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Joseph Epstein 1937-

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(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.

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Principal Works