Author Archives: Stan Deaton

Face Down in the Mud, A Life Redeemed

Charles Van Doren (right) with his father Mark

Charles Van Doren, who died April 9 at age 93, will forever be known as the man at the center of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, the subject of the 1994 motion picture Quiz Show. Humiliated and ostracized when the truth emerged that Van Doren and other contestants of the brainy shows had been supplied the answers beforehand, Van Doren spent the rest of his life atoning for his betrayal of the public’s trust in a way that seems unimaginable now.

As Bret Stephens reminds us, the whole notion of “shame,” and in particular public shame, has radically changed over the course of the last 60 years. These days celebrities caught lying disappear from the public eye briefly and then reappear 6 months later for a teary “apology” interview and a lucrative tell-all memoir.

For Van Doren, his shame brought pariah-like status for the rest of his life, much of it self-imposed. Long after most of the world stopped caring about his sins, he still did. He declined to appear on camera talking about his mistakes, and 35 years after his appearance on “Twenty-One” he turned down an offer to be a consultant for the movie, refusing to profit from his lies. Who in the world would do that now? Not until 50 years after the scandal did he write about it.

Van Doren made amends in a more remarkable way, the only way that he knew how: by writing books about literature and the life of the mind.  Before appearing on “Twenty-One,” Van Doren had been a literature professor at Columbia University, like his father Mark before him. After the scandal broke, his nascent academic career in ruins, Van Doren accepted an offer from family friend Mortimer Adler and went to work for Encyclopedia Britannica at its Chicago offices.

It was a gesture, one friend said, “that saved Charlie’s life.” Van Doren acknowledged it at Adler’s funeral in 2001: “There came the time when I fell down, face down in the mud, and he picked me up, brushed me off, and gave me a job.” Van Doren labored in relative obscurity for 20 years at Britannica, editing articles and contributing reviews to The Great Ideas Today, an annual companion volume to EB’s Great Books of the Western World.

In 1972, Van Doren co-wrote with Adler the completely revised and updated addition of Adler’s 1940 masterpiece, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, which has never gone out of print. The book’s title has lent itself to jokes through the years, but as Clifton Fadiman pointed out, Van Doren and Adler don’t teach us “how to decipher words. That is merely a useful trick, just slightly above the capacity of a chimpanzee.” What this book teaches is how to read “books of some weight and density, into which went hard mental work and out which comes real mental change. Such reading involves a complex, often intense activity, not the passive reception of the author’s message. The result is not ‘finishing the book’ but starting something in the readers’ mind.”

A decade later Van Doren wrote in the 1983 edition of The Great Ideas Today a brilliant appreciation and review of Fernand Braudel’s pathbreaking The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. It deserved a far wider audience than it received.

Charles Van Doren wrote many other books, and they are delightful to read. Pick up his 1991 volume, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, which covers everything from Ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to AIDs and the computer revolution, and you’ll find many examples of gems like this one: “I have not met its author, but I have engaged Professor Berman in many silent conversations in the watches of the night.” Here is a sentiment every reader can share.

The Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works, first published in 1985 and revised in 2008, is even better. “Reading is my favorite thing to do,” he declares (that line was enough to hook me), and through a literary feast that doubles as a history of literature he proves it, writing knowledgeably and lovingly of books and authors from Homer to Harry Potter. It was Van Doren in this book who steered me toward Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer’s two great epics.

Unfortunately, Van Doren’s literary work received short shrift in the obituaries that appeared last week following his death, as I’m sure he always knew it would. He had no illusion about the fact that he would always be remembered for his part in one of the great shams of 20th-century popular culture.

But Charles Van Doren deserves more than to be remembered for his worst moment. His legacy is not to be found in the bad judgment of a 32-year-old who appeared on a long-forgotten TV show. Van Doren left something far more valuable: After falling face down in the mud, he spent his remaining 60+ years teaching and writing, hoping to inspire others to share his love of words, ideas, and books. His was the dignified example of a shamed man who made a very public mistake and thereafter lived a quiet life of redemption, a good and honorable and worthy life that should be remembered in its totality.

Van Doren wrote in his review of Braudel’s masterpiece, “It is a great historian who, when old, still is capable of making such an effort for the truth. And it is a great man who confesses the mistake that drove him to undertake it.”

It’s clear now that Charles Van Doren was writing about himself. May he rest in peace and his words–and example–live on.

What I’m Reading Now: April 3, 2019

Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams, 2018, 405 pp.)

Fred Rogers as a child was bullied, chased home from school, and taunted as “Fat Freddy.” An only child, he sought refuge in the attic of his parents’ home, where he created his own world with puppets that he made. Why, he wondered, couldn’t the other kids see past his outward appearance to find out what he was really like? His parents and grandparents told him to “let on that you don’t care” how the other kids treated him. This would disarm them and show his indifference. He later wondered, “I didn’t have any friends and yet I was supposed to act like that didn’t bother me?” Children, he thought, deserved better than that.

Many years later, in his office at Pittsburgh’s WQED, where he and others produced his famous television show, Mister Rogers kept a framed plaque: “What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye.” It’s not what we see of other people–their face, their weight, their hair or clothes–that truly matter, but what’s inside them. It was a mantra that he lived by his entire life, shaped through the trauma of his own childhood, the love of parents and grandparents who instilled a lasting sense of service to others, and a strong Presbyterian faith.

Like many people of my generation, I watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” nearly every day when I was little, and I loved it. I was fascinated by the Neighborhood of Make Believe and wanted desperately to visit it, to see King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Aberlin, on whom I lavished my first crush. Having my own puppets and later my own line of comics (written, drawn, and edited by yours truly), I spent a great deal of time in my own Neighborhood of Make Believe.

(Sidebar: The OCD part of me always worried that he wouldn’t get his sweater on and his sneakers tied before he came to the end of the opening song. Little did I know, till I read this book, that his musicians were right there on set with him and could time the song to his actions. Whew.)

The other thing I learned from Mister Rogers besides the power of imagination was that it was okay to be just who I was, inside and out. It didn’t matter the color, gender, or religion of his viewer, he wanted you as his neighbor. A powerful message then and now.

With the publication of this book, coinciding with the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and the upcoming bio-pic You Are My Friend starring Tom Hanks, Fred Rogers is more relevant than ever. Fifteen years after his death we seemingly need him again, with civility, kindness and tolerance stretched to the breaking point in our fractured and dysfunctional society. The simple lessons that he taught and lived are more potent and necessary with each passing day.

To be sure, he had his faults. Mister Rogers could be petulant at times when he didn’t get his way and was baffled as to how to raise his own two boys once they reached adolescence (his wife Joanne discovered their marijuana stash growing in the basement). But that only helps to humanize a man who would otherwise seem too Christ-like to be real. Still, despite these all-too-human foibles, he was, according to those who met him in person, very much the man he appeared to be on TV–authentic, caring, and always, always, kind.

He also had an unexpected sense of humor. One of my favorite stories in the book was when Fred Rogers and his wife were picked up at the airport and during the drive to the next destination, on a cold and rainy night, the car ran out of gas. The driver had to flag down a passing State Trooper, who put the Rogers and their belongings in his car. The driver groaned and asked Mr. Rogers, “what would Lady Elaine [one of the show’s puppets] say in this situation?” Out of the darkness he heard Rogers in Lady Elaine’s voice reply, “She’d probably say, ‘Oh shit!'”

I find it difficult to read about Fred Rogers–or to watch him–without channeling his behavior. And that’s not a bad thing. To wit: while reading this book, I drove to work one morning, and in my haste to get through a stop sign to secure a scarce parking spot, I failed to look both ways and almost ran into an older man who was crossing the street from my right. I suddenly saw him out of the corner of my eye and could hear him yelling at me through the car window.

I slammed on the brakes and he crossed behind me. As he came around the car, his face flush with anger, I rolled my window down.

Pre-Fred-Rogers Stan, impatient and late for work, at this point might have called this fellow a name that would have implied that his parents weren’t married. But I could hear Mister Rogers’ voice in my head: “There are three ways to accomplish success: first, be kind; second, be kind, third, be kind.” 

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I didn’t see you.” He wasn’t expecting that. “Well,” he barked and sputtered, “look both ways next time, okay?”

In as friendly a voice as I could muster, with nary a hint of sarcasm, I replied, “Yes sir, I sure will. I’m awfully sorry.” He looked perplexed and turned on his heel and walked off.

Fred Rogers believed, as his biographer so eloquently puts it, that human kindness will always make life better. Such a simple lesson, but one that struggles to be heard through the noise and anger of modern society.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”

Need inspiration? Pick up this book, watch the above-mentioned documentary, or simply go online and watch a few of his shows.

Then pick up his standard and carry it forward. It’s not too late to make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

What I’m Reading Now: September 4, 2018

No Irish Exit, Just a Temporary Farewell

Last November, I attended a GHS historical marker dedication for former Savannah mayor Malcolm Maclean and afterwards an attendee approached and pulled me aside. Could she kindly make a suggestion? Of course, I replied, bracing for what might be next.

To my surprise, her suggestion was about my blog. Being somewhat technologically challenged, as she put it, she requested more written content and less of my podcast. Podcasts were all well and good, but she missed the essays about history and books and hoped that I’d get back to those.

I thought about her request when I started this column nearly six months ago, intending to see if I could meet the demands of a weekly deadline while at the same time having fun writing about whatever I was reading. The idea came last spring while perusing through back issues of the Saturday Review of Literature, the venerable weekly that was published between 1924 and 1971 that carried a similar essay.

My goal was to keep it short—less than 500 words—and to devote no more than an hour to writing it every week. Alas, I almost always exceeded the word limit and sometimes felt like the preacher Abraham Lincoln famously told a story about. He could have written shorter sermons, the parson confessed, but once he started writing he was too lazy to stop. The truth is, despite what you may believe, it’s much harder and takes more discipline to write 500 words about something you’re interested in than it is to write 1,000. But since I set the rules for this blog, I saw no problem in occasionally breaking them. You, dear reader, were the one who had to pay the price. I also usually spent more than the allotted time, but it was always and always fun.

Why, you ask, am I telling you all of this? This marks my 25th offering over nearly six months, and with this entry, “What I’m Reading Now” will go on a temporary sabbatical to make way for the second season of Off the Deaton Path podcasts. This will no doubt be a great relief to many long-suffering readers who will be spared this weekly agony, while horrifying others who dread the prospect of hearing my voice. Just remember, you’ve been warned.

My other goal here was to see if I could pass along even a fraction of the great passion I have for the printed word and the singular joy that comes from reading a good book. If I’ve succeeded in doing either of those things—even for just one person—then mission accomplished. We’ll lift a glass and declare victory. To quote my old friend Mr. Pickwick: “If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm.”

I hope the column will appear intermittently over the next six months as time and other duties allow. To everyone who took a moment to read a few words or who provided feedback, I hope you’ll stay for the podcast and come back for more next spring.

To one and all, a heartfelt and sincere Thank You.

What I’m Reading Now: August 21, 1018

John Ferling, Apostles of Revolution: Jefferson, Paine, Monroe, and the Struggle Against the Old Order in America and Europe (Bloomsbury, 2018, 478 pp.)

Among historians writing about the era of the American Revolution, David McCullough, Joseph J. Ellis, Gordon Wood, and Ron Chernow have received the lion’s share of attention in the public arena over the last 20 years. None has been as prolific as John Ferling, however, and none, with the possible exception of Wood, has written for a popular audience with more scholarly erudition.

I first met John Ferling in 2000 when he was still teaching full time at what is now the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. He came to Savannah to speak at the Georgia Historical Society about his new book, Setting the World Ablaze:  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press), a prosopography of those three Revolutionary stalwarts. Despite teaching full-time, John had already written acclaimed biographies of Washington and Adams, as well as four other books on Early America.

After our first meeting in 2000, John would go on to write eight more books on the Revolutionary era over the next 18 years: A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford, 2003); Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Oxford, 2004, a volume in the “Pivotal Moments in American History” series); Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford, 2007); The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon (Bloomsbury, 2009); Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free (Bloomsbury, 2011); Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013); Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury, 2015), and his latest.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about John’s ability to plow the same ground without saying the same thing. His latest entry remarkably achieves the same goal in that this is the fourth book he’s written with Jefferson’s name in the title, yet he still has new things to say about him. Here Jefferson is foremost among three “apostles of revolution” who sought real and radical changes in the political, social, and economic structure of America and Europe in the last decades of the 18th century and early years of the next.

Thomas Paine to my mind is the most fascinating of the three but also the one whose inner life is most difficult to penetrate. Despite being the subject of several biographies, he is still a somewhat shadowy figure who remains on the historical margins. Paine was something—to use a word from our own day—of a slacker. He never kept gainful employment for very long, and he moved frequently between cities and countries. He is best known, of course, for his writing, and some of it still has the power to electrify. A couple of years ago I read his Age of Reason, an open attack on revealed religion and came away amazed at his intellectual bravery. It would take guts to write that book now, much less in 1795.

Monroe is the most problematic member of this book’s triumvirate, both in terms of his historical and intellectual heft. He’s always seemed something of a lightweight when compared to his historical contemporaries. Ferling certainly gives him a well-deserved spotlight, but the jury is still out on whether he has elevated Monroe’s stature among the leaders of Revolutionary word and deed in the Early Republic. It brings to mind something I read recently about Irving Brant, the author of a monumental 6-volume biography of James Madison, published between 1941 and 1961. Brant wanted to prove that Madison had been unfairly overlooked as one of the mainline founders. When the project was completed, reviewers gave it high praise for its thoroughness, but one critic said that it was so thorough that, instead of rescuing Madison from the Founding B-team, Brant had inadvertently proven that Madison was in fact quite rightly at home among the second-tier.

This caveat aside, John Ferling has once again given those of us who can’t get enough of the original “Greatest Generation” another literary feast—and this won’t be his last. I have it on good authority that he’s already written the first draft of his next book.

Is it too early to pre-order?

What I’m Reading Now: August 14, 2018

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962, Penguin Books, 277 pp.)

John Steinbeck is considered to be one of the foremost authors of the 20th century, keeping company with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Most of us make our first (and perhaps only) contact with Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men (1937) in high school, or in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for which he won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In 1962 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, though many thought his best work was decades behind him. He died in New York five days before Christmas in 1968, nearly 50 years ago, at age 66.

Long before “On the Road” with Charles Kuralt, and three years following Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, Steinbeck set out in the fall of 1960 to re-connect with America and its people. Having lived and worked for so long in New York, he felt he’d lost touch with “real” Americans.

In order to travel anonymously as much as possible so that people would talk freely with him, Steinbeck bought a three-quarter-ton pickup truck, had a camper built for its bed, christened it “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s famous steed, and set out on the highway with his French poodle Charley on a trek that took him from Maine to California. The camper kept him from signing hotel registers, and he claims never to have been recognized by sight.

Along the way he met and talked with ordinary people, slept in Rocinante under the stars and found that the America of his youth and that he had always believed in was still out there. He visited New Hampshire farmers and Yellowstone National Park, always with Charley as his faithful companion: “It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?”

He published the results in 1962 as a work of non-fiction, and critics raved that it was his best work in years. It’s great fun to read, and you can still see the truck and Rocinante at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

But is it really non-fiction? A few years ago a dedicated researcher uncovered that most of it wasn’t, that Steinbeck slept many nights not in Rocinante but in luxury hotels, that the characters and dialogue were largely fiction, and that not only Charley but also his wife Elaine accompanied him much of the way.

This may all be true, but I’m not sure it really matters. What Steinbeck describes—and what he claims that he found universally among the people he met along the way—is a longing and a desire to get away from where we are, to go elsewhere, to be somewhere, anywhere, rather than where we are. “They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.”

That still seems as true now—for us an individuals and maybe for the country as a whole—as when Steinbeck wrote it nearly 60 years ago. Even as I read, I fell into the trap of thinking that the early 1960s seemed preferable to the times in which we live, that Steinbeck’s America wasn’t filled with hyper-wired know-it-alls who are divided hopelessly into partisan tribes.

But of course I know better. The past always looks seductively more understandable and simple than our own times, just as another geographic space seems to offer more or less, depending on what you want, than where we stand now.

Travels with Charley—be it fiction or non-fiction—confirms that humans as individuals and as nations are universally restless and unsatisfied, that we always want to go someplace else—in time and/or space—that promises either to bring something back that’s missing or to offer a more fulfilling life than the one we live now. Isn’t this why I play the lottery every week?

As Steinbeck wrote and acknowledged himself, “our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.”