Familiar Territory

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The openness and multitudinousness of American culture make Joseph Epstein, the editor of the distinguished journal The American Scholar, uneasy. Urbane, reasonable, and deferent, his discontent, however, breeds no zeal. Unlike Aristides, the fifth century B.C. soldier and democratic politician who was purportedly ostracized from Athens because the citizens tired finally of hearing him called “The Just,” and under whose name he first wrote the essays collected in Familiar Territory for The American Scholar, Epstein is not a reformist. Like the exiled Aristides (and this may be the joke behind the use of the nom de plume), he stands outside the corridors of cultural power and fashion, if we take them to run through the literary establishment of New York. He edits his journal from Evanston, Illinois, and Northwestern University, where he also teaches, a vantage he finds, despite its location, companionable.

The familiar essay, as practiced by Epstein, is not designed to catch fashion’s eye. With its antecedents in Addison and Steele, Dr. Johnson, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, E. B. White, and Joseph Wood Krutch, it is written at a leisurely pace without the apocalyptic urgency that so often characterizes contemporary prose. Besides, the familar mode is frequently and generously humorous. Speaking from no other authority than the essayist’s taste and prejudice, it does not make any large demands on the reader, its territory never seriously encroaching upon that staked out by the professionals of psychology, politics, sociology, linguistics, literature, or philosophy, although it touches upon all these subjects. Nor is it interested in gaining backers for a cause, but only in establishing a common ground of experience with the reader. Or, as Epstein himself says in the Preface:In the end the true job of the familiar essayist is to write what is on his mind and in his heart in the hope that, in doing so, he will say what others have sensed only inchoately. How often the essays in this book will accomplish this is for their readers not for their author to say. But when it does happen, it is like calling out in the desert and having a voice answer back. At such times above all others does the familiar essay breed content.

The desire to breed content rather than contempt is one mark of Epstein’s studied indifference to a fashion, long in the ascendancy, that calls for the pundit to ridicule the reader’s desire for solace. His recognition of the reader’s need for a consolation that derives from finding company in a writer, along with his willingness to fulfill that want, sets him apart from those who aim at either alarming or alienating the reader. This is not to say that he himself is satisfied with the way things are. Quite the contrary, American manners and mores, the subject of these essays, grieve him. This unease of spirit prompts him, though, to seek to comfort like-minded others, as well as himself.

If his own pleasure is derived from being understood and confirmed in his experience by responsive readers, it also resides, as he says, in the act of writing itself. If the satisfaction the reader gains from the prose of Familiar Territory is anything like his own in composing it, Epstein is indeed a pleasured writer. His style does not please by shocking us, or by its lyrical sweeps, or by elaborate metaphor and syntax, those characteristics of journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. However, it does delight us with its wit, its clarity of structure and language, and its use of apt and recognizable quotations from Dr. Johnson, Dickens, Mencken, and Orwell, among others. His achievement comes, moreover, in having created a “voice,” a quality difficult to define, having to do with that word full of useful ambiguity, “sincerity.” It is also a style impossible to illustrate through brief quotation, since its effect is cumulative, only moving us to an admiration of its eloquence after a sufficiently long acquaintance.

In his magisterial study of Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling wrote: “Style is character, it is the quality of a man’s emotions made apparent; then, by an inevitable extension, style is ethics, style is government.” This being so, Epstein’s style, meticulous in its observation of standard forms of composition, expression, and correctness and in its abhorrence of eccentricity in language and rhythm, is his moral response to a culture that has little patience with any inherited forms, whether of social manner, dress, sexual mores, or language, all subjects of his bemusements. Indeed, contemporary American culture, characterized by its ignorance and misuse of language, its appetite for the ephemeral and trivial, and its obsession with change and variety, expresses its hatred of any kind of limit, together with a desire for existence without any of its conditions. We are, according to Epstein in his animadversion “Running and Other Vices,” “self-absorbed perfectibilitarians,” a particularly apt phrase. We prefer the life of the senses to mind; experience to innocence; relativity of values or democratization to hierarchy; and the self-indulgence of youth to the forbearance of maturity. In consequences of our choices, we have made a culture without order or tranquility, and, paradoxically, without pleasure, or at least without the joys of “life at the quotidian,” which has been forgone in favor of the life...

(The entire section is 2229 words.)