Eugenia Thornton Silver, Literary Critic and Friend of Literature, 1916–1992


True book lovers have always perceived television as a cross between a cyclops and a vampire—a one-eyed monster ready to suck the lifeblood from all who foolishly wander within range of its evil glare. Yet one night a week for a decade, beginning in the mid-1960s, even the most ardent tube-haters were silenced in households all over Greater Cleveland.

If it was Tuesday, it had to be time for Eugenia.

Eugenia Thornton Silver hosted the TV program that bore her name—a unique concoction that held the attention and won the devotion of book aficionados throughout the viewing area of WVIZ, Cleveland's public broadcasting station. Already Cleveland's best-known lobbyist for literature, defender of drama, prophetess of poetry and champion of the well-chosen word, Eugenia had for years shared her love of books with readers of The Plain Dealer as a regular reviewer and with more intimate audiences of like-minded devotees in book discussion groups all over town. But long before Oprah or C-SPAN's weekend book programming took to the airwaves, Eugenia accepted an offer to use television as a platform from which to turn the rest of us into bibliophiles, too.

Books were her first love. She surrounded herself with them, carried them with her constantly, turned to them for inspiration, enlightenment, amusement and comfort. Her greatest gift was an ability to transmit her passion to others, to point us toward a novel we may never have heard of or a new biography she thought we should explore. On television, alone in front of the camera, sitting erect but exuding an easy charm, she mesmerized us with her insights, her opinions and most of all with her enthusiasm. Her voice could descend to the baritone or rise to the soprano as the spirit moved her, while all the while she led her viewers toward a new appreciation of the particular subject she was exploring at the moment.

“It was great,” she said some years later when speaking of her show. “I ran barefoot through all my favorite authors.”

Born in Chicago in 1916, she grew up in Kinsman, Ohio, and intermittently attended Lake Erie and Hiram colleges. Although she never graduated from a university, her reading was so vast that she could more than hold her own with professors with advanced degrees. For 20 years, starting immediately after World War II, she led discussion groups on the Great Books of the Western World series in various suburban Cleveland settings. And to talk intelligently about the classics of Western history, philosophy and literature meant that first she had to read them all.

Eugenia produced hundreds of book reviews for The Plain Dealer and for national newspaper syndicates until her retirement in 1982. Her insights and—again—her enthusiasm came through so clearly that many of her reviews were excerpted on the dust jackets of books she had praised. She appeared around town frequently as a lecturer on books and literature, produced a book review segment for Cleveland's classical music station, WCLV-FM, for decades and worked closely with Friends of the Cleveland Public Library to support one of the city's most valuable but often most overlooked cultural assets. At her death in 1992, her 4,000-volume personal collection of books was auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the Friends.

It was hard to be unmoved by Eugenia's unabashed love for writing. For the well-constructed novel or finely executed turn of phrase she was never shy in showing appreciation. Of the second-rate, the cheap or the vulgar she was unforgiving, dismissing them with a disdain worthy of her role as Cleveland's grande dame of belles-lettres. She communicated her passion in the same medium she so adored: words. And we read or listened to those words with as much pleasure as she took in offering them.

—Mark Gottlieb

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •