Joseph Epstein is a personal essayist, perhaps one of the best practitioners of the form alive today. The personal essay is also called the familiar essay, and it is important to keep both terms in mind because the form is most successful when shadings of each are at play. In his introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, which he edited in 1997, Epstein says that “the personal essayist writes, I think, for himself and peopleeven though he has never met themhe assumes are potentially his friends.”
As editor of American Scholar, a position he held for more than twenty years, Epstein maintained that when he first took the job he decided that his main criteria for choosing articles and essays would be his own interests and taste. This was not vanity but rather the simple assumption that what appealed to a modest but wide-ranging intellect such as his own would also appeal to the common reader. What served him as an editor also fed his talent as a writerthe “personal” touch, a knack for persuading his readers that he and they were on similar tracks of feeling and thought. Once this is established, Epstein finds just the right tone to seal the pact of familiarity, to make the personal essay “familiar.” In Friendship: An Exposé, for example, he gets his reader to agree that even though friends are usually drawn from one’s one age group, senior adults are not always happy with their peers: “A man or woman who was a creep at forty is unlikely to improve at eighty-five.” The colloquial “creep” startles one into jovial compliance. Epstein’s familiarity scores a hit.
After writing short and book-length personal essays for almost twenty-five years on such a variety of subjects as ambition, divorce, envy, and snobberynot to mention dozens of literary and cultural topicsEpstein has finally decided to address the relationship between human beings that is, at bottom, what makes possible the literary form he has made his own. If his readers have been all along “potentially his friends,” they can now find themselves addressed, at least in theory, in his latest volume. They must take note, however, that this book on friendship is also, as its subtitle warns, an exposé; it will not fall into sentimentality or hypocrisy but instead peel off the protective layers in which the subject is too often smothered. Epstein is aware that this kind of objectivity involves risks. He worries about the reactions of his personal friends who “will recognize themselves in these pages (though they are for the most part not mentioned by name), some to their pleasure, some to their chagrin, and a few to their strong distaste. . . . I don’t claim this is a courageous book, but it is, I fear, rather a reckless one.” What about offending his readers, who may not find themselves, at all times, to be the friends that his wit and engaging style are determined to win over?
The answer to this question has everything to do with how effectively Epstein can persuade readers that friendship itself is in need of the kind of dusting and overall scrutiny he insists it deserves. He begins by distinguishing friends from acquaintances. With an acquaintance there is “no obligation on either side, nothing owed but recognition and civility.” A friend, on the other hand, is “preferential: one chooses one person over another to draw closer to.”
The deeper one gets into this book, the clearer it becomes that Epstein is actually treading a very fine line between the distance of acquaintanceship and the closeness of friendship. His exposé focuses on the truth that friendship falls short of its own idealization. No friendship is perfect, says Epstein, and to stress this insight he maintains that even his deep friendship with Edward Shils, the social philosopher,...
(The entire section is 1561 words.)