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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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 alimony problems, property settlements, visitation rights and all the rest. These matters are dealt with elsewhere, however, and with greater precision or historical dimension than Joseph Epstein seems interested in. His 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.
Addressing the reader in the second person singular—the intimate “you”—Epstein presents situations of real feeling and immediacy in sequence. How “you” felt when the marriage began to fray, how the alienation and separation followed, how the divorce lawyer proceeded, how your friends acted...
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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 few thousand dollars), the harm done him by it is all the more impressive. Epstein has given a great deal of thought to his own experience, which is recounted here in detail, and has read widely in the literature of divorce. The result is a mixture of scholarship and autobiography which argues strongly that divorce remains a traumatic and socially undesirable institution. If for no other reason, then, this grim, depressing book is worthwhile as a warning to those who think that because so many are now doing it, divorce must be easy.
As a general introduction to the subject of divorce, however, Epstein's book is deficient in several ways. For one thing, it is a book written for men. Epstein tries to be fair to women,...
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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 British way of life, an escape route with which, unhappily, we are all too familiar. It is the unquestionable norm to be surrounded by people who have either been through it, are going through it, or are, at least—if only as the wildest fancy—contemplating it. So I was surprised to find Joseph Epstein's book Divorce had been given the sub-title ‘The American Experience.’ “Divorce is a subject,” he writes in his preface, “rich in chaos, squalor and mean feeling,” and there he goes hugging the insalubrious subject with some jealousy to his American bosom.
In three hundred and eighteen pages of his ruminations upon the rich squalor, I could find only one difference between the American ‘experience’ and...
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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 appalls.” I myself have always imagined the great William Hazlitt descanting on life and letters from a fine leather armchair and with a bottle of good port within reach. The inimitable Max Beerbohm ever appears to me as holding court at high tea, and G. K. Chesterton's wit must have been its deadliest when challenged by debating partners around a well-supplied dinner table.
Epstein, a professor at Northwestern University, fell into the habit of writing a column of “opinions, speculations, or oddly angled views” after his appointment, in 1974, as editor of the American Scholar, the journal of Phi Beta Kappa. Gathered in this slim volume [Familiar Territory], his columns reveal a man of exemplary sobriety,...
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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 tattered and soiled in recent years. Lefties, intellectuals, novelists, Naderish do-gooders, hookah-toking dropouts—all have made ambition seem suspect. Under their influence, ambition no longer is seen as “the fuel of achievement” but as a Nixonian itch, a desire to have one's ruthless way in the world even if it means planting knives into the backs of boyhood chums. This Epstein finds distressing. “[W]hatever its excesses, ambition has at all times been the passion that best releases the energies that make civilization possible.”
No quarrel there, and no quarrel with Epstein's concern that Americans are becoming half paralyzed with gloom, lethargy, a lack of belief in the future. But the rest of his argument seems...
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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 care of the craftsman, and his writing is gratifyingly free of special pleading. That these all too easily overlooked or underpraised virtues are to be cherished becomes clear when one reflects on how few authors and critics possess them. In an overwrought age, mere common sense may be enough to mark off a school; if so, George Orwell is the school's modern master and Epstein one of its most dedicated adherents.
It therefore comes as a surprise to find that Epstein's Ambition: The Secret Passion is in its presentation, argument and even its National Enquirer-like title, almost wholly at odds with the attentive, patient workmanship we have come to expect of him. His thesis is that ambition is fast...
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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 passion.” He himself, although he wrote “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” a poem that pours cold water on ambition, was a decidedly ambitious man who consorted with a group of ambitious men: Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, Adam Smith, Richard Sheridan, and of course Boswell. And then there is the extraordinary drive of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, whose “immensely ambitious” writing plan (as he refers to it in The Oak and the Calf) has been to chronicle “the dying wishes of the millions whose last whisper, last moan, had been cut short on some hut floor in some prison camp.”
A look at the varied landscape of ambition makes it clear that to say someone is ambitious is to say very...
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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 that behind the achievements of ambition lie “vanity, greed, the will to power.” Ambition is said to “bring out the worst in the people,” to be “antisocial … insatiable … corrupting … leaves only victims, renders men mad … or pathetically broken.” How did we reach this sorry impasse? Epstein aims to set matters straight and, along the way, to chide the bad-mouthers of ambition who run our country down.
The book's title promises much. It titillates us with the notion of a passion—a secret passion at that. Passions are a force majeure, at odds with utilitarian calculations of marginal utility. Passions will out; they have their own furious raison d'être. If ambition is such a thing Epstein...
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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 of time lately, phoning friends to read snippets from it. Such as:
From his essay on vulgarity: “Barbara Walters seems to me vulgar because for a great many years now she has been paid to ask all the vulgar questions, and she seems to do it with such cheerfulness, such competence, such amiable insincerity. ‘What did you think when you first heard your husband had been killed?’ she will ask, just the right hush in her voice. … The questions that people with imagination do not need to ask, the questions that people with good hearts know they have no right to ask, these questions and others Barbara Walters can be depended upon to ask. ‘Tell me, Holy Father, have you never regretted not having children of your...
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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 and boutiques. He collected some of those essays in Familiar Territory, and now presents us with another batch [in The Middle of My Tether]. Many are gems. If his name does not spark recognition, it is because he keeps a low profile, paying no heed to headlines or Yale literary theorists, quietly monitoring the daily life of the urban intellectual.
Yet there are two Joseph Epsteins. “Ten years ago,” he wrote in “The New Conservatives: Intellectuals in Retreat,” published in Dissent in 1973, “who could have predicted the rise of a new conservatism in American life?” Ten years ago, who could have predicted that Epstein would join the retreat? In 1983, Epstein addressed a conference of the...
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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 where he lives. In another, on secondhand books, he finds a moment to recall: “I like what I do at present.” (Don't expect him to open a secondhand-book shop.) “Not,” he adds in an essay on superior athletes, “that I am displeased with being what I am—a man, that is, marked by the possession of general culture.”
Now and then his assurance falters a bit: “In middle age, I remain an intellectual groupie.” So he still goes to lectures by world-class eminences, just to catch the action; but he knows some of them personally, and tells you what they said at parties. When he's doing what he does and not just saying how much he likes it (that takes time, though), Epstein turns out to be what Harper's used to...
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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 Devereux Winslow’ were instead entitled ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Morris Shapiro’, or his ‘Terminal Days at Beverly Farms’ were instead entitled ‘Terminal Days at Grossinger's’? [Actually, given the resort's famously rich provender, any day at Grossinger's could be terminal.] Not quite the same, perhaps you will agree.
Certainly I agree: not quite the same. But surely, on the surface at least, much better (and, if it had been Uncle Leonard Schapiro, alas, better still). To advise Jaspistos about competitions is to give God officious tips on how to make worlds. But wouldn't it be fun if Spectator readers were invited to supply a long-felt want by recalling à la Lowell their...
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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 us back to the days of Montaigne or Hazlitt. On this side of the Atlantic only captives of English 101 and antiquarians curl up with discourses on friendship.
What is astounding, then, is that readers who are neither college freshmen nor fuddy-duddies find themselves interested in what interests Epstein. After all, this [Once More Around the Block] is his third collection of familiar essays; by now we have become accustomed to the face that squints out at us from his paragraphs. Or have we? I raise this question because there are at least two Joseph Epsteins—the one who flashes his neoconservative badge when he goes on ideological raids for Commentary, and the one who would rather be read than Right...
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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.
Not quite a critic, yet more than a reviewer, Epstein is funny, smart, mildly boastful, fearless, politically conservative, narrow in his taste in fiction (give him that old-time realism) and a pleasure to read. Who can resist a man who writes, of the obligation to denounce the fake and phony, that “this, then as now,” is “a full-time job, with plenty of opportunity for overtime,” a reader whose favorite authors include Evelyn Waugh, Max Beerbohm, Philip Larkin, H. L. Mencken, Santayana, Henry James and other “laughing pessimists”?
At this point, I should issue an encouraging consumer message: the essays in Partial Payments are not academic criticism. Those yearning for a study of, say, absence and...
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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 reconstruction of our literary culture, or what Epstein himself has termed the Resistance. In his two alliteratively entitled collections, Plausible Prejudices and now Partial Payments, Epstein works both to deflate inflated reputations and to uncover genuine achievements that have been overlooked or undervalued, or looked at and valued for the wrong reasons. Moreover, with the pieces he writes as editor of The American Scholar, Epstein has revived the familiar essay, whose very form bespeaks a kind of intelligence, discrimination, cultivation, and taste that have not been conspicuous in recent decades. And both his critical and familiar essays are literary achievements in their own right—translucently readable, often...
(The entire section is 1103 words.)
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 work. And the assumption behind the approach is that there is a “general, non-academic public … interested in good writing about good writing” (one suspects that he might have been sorely tempted to substitute “fine” for the first “good”). The attitude is, however, not only defensive, but also combative. An essay on Matthew Arnold provides him with the opportunity to lash out at the “opaque lucubrations of structuralists, semioticists and deconstructionists”; he tilts at these heathen again when writing of H. L. Mencken, and takes a fling at modernism generally and the works of “Norman Kurt Updike” and “Philip Márquez Doctorow” in a piece on Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin.
Epstein's range is...
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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 moved and moving creature) subject to a fine intensification and wide enlargement.
Joseph Epstein's Partial Payments,1 his second book of literary essays since 1985, stands as one of the best collections of criticism to appear in the past year—a time that has seen the publication of collections by Jacques Barzun, William Maxwell, the late Richard Ellmann, and other distinguished critics of culture and literature. Although Mr. Epstein sees himself more nearly as “a man who takes a deep pleasure in good books, who views reading as a fine mode of acquiring experience,” than as a literary critic, he is one of our finest critics as well as a cultural...
(The entire section is 2041 words.)
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.”
In Plausible Prejudices (1985) and elsewhere he has shown himself wittily severe about books for which he has little respect. In the present volume, by contrast, in varying degrees, he does several things that Jacques Barzun considers important functions of a critic—“redirects our attention to revive appreciation, rescue from neglect, and rehabilitate the condemned.”
The title, Partial Payments, reflects the debt Mr. Epstein feels, toward the writers discussed, for influences and pleasures of numerous kinds. His reflections are based first upon a fresh reading of the body of work of each of them (to date must be added of the only two living ones—V. S. Naipaul and Tom Wolfe). But, like the...
(The entire section is 905 words.)
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. As in the present volume, he can take an apparently minor subject, such as “The Gentle Art of the Resounding Put-down,” or the health-fascist campaign against smoking, and seductively involve us in a small masterpiece.
Like Montaigne he writes much about himself, and part of his strength is that he is actually a regionalist, an urban regionalist, one of the very few important American writers who is thoroughly at home in the city. Chicago is his Yoknapatawpha County, Lake Country, northern Michigan. It is surely this urban sensibility that enabled Epstein elsewhere to see and define the greatness of Dreiser. Another aspect of Epstein's strength is his style, sentences of sinuous and elegant structure which weave...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
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 American Scholar, and tried and true essayist, Joseph Epstein has no problems holding his own as a creator of fiction in the nine stories collected in The Goldin Boys. Some readers will have encountered some of the stories separately, for all have previously appeared in magazines, seven in Commentary and two in The Hudson Review.
But now, in sequence and linked to each other by time and place and a number of recurring patterns and concerns, they show us a wonderful storyteller at work, uninhibited by his editorial habits and losing nothing by comparison with his very best work in other forms.
All the stories are set in and around Chicago, mainly in the present; though they deal...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
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 hunger for Mencken's style of witty, well-written social comment, readers must mix a bouillabaisse of the best works from all these and other writers.
To that broth, Joseph Epstein adds some spice with flawless prose and keen observations. His weakness is that he seems too nice to exhibit Mencken-quality curmudgeonliness, though anyone who provoked Joyce Carol Oates into demanding his resignation deserves some credit.
In this collection of essays [A Line Out for a Walk], Epstein honors Mencken's memory by taking a few jabs at modern-day prohibitionists (the antismoking fascists) and puritans (the political-correctness crowd). He refers to himself jocularly as a “Jewish anti-Semite” and claims...
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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 piece, something that purports to discuss literature but never mentions its name. It now might explore where power lies, or demonstrate how “texts” (as opposed to books) are indeterminate, leaving criticism to disavow the notion of rendering judgment in favor of being subversive or merely controversial.
Joseph Epstein makes it clear where his sympathies lie in the introduction to the latest collection of his work [Pertinent Players]. His personal background, he says, consisted of “acquiring a fair amount of literary history—a history of the lives and conditions of writers and the progress of literary forms and genres. …” The result of this is “a belief in the richness of life … that … will always...
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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, richer, and certainly more interesting than what is; if, in short, you are the sort of person who not only recognizes an allusion to Eliot but also (like Epstein) wears your psychic trousers rolled, then it's a safe bet that the sixteen essays of this latest collection [With My Trousers Rolled] are probably playing your song.
One develops a taste for the familiar essay, that peculiar species of writing in which personal rumination grazes leisurely in the pastures of learning. Its subject is, finally, the Self, and its burden is to convey the illusion that erudition can be hauled out as effortlessly as a pocket watch. Familiar essayists never let you see them sweat. The master of the genre, as well as its...
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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, volcanic slopes of national politics we find the highly colored clusters of barbed remarks known as commentarius Ehrenreichii. At a more rarefied elevation, flowering profusely in a sheltered nook, are the exquisite blooms of Epstein's mots, called anglophile's necktie.
Ehrenreich is passionate, public and politically engaged, with a style as subtle as a hand grenade. Epstein is intensely private, and succeeds when he has, with the smallest pressure, extracted the essence of the quietest moment of ordinary life. Their very virtues are at war with one another. Thus the same sense of wonder that comes to the naturalist confronted with life's variety, is aroused in the reader. We marvel that our much maligned...
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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 “uncultivated middle class” who went on to earn a degree at the University of Chicago—he is both the erudite scholar and everyman, sprinkling his essays with references to the Greeks on one page, Groucho Marx on the next.
In his fifth collection of essays, With My Trousers Rolled, Epstein claims to have given up on popular culture and has even shed himself of a too-close concern for politics and the arts. “When it is going well, the novel brings the news—to my mind the only enduringly serious news—about what is going on in the human heart.” Alas, poor Epstein, he finds most modern authors “to be more concerned with organs four buttons below that.” As for fashion, he readily owns up to his own...
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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 prose” or “literary essays.”
Paradoxically, however, the authors of these august-sounding collections always remain journalists, critics, scholars, nature writers, scientists and poets. Nobody inks in “essayist” on his or her passport. Demand that educated readers name a living American essayist and those who don't look poleaxed will probably all stammer “Joseph Epstein.”
With My Trousers Rolled is Epstein's fifth compilation of his “familiar essays” and, like its predecessors, offers some of the most civilized entertainment this side of the Kennedy Center. What makes an Epstein piece so good? Mainly its sound, the wry humor with which its author looks at himself and the world. While...
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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 as “the Just,” had ostracized. Mr. Epstein's plan to share this column with other contributors never materialized; he has now written about eighty such columns and seems not to worry about possible ostracism. His first collection of them, Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979), was in due course succeeded by four subsequent ones, of which the book to hand [With My Trousers Rolled] is the latest. Together they constitute a unique phenomenon in the final decade of our century: a writer who can take what lies to his hands—the materials of everyday life—and make these materials never less than interesting. There are surprisingly few contemporary prose writers about whom that statement could be made....
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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.
Has the relentless youthism of modern life got to him, leaving him feeling, as he puts it, out-of-it? He notes that his generation and that of people twenty or so years younger have a fundamental difference: where his generation tend to remain fixed in their attitudes, the younger lot are infinitely changeable, desperately chameleonic in their determination to remain with-it. “Such people,” he says, “pride themselves on being exceedingly knowing … perennial insiders … To have opinions not congruent with theirs—however often theirs change—is, somehow, poor style and in bad taste.”
Epstein is most acute on matters of style, taste, fashion, manners and snobbery; reading him helps one arm oneself against their...
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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, as he says, he ‘gets his education in public’. His procedure is surely right: he tackles authors who
until I actually do write about them, I don't always know all that much about. I read up, I think through, I write out, and, the hope is, at the end I am a bit smarter about the subject under study.
In this collection of those pieces, Life Sentences, he describes himself in the third person as
a sucker for stylish writing. If there is a republic of letters, he has a weakness for its aesthetic aristocrats … His essays on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and the fiction of Robert Musil show he still has a...
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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 highbrow she once hoped to be, Epstein takes a very different tack: he is an unashamed autodidact, not only a self-educated reader but also one who conducts his education in public “by writing about things that, until I actually do write about them, I don't always really know all that much about.” On the page, Epstein's formula seems simple enough: an editor will suggest something or Epstein himself will be attracted by a recent book—“a biography, or the republication or new translation of a classic work,” and the literary essay becomes a means toward an end of deeper understanding. The result, in Epstein's words, is that “I read up, I think through, I write out, and, the hope is, at the end I am a bit smarter about the subject...
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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 position of writing long missives that are probably of more interest to ourselves than to the intended readers. In some ways, the essay occupies a kind of middle ground, for the most natural-sounding essayists are those who seem simultaneously to be talking to themselves and talking to us, their readers.
Joseph Epstein has been writing essays of this kind for decades. Lucid, inviting, relaxed, yet never so casual as to be slovenly, his essays have won him a devoted readership in journals like The New Yorker, The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, and The American Scholar, the last of which he also edited from 1975 to 1997.
Narcissus Leaves the Pool, containing 16...
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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 surely have spent a lot less time gazing into the pool.” Clean living, exercise, cosmetic surgery, a diet rife with leafy vegetables—nothing avails against the inevitable ravages of time. “The body exists to demonstrate, if demonstration is needed, that progress has its limitations.”
On the body, yes, progress is limited; but not on the mind. This is what I'd like to remind Joe Epstein, who, distressed by the disintegration of his fleshly vessel, seems to have forgotten that he's got one hell of a mind. A woman once told him he had sexy wrists. Sexy wrists, nothin'—what he has are sexy wits! Wits that he keeps about him at all times, toned and flexible. I spent a whole day in bed with Epstein balanced on...
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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 reading Epstein's book, because he is perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell.
Epstein sets out dutifully to tell us what a snob is—what he does, thinks (about nubile objects of snobbery), cultivates, disdains. He accomplishes this by conveying everything that Epstein is not. He is not ignorant, certainly not a Philistine, and he is perfectly capable, even if some effort is required, of transcending snobbish inclinations, though not always willing to do so. He is dogged in pressing home on the reader that he, Joseph Epstein, is human, experiencing, and giving way to, occasional temptations if not exactly to snobbery, to snobbish practices. He invites us to smack our...
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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 same reason that a book on racism, xenophobia, class hatred, and cruelty to small animals and children would obviously have to be a defense of them. All right, I shouldn't have put it quite like that. Try some quotation marks: What needs defending is “xenophobia” and the others, that is, what passes today for xenophobia; that defense would be great fun to read. Xenophobia, racism, and cruelty to kittens are bad things. So what modern liberal society does is use these words to describe behavior it dislikes, but which is not xenophobic, etc. So patriotism gets put down as xenophobia. The traditional disciplining of savage young children to make them civilized adults is put down as child cruelty, and a sensitive attachment to the...
(The entire section is 1149 words.)
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.” Thus he succinctly identifies both the impulse and its general means of expression.
The desire Epstein describes has been common throughout human history: the wish to have others look up to us. The means of fulfilling this craving are multifarious, but fall into two basic categories: the association of oneself with ostensibly fine things, activities, ideas and people; and the denigration of other people's attainment of these. Epstein defines snobbery nicely as “the art of demonstrating, blatantly or subtly, one's own moral superiority,” thereby emphasizing what makes it such an important phenomenon: its status as the basis for an alternative, and decidedly diseased, moral code.
Taking a cue from W. M....
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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, I let you know that I once rubbed elbows with a distinguished writer and wrote—never mind that my short entries never made it into print—for a prestigious reference work. Although I cannot be certain, I would be willing to wager that you, unfortunate reader, have not done either; I may therefore be able to raise myself in your estimation and satisfy myself that I am, if only in a small way, better than you.
If my name-dropping and “snob-jobbery” do not impress, remember that they are only two of the snobbish possibilities that Epstein examines in this witty but quite serious new book [Snobbery]. A discriminating literary critic and a more than respectable short-story writer, he is famous primarily for his...
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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”.
With the wit and acuity of Thackeray's Book of Snobs, Epstein adduces a gallery of snobbish types, some drawn from history or literature and others from his own experience. Attending a dinner in honour of the famous newscaster Walter Cronkite, Epstein watches as two journalists shake hands warmly while looking over each other's “shoulder in the hope of discovering more important people in the room”. Andy Warhol, having risen far above his humble origins in the slums of Pittsburgh, nevertheless bemoans not being invited to a party thrown by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Listening to the Chicago Symphony perform the music of Henry Mancini in front of a resolutely middle-brow audience, Epstein muses that the “bloody...
(The entire section is 1919 words.)
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 is less documented, or even acknowledged, elsewhere in the English-speaking world, although as Barry Humphries has spent a lifetime gleefully demonstrating to us, and Joseph Epstein has now set down for his fellow Americans to see, it may be just as common and important.
Together with its conjoined twin, fashion, snobbery affects in some way—and in some cases infests—most aspects of contemporary life, and interesting new snobberies are emerging constantly. A few years ago, professionals who wanted to appear dynamic began to speak of themselves as working “out of an office” rather than simply in one, which was presumably where they did most of their work. Then, as computers allowed many professionals to work at...
(The entire section is 1549 words.)
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 Holocaust survivor and literary scholar whose considerable experience of life is unexpectedly broadened when he enters an old-age home, and “Family Values,” which incisively contrasts an aging underachiever with his charismatic, compulsively dishonest older brother. Epstein's clarity and directness are also reminiscent of Louis Auchincloss, particularly in two subtly convoluted stories focused on both the legacy and the image of Henry James: a revelation of the moral choices made by an eminent critic's disciple (“The Executor”) who must deal with his late mentor's accomplished but defamatory poems; and a reconstruction of the sensibility of a revered author who might have been a closeted anti-Semite (“The Master's Ring”). A few...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
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 may be human, but to envy is undoubtedly so.
The origins of envy, like those of wisdom, are a mystery. A fine historian and essayist, Epstein points out that the Seven Deadly Sins didn't originate in the Bible. They first appear in the fourth-century work of Evagrius of Pontus and John of Cassius. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great formulated the traditional seven. A word for envy exists in all languages and places. Is it a feeling, emotion, sin? All of these. It's one of the few words left in the English language that retains the power to scandalize.
Epstein shows us the many faces of envy, drawing from what psychologists, moralists, journalists, and philosophers have said. For example,...
(The entire section is 885 words.)
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 their future, or whatever they have left of it, in a world in which all the rules have changed. What distinguishes them as Jews in this universal situation is a certain wry outlook, a vernacular turn of phrase that carries the tang of its Yiddish origin, and a tendency to philosophize about the deeper questions of existence. “Coming In with Their Hands Up” is a touching tale of a bloodthirsty divorce lawyer who encounters heartbreak in his own marriage. In “Postcards,” Seymour Hefferman, an acidulous and malicious failed poet, anonymously castigates cultural eminences when they offend his sensibilities, signing a Jewish name instead of his own; he finally gets his comeuppance. The eponymous Felix Emeritus, a cautious Buchenwald...
(The entire section is 293 words.)
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 Champaign-Urbana, Epstein went to the University of Chicago, from which he received a B.A. in 1959. In his twenties he served in the U.S. Army in Texas and Arkansas, later working in urban renewal in Little Rock. Epstein has been married twice—to Joan Elizabeth Bales, whom he married in 1960 and divorced in 1970, and by whom he had two sons; since 1976, he has been married Barbara Maher.
Epstein, an intellectual who lives “amid a vast welter of paper,” embarked on a lifetime's habit of voracious reading at the University of Chicago.1 During the early 1960s he was a freelance writer and editor in New York, associated with the New Leader magazine. For most of his life, however, Epstein has lived in Chicago, which has...
(The entire section is 3530 words.)
Gray, Rockwell. “Joseph Epstein Thinks, Out Loud, About Writing.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 September 1993): 6-7.
Praises the humor and broad scope of the essays in Pertinent Players.
Gross, John. “The Sea of Experience.” Chicago Tribune Books (28 April 1991): 3.
Review contending that in A Line Out for a Walk Epstein demonstrates that high culture and everyday culture can coexist.
Hentoff, Margot. “In Defense of Misery.” New York Review of Books 21, no. 13 (August 1974): 36-7.
Presents a favorable assessment of Divorced in America.
Kapp, Isa. “Joseph Epstein: Essayist at Large.” Washington Post Book World 9, no. 19 (16 December 1979): 4, 9.
Regards Familiar Territory as “a one-man revival of the familiar essay at its most genial and urbane.”
Jones, Barbara. “Visits to the Old Neighborhood.” Washington Post Book World 21, no. 40 (6 October 1991): 4.
Provides a favorable review of The Goldin Boys calling the stories solid, traditional, “after-dinner yarns.”
Park, Clara Claiborne. “Wisest, and Justest, and Best.” Nation 232, no. 21 (30 May 1981): 669-70.
Provides a positive review of Masters:...
(The entire section is 225 words.)