Charles Van Doren, EB Editorial Vice President

Van Doren, Charles portrait1962 was also a watershed year for Adler’s young friend and acolyte Charles Van Doren. He was the son of Mark Van Doren, a noted poet, and Dorothy Van Doren, a novelist, and after an extensive education had embarked on a career teaching English at Columbia University.

Mark and Dorothy Van Doren with son Charles

However, all came a cropper in 1962 when Van Doren received a suspended sentence following his conviction in New York State for perjury in the investigation into the fixed television game shows of the late 1950s.

As a sign that he was looking to the future, Van Doren published a scholarly article, “The Idea of an Encyclopedia,” in The American Behavioral Scientist that same year. In the article, Van Doren argued that American encyclopedias should no longer be mere compilations of facts (a criticism of the 14th Edition). He said they should educate, as well as inform. He also argued against encyclopedias that classified information in artificial pigeonholes reflecting university politics, and spoke in favor of celebrating the natural interrelatedness of man’s knowledge:

“It takes a brave man to master more than one discipline nowadays; bravery is not totally absent from our society, and so heroes can be found. But the man who attempts to find the principals which underlie two or more disciplines is considered not brave, but mad or subversive. Those whom graduate schools have put asunder, let no man join together!”

Van Doren’s article on encyclopedic form was influential enough to be selected for inclusion along with Vannevar Bush’s 1945 Atlantic Monthly essay, in the 1967 compilation, The Growth of Knowledge: Readings on Organization and Retrieval of Information. This book also took note of the theoretical work being done in automated text retrieval by Gerald Salton of the Department of Computer Science at Cornell.

When Adler moved back to Chicago to join Britannica in 1962, it is not surprising that he quickly found a place for the would-be encyclopedist Van Doren.

Van Doren was a son of Adler’s old Columbia University teaching colleague and friend, poet Mark Van Doren, and Adler had known him since birth.

As Charles Van Doren put it when he spoke at a 2001 memorial service at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago following Adler’s death at age 98:

“And then 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. It was the best kind of job: As he described it, one you would do anyway if you did not need the money. First we worked together making books for Encyclopædia Britannica. Then I, and many others, helped him to design and edit the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever seen.”

The source of Van Doren’s infamy permeated the rest of his life, including his career as an editor at Britannica. At the same time I joined Britannica as General Counsel in 1986, Peter Norton succeeded Chuck Swanson as President of the company. When I once asked Norton about Van Doren’s time at EB, he said a few

times he had heard a mean spirited person hum under their breath Dum, Dum, DUM! Dum, Dum, DUM! when Van Doren entered a room. This was the sound of the drums heard on Twenty-One when Van Doren had been struggling with an answer.

Charles Van Doren and Herb Stemple

Dum, Dum, DUM! Dum, Dum, DUM!

The appearance of Van Doren at his mentor Adler’s memorial service was a rare public outing. In the 45 years since his 1956 elevation as the new champion of the rigged TV game show Twenty-One, he had avoided the limelight with the exception of his 1959 Congressional testimony before the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight. His later career writing books

with Adler and as Editorial Vice President of Britannica was notably out of the public eye. He had retired from EB in 1982, four years before I arrived.

Charles Van Doren

Charles Van Doren at his retirement party with EB librarians Terry Miller and Shanta Uddin 1981

As Executive Vice President of Britannica as well as General Counsel, from time to time I managed a number of relationships with the partners around the world who were publishing translations of the Encyclopaedia Britannica into different languages. Usually this was when something in the relationship was going terribly wrong. So, when I began dealing with a copyright infringement of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Greek, I dove into the files to read the correspondence and contractual underpinnings of EB’s relationship with our Greek licensee. What I found was that I was walking in Van Doren’s footsteps. In the 1970s he had negotiated and concluded a very complicated agreement that had substantially benefitted both EB and its licensee over the intervening years.

Greek Language Britannica Set

With this background in mind, after Adler’s service I had a chance to chat with Van Doren. As I had also worked with Adler over the years, I told him I thought he had captured the man nicely in his remarks. When I told him that the Greek language version of the Britannica he had nurtured was still going strong, his eyes lit up as he briefly and enthusiastically spoke about his EB career.

Apart from his comments about Adler, he was rarely heard from in all the years following his humiliating confession before Congress in 1959. One exception was when he made remarks at his 50th Reunion at Columbia University in 1999. At that time he said:

“Some of you read with me forty years ago a portion of Aristotle’s Ethics, a selection of passages that describe his idea of happiness. You may not remember too well. I remember better, because, despite the abrupt caesura in my academic career that occurred in 1959, I have gone on teaching the humanities almost continually to students of all kinds and ages. In case you don’t remember, then, I remind you that according to Aristotle happiness is not a feeling or sensation but instead is the quality of a whole life. The emphasis is on “whole,” a life from beginning to end. Especially the end. The last part, the part you’re now approaching, was for Aristotle the most important for happiness. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Van Doren died in 2019 in a Connecticut Retirement Community at the age of 93.

Bill Bowe