Joseph Epstein Essay - Critical Essays

Epstein, Joseph

Introduction

Joseph Epstein 1937-

(Has also written under pseudonym Aristides) American essayist, nonfiction and short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Epstein's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 39.

Epstein is widely regarded as one of America's premier essayists. Critics view him as the leading American practitioner of the familiar essay, a genre that focuses on contemporary and everyday topics explored in an easygoing, conversational style. His literary essays, which assess authors and the state of literature and language, are also esteemed by critics. Epstein's essays, praised as literary achievements, are characterized by an erudite, entertaining, and urbane manner.

Biographical Information

Epstein was born in Chicago on January 9, 1937. He grew up in a lower-middle-class family, and often experienced anti-Semitism during his childhood. His attitudes toward social class and religious identity are recurring themes in his work. He received his A.B. from the University of Chicago in 1959. His first book of nonfiction, Divorced in America, was published in 1974. He was a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002 and editor of the magazine American Scholar from 1975 to 1997. During his time at American Scholar, he wrote a column on various subjects; the columns were collected as Familiar Territory (1979). He also edited The Norton Book of Personal Essays and is a regular contributor to Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper's, New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. In 1989 he was awarded a Heartland Prize for Partial Payments (1989), a collection of literary essays. Epstein published his first book of short stories, The Goldin Boys, in 1991. He is a trustee of the Hudson Institute, a think tank focused on social issues. In 1998 he won the Harold Washington Literary Award for the most prominent man or woman of letters in the city of Chicago. Epstein resides in Evanston, Illinois.

Major Works

Epstein is best known for his familiar essays, which explore everyday issues in an informal, neighborly voice. His first collection, Familiar Territory, received critical praise for an easygoing tone, impressive scholarship, and balanced judgment. Later collections of his familiar essays—The Middle of My Tether (1983), Once More Around the Block (1987), A Line Out for a Walk (1991), With My Trousers Rolled (1995), and Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999)—present Epstein's musings on a variety of commonplace subjects: food, exercise, aging, religion, language, family, relationships, intimacy, fashion, and his love of books. Politics figures prominently in these works, as reviewers note that his conservative viewpoint influences his perspective on many issues. Another recurring topic in these essays is his Jewish identity and his love for the city of Chicago. He also comments on a diverse group of pop-culture figures in his work, such as TV anchor Walter Cronkite, influential movie reviewer Pauline Kael, artist Andy Warhol, director and actor Woody Allen, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Epstein has published several collections of essays that focus on writers and their works. Such books as Plausible Prejudices (1985), Partial Payments, Pertinent Players (1993), and Life Sentences (1997) are viewed less as academic criticism and more as an examination of the moral character of the authors. In these essays, Epstein aims to revisit and rehabilitate the work of neglected or misunderstood writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, John R. Tunis, George Santayana, and Somerset Maugham, and offer appreciations of his favorites. He also deflates the reputation of writers he believes are overrated, such as Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Ann Beattie. Epstein has also written long works of nonfiction that focus on single subjects. His first nonfiction book, Divorced in America, presents a plethora of information on divorce from a male perspective: an analysis of divorce, alimony, and child custody laws; the emotional and psychological repercussions of divorce; and reflections on his own painful separation and eventual divorce. In Ambition (1980), Epstein sets out to defend ambition as imperative to the progress of mankind and as the lifeblood of society. To reinforce this, he reflects on related topics such as the definition of success, the decline of high society, the stigma of failure, and the role of money in ambition and success. He also detects an antagonism to ambition in American literature, and traces this hostility though the works of Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Snobbery (2002) sets out to define and characterize the American version of snobbery, catalogs a list of snobbish behavior, and explores Epstein's own intellectual pretensions. His latest work, Envy (2003), investigates the origins of envy and offers various perspectives—psychological, religious, and philosophical—on the concept. Epstein has also written two volumes of short stories, both of which contain autobiographical elements. The first, The Goldin Boys, is a collection of nine stories that chronicle the adventures of similar protagonists: almost all are middle-aged, upper-middle-class, Jewish, male Chicagoans. In his latest short story collection, Fabulous Small Jews (2003), a group of elderly urban Jewish men in Chicago struggle with aging and mortality, family relationships, and intimacy.

Critical Reception

Epstein has been widely praised for his essays, which are thought to adeptly combine scholarship and autobiography. Critics laud his work as highly entertaining and readable, genial and urbane, and clear and persuasive. They also underscore his sharp humor and his impressive range of knowledge and interests. Some view Epstein as a neglected author, finding that his work does not attract the critical attention it deserves. However, commentators argue that he exhibits inconsistent logic in some of his arguments, such as his definition of snobbery and his defense of ambition, and note his reliance on gossip and name-dropping in his essays. Some critics regard his work as old-fashioned and discuss the ways that his political conservatism has influenced his writings. His work has been compared to that of William Hazlitt, H. L. Mencken, Randall Jarrell, and most frequently the renowned essayist Michel de Montaigne.

Principal Works

Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (nonfiction) 1974; also published as Divorce: The American Experience

Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (essays and lectures) 1979

Ambition: The Secret Passion (nonfiction) 1980

The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (essays) 1983

Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (essays) 1985

Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (essays) 1987

Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (essays) 1989

The Goldin Boys: Stories (short stories) 1991

A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays (essays) 1991

Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life (essays) 1993

With My Trousers Rolled (essays) 1995

Life Sentences: Literary Essays (essays) 1997

The Norton Book of Personal Essays [editor] (essays) 1997

Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (essays) 1999

Snobbery: The American Version (essays) 2002

Envy (essays) 2003

Fabulous Small Jews: Stories (short stories) 2003

Criticism

Sonya Rudikoff (review date 30 June 1974)

SOURCE: Rudikoff, Sonya. “‘Most Detestable of All Permitted Things.’” Washington Post Book World no. 207 (30 June 1974): 1.

[In the following favorable assessment of Divorced in America, Rudikoff asserts that Epstein's “really useful contribution is not to be found in the albeit interesting amalgam of fact and discussion about divorce, but rather in the running autobiographical commentary which threads through this vast subject.”]

If you know a man who is about to be divorced, be sure he reads this book [Divorced in America]. It includes, of course, the usual information and review of the subject: the analysis of divorce law, custody and...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

William L. O'Neill (review date September 1974)

SOURCE: O'Neill, William L. “Divorce Trauma.” Progressive 38, no. 9 (September 1974): 57-58.

[In the following mixed review, O'Neill finds Divorced in America valuable, but contends that it is also reactionary, nostalgic, and ultimately unsatisfying.]

Every man considering a divorce should be required by law to read Divorced in America. In this book a sensitive, intelligent writer describes at length not only how painful and destructive his own divorce was, but how ghastly divorces in general are. Since Joseph Epstein had an exceptionally easy divorce (his wife of ten years did not ask for custody of their children or for anything except a car and a...

(The entire section is 894 words.)

Angela Huth (review date 12 April 1975)

SOURCE: Huth, Angela. “Breaking Up.” Spectator (12 April 1975): 438.

[In the following review, Huth compares the experience of divorce in America and England and deems Divorce a sober and monotonous book.]

In 1915 an élite little band of 1,050 British married couples braced themselves for the unfamiliar ceremony of divorce. But no area is safe from inflation and in 1972 while some 480,000 people swore, in the act of marriage, to stick together for better or worse, 124,000 others, who had not reckoned how bad the worse could be, went through with the opposing celebration of divorce. Which leads one to conclude that divorce is now established as a booming...

(The entire section is 1269 words.)

Charles Fenyvesi (review date 10 November 1979)

SOURCE: Fenyvesi, Charles. Review of Familiar Territory, by Joseph Epstein. New Republic 181, no. 19 (10 November 1979): 37-8.

[In the following review, Fenyvesi provides a positive assessment of Familiar Territory.]

Joseph Epstein is a leading American practitioner of the vanishing craft of the familiar essay—a genre best defined by Klee's explanation of his art: “I take a line out for a walk.”

But the metaphor need not be taken literally. Essay writers are known for their sedentary habits, and it should come as no surprise that Epstein reserves his sharpest invective for joggers: “… it is the virtuousness of runners that...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

James Wolcott (review date 24 January 1981)

SOURCE: Wolcott, James. “Son of Making It.New Republic 184, no. 4 (24 January 1981): 34-6.

[In the following review, Wolcott maintains that Epstein's argument in Ambition is weak and repetitious.]

With Ambition, Joseph Epstein has taken the bicycle pump out of the garage and blown up an essay-length topic into an air-bloated tome of nearly 300 pages. Epstein, who contributes peppery, against-the-grain essays to the American Scholar, Commentary, and Harper's, enjoys playing the bookish crank, blowing smoke rings in the face of liberal piety. He now has set out to rehabilitate ambition's reputation, which he feels has become...

(The entire section is 1646 words.)

Barry Gewen (review date 9 February 1981)

SOURCE: Gewen, Barry. “A Craftsman Turned Booster.” New Leader 64, no. 3 (9 February 1981): 15-16.

[In the following review, Gewen finds Ambition “ultimately diffuse, unconvincing and, worst of all, irritating.”]

In the world of small literary magazines and high ideas, Joseph Epstein, editor of the American Scholar and a former associate editor of The New Leader, has made a name for himself as a sane and skillful essayist on cultural affairs. His stance is reliably temperate, his conclusions are thoughtful and well-balanced, his style is modest, crystalline and often graced with a dry wit. He eschews flashiness and attention-getting for the...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)

Stephen Miller (review date April 1981)

SOURCE: Miller, Stephen. “The Fuel of Achievement.” Commentary 71, no. 4 (April 1981): 79-82.

[In the following review, Miller views Ambition as a clear and persuasive defense of commercial ambition.]

Like a Hindu god, ambition takes many forms—some distasteful, others attractive, some dangerous, others benign. Shakespeare depicted ambition in all its variety: the destructive ambition of Iago, the disciplined ambition of Prince Hal, the ludicrous ambition of Caliban, the “vaulting ambition” of Macbeth. Of Macbeth, Samuel Johnson said that in it “the danger of ambition is well described,” yet he also told Boswell that “ambition is a noble...

(The entire section is 1673 words.)

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 3 July 1981)

SOURCE: Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Dirty Little Soporific.” Commonweal 108, no. 13 (3 July 1981): 408-10.

[In the following review, Elshtain considers Ambition hackneyed and disappointing.]

This [Ambition] is a strange book. Epstein means to resurrect ‘ambition’ from the bad name it currently holds. Sadly, he observes, “To say of a young man or woman that he or she is ambitious is no longer, as it once was, a clear compliment. Rather the reverse. A person called ambitious is likely to arouse anxiety, for in our day anyone so called is thought to be threatening, possibly a trifle neurotic.” So we've got a bad conscience about ambition. We assume...

(The entire section is 1528 words.)

Robert Sherrill (review date 9 October 1983)

SOURCE: Sherrill, Robert. Review of The Middle of My Tether, by Joseph Epstein. Washington Post Book World 13, no. 41 (9 October 1983): 4.

[In the following review, Sherrill views The Middle of My Tether as an entertaining book.]

When an editor of Playboy decided against using Joseph Epstein as a contributor, Epstein concluded that Playboy had no use for “a body of useful or curious information, or the spectacle of an idiosyncratic and perhaps interesting mind at work.” That, especially the second half, is an excellent description of what you get here. The Middle of My Tether is so entertaining it has caused me to squander a lot...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Russell Jacoby (review date 19 November 1983)

SOURCE: Jacoby, Russell. “Is ‘Aristides’ Just?” Nation 237, no. 16 (19 November 1983): 489-91.

[In the following review, Jacoby discusses Epstein as a political and familiar essayist and argues that the “political essays on culture” collected in The Middle of My Tether are often successful.]

Joseph Epstein may be the most engaging and least noticed essayist on American life and manners today. For ten years he has edited The American Scholar, contributing a graceful, wry and personal essay to each issue under the pen name “Aristides.” With deft vignettes and literary allusions he has ruminated on fountain pens and jogging, on human faces...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)

David Bromwich (review date 8 June 1987)

SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “A Regular Joe.” New Republic 196, no. 23 (8 June 1987): 45-8.

[In the following review, Bromwich describes Epstein as an “easy-chair” essayist and outlines the defining characteristics of the pieces included in Once More Around the Block.]

If only the author liked himself a good deal less, these essays [in Once More Around the Block] would be likable enough. But he won't wait for your approval, and gives it himself by proxy: “Among the assets I tote up as my own: a wife I adore, work that keeps me perpetually interested, good friends, good health, and (thus far along) supreme good luck.” That, in an essay on why he likes...

(The entire section is 2468 words.)

Colin Welch (review date 7 November 1987)

SOURCE: Welch, Colin. “Not Sammy Davis, Les Dawson.” Spectator 259, no. 8312 (7 November 1987): 41-2.

[In the following review, Welch commends Epstein as a perceptive, thoughtful, and humorous essayist.]

It is Joseph Epstein's contention, in a hilarious essay called ‘They Said You Was High Class’, that Robert Lowell's distinguished ‘WASP’ genealogy must have helped him as a poet. His ancestors' close acquaintance with the Cabots and, through them, with God, gave him the confidence to tackle any idea or theme, seriously. To prove his point, Mr Epstein asks:

What if Lowell's poem, ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle...

(The entire section is 1451 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “More News from Mr. Epstein's Neighborhood.” Virginia Quarterly Review 64, no. 2 (spring 1988): 342-48.

[In the following review, Pinsker delineates the scope of Epstein's essays in Once More Around the Block and finds his pose as a “regular guy” to be an affectation.]

Mr. Epstein likes to think of the pieces he publishes first in American Scholar (a journal he edits) and then between hard covers as “familiar essays,” and that, of course, is his privilege. But this is a case where one buys one's subtitle at a certain cost. After all, the very term “familiar essay” has a dusty ring about it, one that would harken...

(The entire section is 2536 words.)

Michael Dirda (review date 29 January 1989)

SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. “The Pleasure of Their Company.” Washington Post Book World 19, no. 5 (29 January 1989): 4.

[In the following review, Dirda views the essays in Partial Payments as Epstein's successful attempts to “discover and estimate the moral character of authors” rather than offering literary criticism of their work.]

Among literary entertainers now at work Joseph Epstein may be the all-around best. V. S. Pritchett has read more fiction and Gore Vidal brings in bigger crowds, John Simon can be wittier and Anthony Burgess more encyclopedic, but Epstein can hold his own, and then some, with these better known stars of letters.

...

(The entire section is 1110 words.)

Carol Iannone (review date 21 April 1989)

SOURCE: Iannone, Carol. “Payment in Full.” National Review 41, no. 7 (21 April 1989): 46-7.

[In the following review, Iannone contends that in Partial Payments, Epstein strives to deflate inflated literary reputations and “to uncover genuine achievements that have been overlooked or undervalued, or looked at and valued for the wrong reasons.”]

Nowadays, while critics in the professional arena indulge in feverish overestimation, those in the academy busy themselves with the deconstruction of all literary value whatsoever. Meanwhile, a precious handful of writers—among whom Joseph Epstein is surely the foremost—are engaged in what might be called the...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)

T. J. Binyon (review date 13-19 October 1989)

SOURCE: Binyon, T. J. “Problems of Identification.” Times Literary Supplement (13-19 October 1989): 1134.

[In the following review, Binyon asserts that charm and humor infuse the essays in Partial Payments and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the collection.]

Joseph Epstein begins this collection of literary pieces [Partial Payments], written between 1980 and 1988, with a statement of his critical position. He is, he says, an old-fashioned critic, who uses “literary criticism as an occasion … for literary portraiture”: only an examination of a writer's life can throw light on some of the questions we might wish to ask about his or her...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

George Core (review date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Core, George. “Vessels of Consciousness.” Hudson Review 42, no. 4 (winter 1990): 692-96.

[In the following positive review, Core lauds the essays in Partial Payments as perceptive and engaging and regards Epstein as “one of our finest critics as well as a cultural commentator of great perceptiveness and subtlety.”]

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete: it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web … suspended in the chamber of consciousness.

I never see the leading interest of any human hazard but in a consciousness (on the part of the...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)

Edmund Fuller (review date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Fuller, Edmund. “Paid in Full.” Sewanee Review 98, no. 1 (winter 1990): ii-iv.

[In the following review, Fuller argues that in Partial Payments Epstein succeeds in rehabilitating the works of several important authors.]

In introducing these nineteen essays [in Partial Payments], Joseph Epstein prefers not to describe himself as a literary critic, though admitting he is practicing as such. “I continue to think of myself as someone who is essentially a reader—a man who takes a deep pleasure in good books, and views reading as a fine mode of acquiring experience, and who still brings the highest expectations to what he reads.”

...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Jeffrey Hart (review date 12 August 1991)

SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “The Metropolitan Spirit.” National Review 43, no. 14 (12 August 1991): 52-3.

[In the following positive review of A Line Out for a Walk, Hart compares the essays of Epstein and Michel de Montaigne, creator of the personal essay genre.]

Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar and a professor at Northwestern University, is a very able literary critic in the tradition of Edmund Wilson, and he is a master of the genre of the familiar essay. In the latter role, of which A Line Out for a Walk provides excellent examples, those familiar with his work do not blink when he is compared with Hazlitt, Lamb, or even Montaigne....

(The entire section is 508 words.)

George Garrett (review date 13 October 1991)

SOURCE: Garrett, George. “Chicago Stories.” Chicago Tribune Books (13 October 1991): 6-7.

[In the following laudatory review, Garrett identifies the unifying aspects of the stories in The Goldin Boys.]

When a writer of earned reputation in one field tests that talent within a different form—poet writes novel, novelist writes play, playwright does a movie—we tend to be skeptical, wondering how much professional skill will be transferable and if the level of performance will be comparable. Will we have to make allowances? Will the master of one craft become a clumsy apprentice at another?

Northwestern English professor, respected editor of...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Craig Collins (review date March 1992)

SOURCE: Collins, Craig. “Barbs and Bards.” Reason 23, no. 10 (March 1992): 55-7.

[In the following review, Collins perceives Epstein as a worthy successor to H. L. Mencken and provides a mixed assessment of A Line Out for a Walk.]

No contemporary essayist quite fills the void left by H. L. Mencken. None is so thoroughly atheistic when it comes to political orthodoxies.

The American Spectator's Bob Tyrell comes close, but he speaks to an intellectual audience. Mencken spoke more to the “motormen's wives.” P. J. O'Rourke can be hilarious, but he sometimes sacrifices common sense for humor, which Mencken would never do. To truly satisfy a...

(The entire section is 1361 words.)

Thomas Filbin (review date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Joseph Epstein's Pantheon.” Hudson Review 47, no. 1 (spring 1994): 123-26.

[In the following review, Filbin delineates the defining characteristics of the essays in Pertinent Players and commends Epstein's approach to literature, finding it timeless and earnest.]

Once upon a time the literary essay was a creature as likely to be found in the sitting rooms of the generally read as in the studies of professors. It was a short, discursive work on a subject, writer, or book which treated life and letters as necessarily bound together, rather than separate and distinct.

The literary essay today is more commonly a theory...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. Review of With My Trousers Rolled, by Joseph Epstein. Georgia Review 49, no. 4 (winter 1995): 967-71.

[In the following review, Pinsker discusses Epstein's strengths as a familiar essayist.]

Am I the only person who finds himself in the middle of a Joseph Epstein essay convinced, absolutely convinced, that I have written—or at the very least, lived—many of its paragraphs myself? I suspect not. If you have the sinking feeling that things in general are sinking; if you find yourself increasingly exasperated by psychobabble or coinages that end in -ize; if you harbor the deep suspicion that what was seems better,...

(The entire section is 2235 words.)

Penelope Mesic (review date 28 May 1995)

SOURCE: Mesic, Penelope. “The Heat and the Intimacy.” Chicago Tribune Books (28 May 1995): 3.

[In the following review, Mesic contrasts Barbara Ehrenreich's essay collection The Snarling Citizen with Epstein's With My Trousers Rolled.]

Other than a review, these two collections of essays by Joseph Epstein [With My Trousers Rolled] and Barbara Ehrenreich [The Snarling Citizen] deserve something more closely resembling a National Geographic Special. For no team of Sherpa-led climbers or divers finning through the crannies of a coral reef, ever discovered more diverse or improbable life forms thriving in a single culture. Well-adapted to the hot,...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)

Rex Roberts (review date 5 June 1995)

SOURCE: Roberts, Rex. Review of With My Trousers Rolled, by Joseph Epstein. Insight on the News 11, no. 22 (5 June 1995): 25.

[In the following review, Roberts offers a mixed assessment of With My Trousers Rolled.]

As one of the premier practitioners of the “familiar essay,” Joseph Epstein has achieved a certain celebrity, although he protests any such status; without doubt, he is well-known in literary and academic circles as editor of the American Scholar, the quarterly review of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and as a contributor to Commentary and other journals. Possessing, as he says, “a naturally conservative temperament”—a scion of Chicago's...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

Michael Dirda (review date 23 July 1995)

SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. “First Person Singular.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 30 (23 July 1995): 3.

[In the following excerpted review, Dirda commends stylistic aspects of the essays in With My Trousers Rolled.]

Essays, nowadays, nearly always come disguised as something else. They may be reviews of books or introductions to them; magazine articles or newspaper columns; literary travel pieces, personal memoirs, New Yorker profiles or “casuals”; even some of the more old-fashioned forms of cultural criticism. At heart most of this occasional writing secretly aspires to the permanence of hardcovers—and to a subtitle that proclaims “selected...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date autumn 1995)

SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Reading Joseph Epstein.” Hudson Review 48, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 493-98.

[In the following review, Pritchard places Epstein's work within the literary context of the familiar essay and finds With My Trousers Rolled very readable.]

In early 1975 Joseph Epstein became editor of The American Scholar, and, with his second issue, began to write a quarterly column under the name “Aristides.” Aristides informed us that he would comment “from time to time … on matters of cultural and intellectual interest,” also that he was in no way related to that Aristides whom the citizens of Athens, tired of hearing him referred to...

(The entire section is 2852 words.)

George Thomas (review date November 1995)

SOURCE: Thomas, George. “A Good Man to Have Around.” Quadrant 39, no. 11 (November 1995): 82-3.

[In the following review, Thomas elucidates the major themes of the essays in With My Trousers Rolled.]

As the title's reference to Eliot's Prufrock suggests, Joseph Epstein [With My Trousers Rolled] has begun to think more of mortality, his and others'. References to ageing recur in these essays, not so morbidly that one wants to say, “Get a grip on yourself, you sprightly fifty-seven-year-old!” but often enough to constitute an occasionally disconcerting theme and to make one wonder why, given Epstein's usually irrepressible good humour.

...

(The entire section is 1183 words.)

P. J. Kavanagh (review date 7 March 1998)

SOURCE: Kavanagh, P. J. “Coming Up Smarter.” Spectator 280, no. 8848 (7 March 1998): 37.

[In the following review, Kavanagh offers a stylistic overview of the essays in Life Sentences, contending that Epstein's seriousness about his literary subjects gives his essays depth.]

The civilised literary causerie is not dead, it is not even out of fashion. It is alive and kicking in the pages of the New Yorker. Every once in a while Joseph Epstein contributes to that magazine a piece on some author who has tickled his fancy: from Montaigne to Joseph Conrad, to Ken Tynan—the tickle can come from anywhere (or prickle, he doesn't like everybody)—and,...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Literary Culture and Its Watchdogs.” Georgia Review 52, no. 1 (spring 1998): 130-41.

[In the following excerpted review, Pinsker contends that in Life Sentences Epstein discusses his subjects with complexity, sophistication, and compassion.]

Joseph Epstein's Life Sentences: Literary Essays gives cultural rumination a very different face. If I suspect that Geoffrey Hartman is hardly a reader, closet or otherwise, of middlebrow books, I am sure that Epstein is not—and my evidence for this assumption is the nineteen essays he has cobbled into his latest collection. If Radway admits that she has always had trouble being the...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 15 July 1999)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Conversations with a Good, Smart Friend.” Christian Science Monitor 91, no. 160 (15 July 1999): 21.

[In the following review, Rubin suggests that reading the essays collected in Narcissus Leaves the Pool is like having a conversation with a good friend, due to their “directness, ease, sincerity, and affability.”]

It might be said that the primary purpose of a diary is to allow us to talk to ourselves, though many a would-be Pepys has imagined his or her pages admiringly perused by readers of a future age. The main purpose of a letter is to communicate with a specific recipient, though many of us have doubtless found ourselves in...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Susan Balée (review date autumn 1999)

SOURCE: Balée, Susan. “Sexy Wits.” Hudson Review 52, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 517-20.

[In the following review, Balée offers a laudatory assessment of Epstein's essays in Narcissus Leaves the Pool, praising him as “one of America's best living essayists.”]

To our bodies we are bound. They ground us and, in the end, they grind us down. Joseph Epstein begins his latest collection of essays, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, contemplating his naked, sixty-year-old bod in a bathroom mirror. What he sees—drooping buttocks, wrinkly red elbows, superfluous sacs of skin—depresses him. Even Narcissus, he tells us, “had he grown well into middle age … would...

(The entire section is 1929 words.)

William F. Buckley, Jr. (review date September 2002)

SOURCE: Buckley, Jr., William F. “Who's He?” New Criterion 21, no. 1 (September 2002): 67-71.

[In the following review, Buckley offers a favorable review of Snobbery, focusing on Epstein's name-dropping as well as the autobiographical nature of the book.]

Joseph Epstein's new book about snobbery [Snobbery] ends up being a book about Joseph Epstein, which is perfectly okay—provided one is Joseph Epstein. Another's book about snobbery, displaying the author's biography, his likes and dislikes, suspicions, affections, affectations, crotchets, would not guarantee against a reader's strayed attention. There isn't the slightest risk of this happening upon...

(The entire section is 2268 words.)

Digby Anderson (review date 2 September 2002)

SOURCE: Anderson, Digby. “Not Our Kind, Dear.” National Review 54, no. 16 (2 September 2002): 43-4.

[In the following unfavorable review, Anderson faults Snobbery as flawed and unamusing.]

They are thorough chaps, the staff at National Review. Before they sent me this book [Snobbery] for review, they telephoned, asked if I might be interested, and sent me details so I could decide. I did not need details. Who would not want to review a book on snobbery? I even got quite excited waiting for it to arrive. At last we would have a full-length defense of snobbery. That's obviously what it would be, and about time too. Why obviously a defense? For...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)

S. T. Karnick (review date September-October 2002)

SOURCE: Karnick, S. T. “Feeling Superior: Looking Down Is the Best Revenge.” American Spectator 35, no. 5 (September-October 2002): 70-2.

[In the following review, Karnick discusses the subject matter of Snobbery, finding Epstein's argument flawed in some areas.]

There is no learning experience quite so delightful and memorable as the discovery of another person's flaws. That is probably what makes snobbery such a fundamental constituent of human relations. As essayist Joseph Epstein notes in his new book Snobbery: The American Version, the essence of snobbism is in “arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.”...

(The entire section is 1077 words.)

Lee Congdon (review date October 2002)

SOURCE: Congdon, Lee. “The Greatest of These Is Love.” World and I 17, no. 10 (October 2002): 228-32.

[In the following review, Congdon elucidates Epstein's approach to the concept of snobbery as found in his Snobbery.]

For a while in the late 1960s, I worked in Chicago as a (lowly) writer for Encyclopaedia Britannica. At the time, Joseph Epstein was one of the senior editors. Although I never had occasion to get to know him in his official capacity, I did sometimes run into him in the library or on the way out of the Michigan Avenue building where the company maintained its offices. I wonder if you are not—just a little bit—impressed? In two sentences,...

(The entire section is 2529 words.)

Andrew Stark (review date 25 October 2002)

SOURCE: Stark, Andrew. “Ungifted and Unbeautiful.” Times Literary Supplement (25 October 2002): 10.

[In the following review, Stark explores the concept of snobbery as presented in Snobbery, concluding that the “book is too hard on snobbery.”]

“What is wrong with snobbery?” the political theorist Judith Shklar once asked; and in Joseph Epstein's Snobbery: The American Version, an answer emerges. The snob violates the Golden Rule. He seeks from his social superiors treatment that he refuses to accord his social inferiors. Truckling for warm “acceptance from those above him”, Epstein writes, the snob cuttingly “reject[s] those below”....

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

George Thomas (review date January-February 2003)

SOURCE: Thomas, George. “Bungling on Side in America.” Quadrant 47, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 117-19.

[In the following review, Thomas compares the American version of snobbery presented in Snobbery with the British and Australian versions.]

Snobbery in Britain, particularly in southern England, is well documented. There are books about it (of which Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige is probably the classic), it is the driving force of most of the television situation comedy from Steptoe and Son through Fawlty Towers to Keeping Up Appearances, and magazines like the Spectator continue to both observe and exemplify it. It...

(The entire section is 1549 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 2003)

SOURCE: Review of Fabulous Small Jews, by Joseph Epstein. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 10 (15 May 2003): 699.

[In the following mixed review, the anonymous critic views Fabulous Small Jews as “Epstein's most successful foray into fiction yet.”]

Their turf [in Fabulous Small Jews] is Chicago, and their characters are middle-aged to elderly urban Jews bedeviled by waning or vanished physical and mental powers and the further debilitating spectacle of encroaching mortality. Visions of Bellow's loquacious hustlers and Singer's morose, sardonic retirees dance through the reader's head in such generously detailed stories as “Felix Emeritus,” about a...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Marshall Fishwick (review date June 2004)

SOURCE: Fishwick, Marshall. Review of Envy, by Joseph Epstein. Journal of American Culture 27, no. 2 (June 2004): 235-38.

[In the following review, Fishwick considers Envy fascinating and thought-provoking.]

We are all fascinated with age-old sins, especially the Seven Deadlies (envy, pride, gluttony, greed, anger, sloth, and lust). We both struggle against them and celebrate with them. They never go away. Joseph Epstein tells us why.

His fascinating, thought-provoking book [Envy] centers on what might be the most pervasive of the seven sins: envy. It invades the other six, and much of our lives, only envy is no fun at all. To err...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 June 2003)

SOURCE: Review of Fabulous Small Jews, by Joseph Epstein. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 25 (23 June 2003): 46.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable assessment of Fabulous Small Jews.]

Switching gears after his nonfiction hit, Snobbery, Epstein has compiled a collection of short stories [Fabulous Small Jews] as thoughtful and arresting as its title (from a poem by Karl Shapiro). Whether they are in a nursing home, recovering from the loss of a spouse of 50 years, or looking back at marriages, shortcomings or missed opportunities, Epstein's characters are quirky, witty, resentful, fearful and cautiously hopeful as they face...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Doris L. Eder (essay date 2005)

SOURCE: Eder, Doris L. “Joseph Epstein: Combating Gross National Ennui.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism 204, edited by Jeffrey William Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005.

[In the following essay, Eder examines Epstein's career as a literary critic.]

INTRODUCTION: AN INTELLECTUAL LIFE

Joseph Epstein is an impressive and surely the most entertaining American literary critic writing today. Born in Chicago on January 9, 1937, he is one of two sons of Maurice and Belle (Abrams) Epstein. He was educated at Nicholas Senn High School on Chicago's North Side. After briefly attending the University of Illinois at...

(The entire section is 3530 words.)