that the life of a child hangs in the balance.
Putting down Fadiman’s book, it comes as a shock to realize that the careful, graceful, individual, emotionally aware, culturally and historically informed, and deeply humane voice that makes her work such a pleasure to read, even as it can be so unsettling and upsetting, was once seen in any way as common cultural property.
With no surviving home planet to shelter them, nonfiction Jedi like Fadiman have mostly packed up their bags of tricks and decamped—to universities, to rural Montana, to Hollywood, and so on. Fadiman’s path took her from the world of magazines like The New Yorker and Life, to the editor-in-chief’s roost at The American Scholar, to a teaching job at Yale, which is not a bad life, as long as you don’t look backwards.
Fadiman insists for some strange reason on looking backwards, though. Two years ago, she wrote a loving yet often acerbic memoir about her father, Clifton Fadiman, who hosted the wildly popular mid-20th-century radio show Information Please and edited the Encyclopædia Britannica.
A friend and contemporary of Lionel Trilling, and the object of decades of put-downs from Partisan Review smarties, Clifton Fadiman was the ultimate midcentury aspirational American Jew in WASP clothing, who ruled the gorgeous meadows of American middlebrow culture from a series of castles in Southern California while amassing the fantastic wine collection that gave Anne Fadiman’s book its title, The Wine Lover’s Daughter.
In what can be seen either as an act of filial atonement or a second sly attempt at parricide, Fadiman has now written an afterword to a new edition of a children’s book by her father called Wally the Wordworm. The book is very amusing, and the illustrations, by Playboy cartoonist Arnold Roth, who is still alive (Clifton Fadiman died in 1999), are truly fantastic. Yet it is also worth noting that while Clifton Fadiman’s name appears on somewhere over a hundred published books, as the author of collections, forewords, afterwords, translations, and so forth, Wally the Wordworm is the only book with a beginning, middle, and end that he ever wrote.
Talking with Anne Fadiman—to whom I am eternally grateful as an early editor of my own work, and as a humane voice of understanding in moments of personal grief—over breakfast at a midtown Manhattan diner, I came to understand how writing about the Hmong had led her back to her father, or maybe it was the other way around.
David Samuels: What is a dictionary?
Anne Fadiman: For my father, the notion of a dictionary was both a reference work in which you found exactly what you were looking for, as well as a place to journey and wander and find things that you weren’t looking for. Only the first exists for my students at Yale now. I have six conferences with them, individual conferences throughout the course of the term for an hour each. We edit their work together, and I’ve got a thesaurus and a dictionary right on the other side of the laptop on a little shelf. And when I reach for the dictionary to look something up, clearly they think I’m nuts.
When I try to teach them to use the particular edition of Roget’s Thesaurus that I prefer, which is not available online, one of the things I discovered is that they don’t know how to alphabetize. The reason they don’t know how to alphabetize is that they have never used a paper dictionary.
I’ve persuaded them that the book version of a thesaurus has unique qualities that one can’t find online. But as far as the dictionary goes, they’re used to clicking on the word online, which is fine for looking up a definition. But it’s no good if you’re Wally the Wordworm.
Let’s talk a little more about why a dictionary is a valuable book to have.
I love words. I love to think of the letters of the alphabet in sequence. I love to look at my dictionary which has a thumb index and I can see just at a glance, about how far through the alphabet is this word? I’m very interested to see there’s certain letters that have very thin sections. In some dictionaries, W, X, Y, and Z will just have one little tab whereas A will be this giant section.
Looking at a page in the dictionary is like looking at a mosaic. Familiar words, an occasional word I’ve never heard of, monosyllables, long words, there they are.
One of the things that Wally appreciates about the dictionary is the fact that words make sounds, which is a particular quality of language that is very easy to lose track of when reading becomes abstracted from the physical, and presented purely as a means to convey information, which is how machines tell us to use them. Words feel a certain way in your mouth, and to your ear, and they chime with each other or against each other in odd ways, which leads you to other words in a way that is more whimsical, and not algorithmically predictable. That’s the way Wally moves through the dictionary.
Yes. It’s not in alphabetical order, you’ll notice. Some of it is, but the way Wally slithers through the dictionary is the way my father would look at a dictionary, starting with a particular word that was the thing that he was initially looking for. That would be the beginning and the end of the online journey for my student. Click on the online dictionary or right click on your Mac, and the journey is over.
For my father, that first word would be just the beginning. Looking through a dictionary would be like free association in a psychoanalyst’s office. The next word that he would look up was one that he was reminded of in some way by the first word, but he wouldn’t have known in advance that that’s where he would be going. It might be etymologically related, or it might be related in another way.
Or sometimes the act of holding the beloved book might create a Pavlovian response, and he would find himself thumbing through for hours. He just loved dictionaries.
He also loved reference works in general. He was an editor for many, many years at the Encyclopædia Britannica. So everybody in the family still has a complete set of the Encyclopædia Britannica in its own matching bookcase.
I bring up the Britannica not only to emphasize his love of reference works, but because I once asked him, of all of the things he’d written, what he was proudest of. He said it was the entry on children’s literature in the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was an expert on children’s literature, and he was very honored to have been asked to write that entry. He felt it was one of the few things he had written that he could not have improved on.
Is it Wally’s ambition to eat the entire dictionary?
Well, maybe—although I think it was more, “Gee, I’ve kind of found myself in this book. What the hell is this? Whoa.” And he’s just darting here and there.
I guess I never imagined that he would eat the entire dictionary because a lot of words are short and boring. It’s not just the length, of course, that attracts him to particular words. He likes long words, but also unfamiliar words, fun words, strange words. I imagine him maybe not spending the rest of his life in the dictionary but returning and returning and returning, which is how my father dealt with the dictionary. So maybe not eating the entire thing, but knowing that whenever you wanted a really good meal, this is where he should come.
So the book is a word-feast, which takes place on one particular evening.
Exactly. There were new words every time.
Thinking of Wally—who my father called Bertram, in the bedtime stories he told us—makes me think of the other series of stories that my father told us. Let me tell you a little bit more about the wolf, who is especially important for Tablet readers because it was a very clearly Jewish wolf named Wolfenstein. He was supposedly named Wolfenstein because he’d swallowed a Steinway piano that would always give away his location at the moment he was about to eat a rabbit, named Miniature.
In my father’s stories about Bertram, his hunger was rapidly sated. Presumably he knew the dictionary existed, and let’s see what words he’d find today, and he’d be slithering around and oh, here’s this one! My brother and I would learn what a palindrome was, and stuff like that. They were basically always happy stories.
I now see the Wolfenstein/Miniature stories as a tragedy, because I now realize that the real hero of those stories was Wolfenstein and not Miniature, the way Satan was the real hero of Paradise Lost. If we think about Wolfenstein, I feel that Wolfenstein and Wally-slash-Bertram were kind of the two halves of my father’s character. My father could be the most happy, cheerful, fun guy in the entire universe, and that is the Wally side. I love books and I love words, and isn’t the world of literature just a fantastic place that contains words like sesquipedalian and wow!
That was one half of my father’s personality. But then the other half was kind of dark.
I remember nothing about the rabbit, Miniature. I recently asked my brother about this because I knew I wanted to mention Wolfenstein in my readings. Kim also could remember nothing about Miniature the rabbit. He was characterless. He was just a foil for the real hero, Wolfenstein.
Wolfenstein was a tragic character. The only thing he wanted in life was to eat Miniature. I don’t think we ever asked, “Well gee, isn’t there some other rabbit he could eat?” He’d get within a hair’s breadth of Miniature—
Very, very good. My father was of course an inveterate punster.
Yes, I liked the moa pun in the book—
—the moa is no moa.
So, every time Wolfenstein was just about to get Miniature, we’d be on the edges of our chairs, and then the Steinway piano starts to tinkle inside of Wolfenstein’s stomach, thus alerting Miniature—who was otherwise oblivious, and really kind of dumb. I think Wolfenstein was really intelligent and Miniature was just kind of a dumb little rabbit. But Miniature would be alerted by the tinkling of the Steinway piano and damn, Wolfenstein never got to eat lunch.
Wolfenstein was constantly hungry. For the two or three years that my father would be telling Wolfenstein and Miniature stories, Wolfenstein never got to eat, ever.
What do you think this story tells you about your father and his relationship to Jewishness?
Well, first let’s talk about the relationship between these two series of stories, and then I will get to that subject, which is fascinating.
Wolfenstein never gets what he wants. He is constantly hungry, always unhappy, and then we have Bertram/Wally, who not only gets what he wants but is an embarrassment of riches. He ends up at Dean & DeLuca.
It seems to me, and my brother thought so too, that the Wolfenstein-Miniature stories started first. I think that our father, who died in 1999, invented Bertram as a counterstory in which the character with whom he identified has a happy ending and isn’t hungry. So I think the two halves of my father’s character were Wolfenstein and Wally.
The two stories share a particular avenue through which satisfaction could be attained, though.
That is so true. As you suggest, they’re both about eating, and my father really loved to eat. He loved wine, he loved food, he was sort of rotund, like in the picture where Wally eats sesquipedalian.
I always imagined that Wolfenstein was getting thinner and thinner and thinner, because he never got to eat anything. He starved for years. There was never any feeling in my mind that between stories he ate some other rabbit.
When it was just Wolfenstein and Miniature of course, my brother and I thought of Wolfenstein as the villain, and we were glad when Miniature escaped. But I’m sure that my father, telling the stories, got sort of sadder and sadder. Therefore, Bertram was invented.
That’s amazing. Wolfenstein was your father’s feelings about being Jewish.
You know my book The Wine Lover’s Daughter, so you’ve read the chapter called “Jew,” which is one of the several chapters in that book that my father would have hated. He would have enjoyed parts of that book, but he wouldn’t have liked the fact that I talked about his infidelity to my mother, or the way I talked about his condescension toward women. He wouldn’t have liked the chapter called “Counterfeit” in which I talked about his deep-seated social insecurities. But mainly, he would have hated the “Jew” chapter.
Tablet’s readers mostly like Jews.
Yes. They were not born in 1904 in Brooklyn like my father. That was a period in which assimilation was the way you succeeded.
My first book, called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was about a family of Hmong refugees, and their conflicts with the American medical system.
Yes. I assigned it to my graduate classes at NYU every single year for the decade I taught there, because it is one of the two dozen truly classic books of American literary reportage. It’s just an amazing book.
Well, thank you.
So one of the Hmong leaders that I got to know said to me when I was asking him to explain why the Hmong didn’t want to assimilate, he said, “Well, you take two plants, and you transplant them into two pots. The first plant you shake all the dirt off its roots, and then you put it in the pot. The second plant you leave that all on. Which plant is going to do better transplanted into the new pot?”
The Hmong, as you know from reading my book, are so wonderfully aphoristic. So that was a very Hmong thing to say.
My dad felt that you had to shake everything off the roots. He looked at his parents, who were intelligent, secular Jews, sort of agnostic socialist types, who of course hadn’t been to college. Though my grandfather went to pharmacy school, and I was actually able to find the results of his passing his pharmacy exam in New York state, so he was a real pharmacist. It was really interesting to see how few Jewish names there were on the list of people who passed the pharmacy exam.
But my father was ashamed of his parents his entire life—of the way they spoke and the way they acted. They lived over a series of failed drugstores in different parts of Brooklyn. And Brooklyn of course in those days was not a fashionable place to live.
My father had an older brother Ed, whom he revered, who preceded him to Boys High School, which was a good public high school in Brooklyn. I made friends with the librarian of the joined Boys’ and Girls’ high school, who actually sent me copies of the literary magazines and yearbooks from the years that my father and his older brother were there.
It was there that I learned—and this is just one of the saddest facts I’ve ever heard—that at Boys High, one of the extracurricular activities was called the Correct English Club. There was also an elocution class. But the Correct English Club, I realized, had only one purpose. To teach these boys, by the time they got through high school, not to sound like their parents. And if they could sort of pick up some social graces that would be analogous to their verbal graces, they might be able to cross the river, and leave Brooklyn, and go to Manhattan.
I go back and forth to some extent about stories like that. Were those expectations and rigid norms simply cruel, or was there some kindness mixed in there, too? Do you look at that and say, “Well that’s 100% bad,” or do you look at it and say, “that’s 85% bad?”
I think it’s 85% bad. In those days, I think ascending the ladder of success, the rungs were a lot clearer. As in the Correct English Club, you did your best to assume the outer appearance in every way of people who were not like your parents.
Now as an instructor at Yale, I see things so differently because things are so different. For the first-generation college students that I teach—
—part of what they have to sell in that kind of environment—
—is their roots. That’s one of the reasons that they got in.
They’re being called upon to be spokespeople for Group X.
Exactly. And they write about that identity often in the pieces that they write for my class, and they often do that extremely well. If they’re Latinx, they will work in Spanish phrases, and so on. As for the equivalent of the patrician WASPs at Columbia, since there is certainly plenty of that sort at Yale, not all, but many of them are somewhat embarrassed to be privileged.
Privileged is not a euphemism that would’ve been used in my father’s day. It’s important to understand that what he was giving up was a sense of ethnicity, and a way of being in the world, which was associated with failure. His attitude toward being Jewish was—
The Jewish Jew will never get to eat the rabbit.
The Jewish Jew will never get to eat the rabbit.
Symbolically, Wolfenstein has doubled down on the Jewish part. He’s a long-nosed wolf who ate a Steinway piano.
That’s exactly right. And it’s only the best piano inside. These Jewish wolves, they’re really smart, you know. And yet, their Jewishness in some way is going to defeat them. They’re not going to get the rabbit.
In some ways my father continued to feel very Jewish. But I never heard him evince any curiosity to find out anything about his ancestors in Minsk, to go anywhere near there. We went everywhere else in Europe.
He would consent to take a train through Germany, but he would not get out even to smoke a cigar on the train platform. He spoke fluent German. His first commission—literary commission—was translating two works of Nietzsche. He had studied German and spoke German beautifully. He had a lot of fun using his French whenever we went to France. But he sat rigidly in his seat in the train. So the Holocaust weighed very heavily on him. He continued pretty much to hate all Germans for the rest of his life, in a somewhat irrational way that suggests how Jewish his core identity continued to be until his death at 95.
He might have said, “Well, I just don’t feel Jewish at all,” but of course the hole in his life suggested that the opposite was true.
The things that he did, like hosting Information Please—the hugely popular radio show that has such an iconic presence in J.D. Salinger’s Glass family stories—or editing the Encyclopædia Britannica, or being a critic at The New Yorker, seem like these iconic, aspirational, midcentury Jewish achievements, which at the same time also served as a very useful ladder for a larger class of upwardly mobile people.
Exactly. Including of course his early jaunts teaching in night school.
The iconic story of his intersection with anti-Semitism, and he had many such intersections, was when he was in graduate school at Columbia. In those days it was much more customary than it is now to do your undergraduate work, get your doctorate and then become a professor at the same institution. And his two closest friends, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, did exactly that.
So he finished his B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, but couldn’t afford his own key, one of his professors bought it for him, and he was en route to getting a Ph.D. when he’s called into the office of the chair of the English department, who tells him, “We have room for one Jew and it’s Mr. Trilling.”
Lionel was his best friend. Lionel was also a sort of more upper-crusty Jew than my father. His father, I think, had been a furrier. So he had a few more social graces, and probably had nicer clothes. Obviously, Lionel also turned out to be brilliant.
Today we might say, “OK, so he’s not going to get a job teaching at Columbia, so why don’t you just finish the doctoral program at Columbia and then go teach at CCNY?” But that wasn’t exactly how it was then. Nor was the prejudice at Columbia unique.
So my father just left. He didn’t even finish his master’s degree. That was it. And he never got over it. Never. He knew that the only thing that had prevented him from getting that job was that he was Jewish.
Lionel interestingly kind of envied him. My father was more famous and had more money. But I think that Lionel and Diana Trilling also, at the same time, thought my father had sold out a bit.
He was on the radio, for Christ’s sake.
Middlebrow pop culture. But in many ways each continued to envy the other, and they stayed close friends.
When I was in my last year in high school, my brother was a freshman at Harvard, and I flew out by myself and I stayed with my brother in his dorm to get interviewed at Radcliffe. It was the year that Lionel was the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer at Harvard, and so we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the Trillings’.
I remember Diana bringing out a pie that was supposed to have risen, and saying plaintively, “It’s flat,” and Lionel saying, “Stale and unprofitable as well, no doubt.” Quoting Shakespeare.
And it was just what would have happened in my family, because my father was always working a quote into the conversation and saying, “Source?” And then we were supposed to, I don’t know, say, “Hamlet, soliloquy such and such.”
Talk about this wonderful kingdom whose keys belonged to your father, and which was scorned by the Trillings, even as they baked pies—the land of middlebrow culture.
Middlebrow culture. You have to understand that, at all times, my father had several jobs going at once. He taught the great books in night school to longshoremen and stenographers after work. Then he got a job at Simon & Schuster, and then became the editor in chief of Simon & Schuster by the time he was 28, and then he became the book reviewer for The New Yorker, which at that time had one book reviewer. That was in his early 30s, so he did that for a decade. He was followed by Edmund Wilson. Then of course he had Information Please, which I think he started in his later 30s.
I’m sure you’ve read it, but there’s a wonderful invocation of Information Please in Roger Kahn’s great book The Boys of Summer. It’s this very Brooklyn Proustian scene of him seeing the colored maid in the bath, and this being the first awakening of his teenage whatever, and his shame at the facts of life—which include race. But then the aspirational part of him is glued to Information Please, which he shares with his father, a bond that is framed in such a way as to also suggest his budding awareness of some realm beyond a quiz show.
Wow. That’s great.
It’s a sort of marvelous few pages that has always stuck in my head, because it was so well done.
Well, Information Please—and you can listen to some of the episodes online—was very smart. And it’s hard to imagine how popular a show like that was. At its height, about a 10th of the population of the U.S. tuned in every Tuesday night. I was talking about this with my husband, and George said, “Well, find out how many people watched the final episode of Game of Thrones.” I believe that it was approximately a 20th of the populace. In other words, every Tuesday—
—continued the march of middlebrow, which became the target of endless snobby, self-regarding essays by Dwight MacDonald and whomever.
Believe me, I’ve read them all.
In a culture where a great leveling has taken place on both sides of the cultural divide, there’s something awesome about the idea of Middlebrow.
Middlebrow is sort of what we now call highbrow.
Right. Except it’s available to far fewer people—who are far less modest about their attainments, which aren’t really very great.
Exactly. When I read my father’s middlebrow book criticism, I would say on a sort of brow level, it’s maybe slightly more highbrow than the criticism that I used to publish when I was editing The American Scholar, which at least for anybody who has ever heard of it, is supposed to be a highbrow quarterly—though of course it’s much less highbrow than it used to be.
But for my father, being a popularizer meant that he could make money. He always wanted to make money, and his father’s repeated failures, the collapse of one drug store after another, was part of that. He was so desperately afraid of failing, something he’d gotten from his father.
I remember when my parents lived in Santa Barbara, they had a kind of long driveway going down to the street, and he just loved the moment when he knew that the mail would be there, walking down there, seeing what was there. I said, “Well, so what’s your favorite kind of letter to get?” And he said, “An envelope containing a check.”
It was a good way to make money, and he made a lot of money. I didn’t know I had them, but I found my father’s cellar books, that is the written records of all the wines that he had bought in his early years of collecting wine, soon after the repeal of Prohibition. I’m my father’s literary executor, so I have all these folders of his, but I hadn’t quite made it to the W’s, and also the wine memorabilia folder was sort of fat, because it had this actual book in it, so it had kind of subsided, and you couldn’t see the tab. When I found it, I just couldn’t believe it was there.
My father, the first time he made a purchase, he bought more than 900 bottles of wine. He bought 908 bottles. Some of the wines that he bought were Chateau Margaux ’29—’29 is a great year. So a case was $25. Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’28, one bottle was $1.75. My father’s had turned, and he brought it back and it was replaced by another bottle. Chateau Mouton Rothschild ’28, two bottles, $2.35 each.
My father didn’t own an apartment, he didn’t own a car, it was almost certainly the largest purchase he’d ever made in his life.
What do you think he was buying?
What do you think he was buying?
Two things. I think he genuinely loved wine, wine and books—those were his two things. More than almost any people.
But the other was class. He was buying class.
By the case.
Brooklyn is behind me.
I once wrote a long profile of a young hip-hop star, a rapper, for The New Yorker magazine. She was a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs in New Jersey, who went by the name Lady Luck, and she had called into the Hot 97 radio station and won the cipher, a kind of rhyme battle, three times, and wound up with a million-dollar contract from Def Jam Records.
In the course of reporting that story, I spent some time with the head of Def Jam and we got to know each other a little bit. So, one day we were waiting for a plane in an airport, and I said, “Kevin, I have a question for you. I know it’s hard, but is there any way that you can discourage the 16-year-old kids you are writing big checks to from buying $50,000 gold chains and paying cash for new cars? Because I don’t know that those are the best investments that these kids could be making, and some of them are never going to see money like this again. You can rent them cars and chains for videos. Can you explain to me why they need to buy this stuff?”
OK, what did he say?
He said, “David, you’re right. And we do provide our artists with accountants and financial advisers and everything, if they are open to it. But if you want to understand the chains, here’s how it works. You buy a chain if you can’t buy the car. You buy the car if you can’t buy the house.” And he went down the list, or up the list, and he said “so what someone’s actually advertising is where they are on the ladder, and telling you the thing that they don’t have—and which they fear that they will never have, because they come from places where nobody has any of that.”
And I was like, “OK, I understand this better now.”
That’s fascinating. Well, in my father’s case, that analogy is both true and not true, because the 900 bottles of wine, which he kept in the wine store, wasn’t a placeholder for the next thing. It was in many ways the thing itself, like books. He had about 6,000 books during the time that I knew him. These were not just symbols, they were things that he really, really loved. He certainly loved his library and his wine bottles much more than the houses and cars that he eventually bought.
One of my friends, the writer Cullen Murphy, told me that when he was growing up, he always imagined that my father was a sort of Mayflower descendant, because of his amazingly patrician voice. And Fadiman, which was my family’s actual name, not a sort of Anglicized version, is ethnically ambiguous. It could be anything. So, he managed to, in his opinion, hoodwink a lot of people, but he never felt it was real.
At bottom, in all of his dreams, and in the things that he thought about as an old man when he had insomnia, lying in bed, he felt that he was that 7-year-old little Jewish kid in Brooklyn who would never speak English well.
Now, his mother died before I was born. But his father lived until I was 10, and he lived only a couple of hours from where we were until I was 8. I met him once. Meanwhile, we saw my grandmother on my mother’s side all the time when we were living in New Canaan and she was in New York.
My Jewish grandfather was like the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre, you know? He was completely hidden from view, because my father, I feel certain, was ashamed of him for sounding and acting and dressing and being who he was.
How do you feel your own relation to the Jewish—I don’t even know what to call it. People? Trope? Culture? Ethnos? You know, Jews.
The Jews, yeah.
Do you think, “Those are Jews, and I have a distant familial relation to them,” or, “Jews are interesting,” or, “I myself am Jewish, in some way,” or “My father was one of them, and I see them through him.” Who are they to you?
Yeah. I definitely don’t feel as if I am one of them. I’m not sure whether Jews feel exotic to me, though.
I feel half-Jewish. It’s not an accident that the first man that I fell in love with, whom I loved for many years, my college boyfriend, still a friend of mine, was half-Jewish just like me. His name was Lars Engle. I don’t think I ever sort of put two and two together when we were falling in love. “Oh yeah, you’re half Jewish just like me.” It was just, “This feels familiar.”
It’s not as if WASPs, like the man I ultimately married, feel like “This is me.” They don’t feel completely unfamiliar to me, but the half-Jews, the sort of secular half-Jews, whatever it is, they give off the pheromones that make me feel, “OK, there’s somebody like me.”
But I do think that the sort of internal anti-Semitism that my father and so many secular Jews of his generation developed as a kind of barricade against the much stronger and more toxic anti-Semitism that surrounded them was sort of passed down to Kim and me a little.
I remember in my early teens, going on a YMCA camping trip, which some Jewish girls had been invited on as a sort of ecumenical gesture. It wasn’t that I felt that I was like the Christian YMCA people. Agnostic rationalism was the religion in our family. So the Jesus-y Christians seemed peculiar to me too.
I became quite close to one of the Jewish girls. I remember being invited to her house for dinner and thinking, “This food is really ‘other.’” There was this noodle kugel. It was sort of like, is this a main course? Is this a dessert? It’s savory but it’s sweet. It has raisins. Huh.
I remember the only Jewish foods that I really liked, I loved lox, which my father also loved—although he’d sort of upgraded it to Nova Scotia smoked salmon, but nonetheless. I loved matzo ball soup, and still love matzo ball soup, which I’m sure my father would never have touched. But it’s interesting that at the very end of his life, when he was dying of pancreatic cancer and could hardly eat anything, the foods that he loved were Jewish foods that I had FedExed from Barney Greengrass, sturgeon and smoked salmon. Metaphorically, gastronomically, he was back in Brooklyn.
Now my brother Kim and I don’t look identifiably anything. We don’t look particularly Jewish, whereas my older half-brother does. And Kim and I were recently talking about this, and about the many ways that, through our father, we did seem Jewish. We love to debate things talmudically. I think the whole way we think, sorting things out hierarchically. Trying to defend points of view by debating tiny little points.
Worshiping books! It’s so Jewish. And we got that through our father, but without realizing that it was Jewish.
That is one of the reasons why the people who seem like me are half-Jews. Agnostic half-Jews. I just sort of think to myself … there’s another one.
One of my good friends is Joyce Maynard, who now is a 66-year-old junior at Yale. Like me, she is a half-Jew. We were both born in 1953, we’re both writers, and we’re unalike in many ways but alike in many. Her half-Jewishness, I just sort of feel, “I get you, Joyce. I get you.”
I think half-Jewishness is deeply American in a way that Jewishness itself is not—because of the Hebraicism of the Pilgrims, and then the Founding Fathers themselves, and the particular English political sources they were using. So, in my view, there’s a Jewish component to the American DNA that’s unique to America, and is simply not there in countries like England or France or Argentina. But it’s not Jewishness. It’s half-Jewishness. And having that Jewish part intensified in some way does something particular here that it doesn’t do in European countries, where I know plenty of people who are technically “half-Jewish,” except the surrounding society is like, “You’re Jewish, then.”
Another reason I think that, at least when I was a child and teenager, I felt very un-Jewish was that I had been kept away from Jews. Not only from my Jewish grandfather, but also I’d been sent to schools where there were very few Jews. In the school that I went to from seventh to 12th grade, so for my formative years, in my class of 60 at Marlborough [School in Los Angeles], we had one-and-a-half Jews, with me being the half.
Of course, then I got to Harvard, there were plenty. Then I think I started to identify considerably more closely with at least being half Jewish. When I wrote The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and started to think about those, shaking dirt off the roots, it was at that point that I realized what I’d missed, but it didn’t seem as if I could really recapture it, especially because I’d married a WASP.
So I just felt that there was a hole in my life, not only a religious hole but an ethnic hole. Really on both sides of my family. It was as if it was Cambodia Year Zero, but especially with my father. At least on my mother’s side, she talked a lot with great amusement about her Mormon ancestors, and I felt connected, although it was always, “Gosh the things that they believe, weren’t those ridiculous?” Whereas my father, he literally did not know the first names of his grandparents.
It was as if all the things that are worthwhile and beautiful in the world come from a branch of Western civilization that I am not descended from, so why exert any energy to connect with what I am descended from?
Also, it’s dangerous for me to be connected to that lineage.
Dangerous. That’s what prevented me from teaching at Columbia. So let’s think about the great books and the great works of art and music of the Western world. He had no interest in Asia, he had no interest in Latin America, he had no interest in Africa. He loved—
They constructed a completely secularized cultural version of Judaism.
That’s exactly right.
That had been scrubbed clean of any taint—
But that still had some recognizable cultural form to it. There’s a canon of books. Then there are the interpreters of the books.
His work as a literary critic is so talmudic. But of course that’s not how I saw it. He wanted my brother and me to seem as un-Jewish as possible. It was like a super version of the Correct English Club. And if he sent us to the right private schools and if our mother bought us the right clothes, nobody would know.
There’s this really shocking thing that he said when I was interviewing him in 1984 for the 80th-birthday puff piece I wrote about him for Life, those tapes being where The Wine Lovers Daughter eventually came from, that I thought, he couldn’t possibly have said it, I’ve exaggerated it in my memory, it must have been milder. And I listened to the tapes and he says it. He told me that he would prefer that I not mention that he was Jewish.
I said, “What?” And he said, and this is a direct verbatim quote that I taped. “If I had no legs and you wrote a piece about me, I would prefer you write about me as a man.”
And I said to him, on tape, “I don’t feel that being a Jew is equivalent to having no legs.” And he felt I was just saying that. He felt also that it would bring me down, as if somehow he assumed that I’d been concealing from all my friends and boyfriends over the years that I was a half-Jew. It was one of the most shocking things. In fact, I really can’t remember a more shocking thing he ever said.
But it makes you understand that these two halves of him. The unhappy failure, always craving, never getting, was the Jewish wolf. You just know that Wally is a WASP, you know. Bertram the bookworm was an upper-class well-educated Brit. I always thought of Bertram as having gone to Eton. Even though he had all the love of words and so on that I associate with Jewish learning now. I do think in my father’s head there was Wolfenstein, and then there was Bertram.
It’s a beautiful ending to the interview. Thank you, Anne.
Perfect. But anyway, don’t you love Wolfenstein?
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David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.