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Clifton Fadiman, 80, Loves Language for the Pun of It

March 24, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

"Between Ugug and Einstein stretches a long line of intellectuals, great and small, able to supply nothing but ideas. These ideas, however, make everything else possible--including attacks on intellectuals, for these very attacks depend on a series of ideas dreamed up by such visionaries as the inventors of the alphabet or those 19th-Century lunatics who worked out the equations that have made radio and television possible. In a way the rest of us, no matter how industrious or transiently used, are parasites living luxuriously on the work of a handful of superior minds."

A Lover of Puns

Fadiman also is a lover of puns, which he calls "the rhymes that try men's souls." In an essay, "Small Excellencies," he noted: "In 'Animal Crackers,' Groucho Marx recalled that when shooting elephants in Africa he found the tusks very difficult to remove--adding, however, that in Alabama the Tuscaloosa. To the contrapuntalist such a statement is quite irrelevant; to the propunent it is pleasing because it shows what language can produce under pressure, in this case showing both the marks of strain and the strain of Marx."

Fadiman continued: "Once on the television show 'This is Show Business,' George S. Kaufman got himself mired in the word euphemism. After playing with it for a few seconds he turned to his fellow panelist Sam Levenson, declared, 'Euphemism and I'm for youse'm,' and closed the discussion."

Fadiman's interests in language and letters have few boundaries. He has studied children's literature for many years, and on his regular cross-country flights to Book of the Month Club meetings he occasionally sparks curiosity among onlookers by absorbing himself in the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter, "Aesop's Fables" or "Grimm's Fairy Tales."

Fadiman is singularly proud of a major piece he wrote for the Encyclopedia Britannica on the history of children's literature. To prepare himself for the task, Fadiman in his 70s learned to read Spanish, Swedish, Italian and Dutch; he was already versed in German and French.

Readers of the Britannica entry may well glimpse between the lines an image of Fadiman 75 years ago, holding a book at eye-level as he walked the streets to and from the library. Noting that children's literature is set off from the literary mainstream by the nature of its audience, Fadiman wrote: "It is often read, especially by pre-12-year-olds, in a manner suggesting trance, distinct from that of adult reading. Universally diffused among literate peoples, it offers a rich array of genres, types, and themes, some resembling grown-up progenitors, many peculiar to itself."

Glancing back over his lifetime of odd jobs in language, Fadiman told a visitor recently: "The first time I read words it seemed like magic. It still does."

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