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Though His Work Is Purely Derivative, Cliff Hillegass Is Still America's Most Noted Publisher

updated 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As you learned in freshman English, things aren't always what they seem. "People " like Betty Crocker and Uncle Ben never really existed; they were simply invented by buck-hungry admen. Therefore you've probably come to the conclusion that there is no "Cliff" behind Cliffs Notes. Wrong. His full name is Cliff Hillegass, and in the 25 years since he created America's study guide industry almost single-handedly, he has produced 50 million of those distinctive yellow-and-black pamphlets. His writers and editors have rendered more than 130 works of literature into simplified, highly condensed form. Everything from Hamlet to The Brothers Karamazov to Frankenstein has been given Cliff's famous Summary/ Commentary treatment. Now it's his turn.

ACT I

Summary: Cliff is born in 1918 in Rising City, Nebr. (pop. 472). His parents live on a farm. Through books, he broadens his experience, and by 16 he has read his way through both the high school and public libraries. He finds himself "always grunging around bookstores."

Commentary: Does Cliff have a passion for books, or does he have a problem? Compare with your own relationship to Ms. Pac-Man.

ACT II

Summary: In 1937 Cliff graduates from Nebraska's Midland Lutheran College with a B.S. in physics and math. He marries his campus sweetheart, Catherine McDonald, and finds employment in a bookstore, but World War II and the Army Air Corps intervene.

Commentary: War is just a temporary obstacle. Like Oedipus Rex, Cliff must play out his fate. That fate is to help America's high school and college students cram, write term papers, and just plain fake it when their social lives have been too hectic to read all 1,000-plus pages of War and Peace.

ACT III

Summary: After the war Cliff is hired by the Nebraska Book Co. His job is to crisscross the country, buying and selling used college texts. "A glorified junk business," he jokes. In 1958 he encounters Kismet in the form of Jack Cole—a Canadian publisher with a full line of study guides running from algebra to zoology. Cliff smells a winner. He and Cole enter into a royalty agreement. Cliff continues to work for the Nebraska Book Co., while his wife and kids operate the Notes business out of the family basement in Lincoln, Nebr. Cliff himself designs the pamphlets' eye-catching yellow-and-black cover—a beacon to students nearly blinded by all-nighters.

Sometimes the poetry gets lost in the condensation process. The first line of Moby-Dick ("Call me Ishmael") comes out "Ishmael, the narrator..." in Cliffs-notese. Less is sometimes more when it comes to deciding who actually writes the pamphlets. "Someone involved in 20 years of teaching Shakespeare," notes Cliff, "often has too specialized a knowledge. Eventually we found that the best Notes were written by graduate students."

Commentary: And you thought graduate students served no real purpose.

ACT IV

Summary: In 1964 sales reach $1 million, and the company moves from the basement to a converted supermarket in Lincoln. By this time Monarch Press and Study Masters, Cliff's major competitors, have entered the market. Cliff and Catherine are divorced in 1967; he marries secretary Mary Ebel a year later. Sales reach a peak of 2.8 million in 1969 and then begin a precipitous drop, bottoming out at 1.8 million in 1975.

Commentary: Hillegass and general manager Dick Spellman blame the slump in sales on the "revolution" in education. "Suddenly we had Pass/ Fail courses," gripes Spellman, "and students weren't interested in grades anymore."

ACT V

Summary: Cliff weeds the perennial losers (Concerning the Principles of Morals and Phaedra, for example) from his list and adds winners like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Business picks up again. This year Cliffs Notes will gross more than $4 million with 213 titles in print. Cliff himself is semiretired now, but he still reads five books a week. He and wife Mary live in a four-bedroom ranch house in Lincoln. To relax, she does crossword puzzles; he, of course, reads. Cliff reads anything—although not always with pleasure. He abhors, for instance, James Joyce's complex masterpiece Ulysses. "You know," he complains, "I never felt I understood that novel."

Commentary: Not even with Cliffs Notes?

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