Sonya Rudikoff (review date 30 June 1974)

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

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[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 as witnesses, how you took custody of the children, sold the house, tried to make a new life in loneliness. The poignancy of this admittedly self-pitying man disciplining children, washing dishes, or buying blue jeans for one of his sons (from a cheery saleswoman who assumes there is a “Mom” to shorten the pants), or linking himself with his own father as well as his sons—it all has the nuance of domestic poetry about it, the poetry of making do and making the best of it with rueful dignity, like the poetry of furnished rooms and railroad stations.

Epstein writes from the point of view of one who, with the Prophet Mohammed, finds divorce “the most detestable of all permitted things.” He has an intelligent uneasiness and weariness when he discusses the good press divorce has received in recent years, especially the publicity about liberation and life-enhancement. The available literature, as well as the popular assumptions, seem deceptive, even dishonest, in their images of growth, fulfillment, swinging bachelors, uncommitted relationships, easy sex and flexible habits. Divorce itself, the reality, is costly, painful, ugly, humiliating, and guaranteed to provoke the worst in people who may otherwise be rather decent. Divorce law is a kind of fiction bearing no relation to divorce procedures, and, in stumbling through the jungles of allegations, arrangements, consents and collusions, no one escapes scarring. Later, when it's all finished, there may indeed be unencumbered autonomy—that is, loneliness, the sense of failure, isolation and the new world of the divorced or unmarried, not nearly the paradise shown in the travel posters.

American divorce is particularly sordid perhaps because American marriage has been extraordinary exalted. Work, family relationships, friendships, or other social and individual activities have lost their significance and resonance for many modern people; sexual relationships, and even detached sexual activity without relationships, are expected to provide transcendent fulfillment. And the rest of life has been systematically drained of its depth or its connectedness.

What Epstein calls The Dream of Family still speaks even to the divorced, insuring that three-fourths of the men and two-thirds of the women will remarry. Marriage continues to be quite appealing, even though one out of four marriages ends in divorce (in California it is one out of three, possibly one out of two). The Dream of Self may yet rout The Dream of Family, however: society has arranged that the claims of self be quite as compelling as the claims of community, leaving few supports or reinforcements for marriages. Divorced persons are accepted everywhere, children are no longer a reason for not seeking divorce, women's liberation provides a practical ideology for the autonomous woman, and liberalized procedures simplify divorce altogether. It remains a sad story, however, and perhaps that is all to the good: just the facts about divorce and the way “you” feel when encountering the facts, may have replaced social ostracism as a deterrent.

Epstein's narrative also provides a useful contrast to the many divorce books and handbooks written by women about their experiences, and for women. His is distinctly about a man's experience, though there is of course a blank space in the autobiographical material where the wife's point of view might have been.

The reader is left with a vague image of a hell which so poisoned its inhabitants that even loneliness was preferable. What seems thoroughly unexplored is the possibility of reversing the direction toward divorce, of actively intervening; in this book, as in other documents of divorce, there is an absence of ideas of conduct, scruples, exertions, or beliefs which offer any alternative. Once divorce is in the air, or in the talking or planning stage, its trajectory of disintegration appears inexorable. Isn't the contemporary acceptance of this fact the most sobering of all the questions?

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

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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, generally without success. He has a chapter on alimony that bemoans its tragic and disemboweling effect on male finances, yet he mentions only in passing a study showing that the great majority of ex-husbands either pay no alimony at all, or are behind on it. Epstein knows that in most divorces both parties share the blame and suffering, but in practice he can identify only with male anguish.

A further weakness is Epstein's nostalgia for the old patriarchal family. He feels it was right in holding that people should marry for life, that duty is more important than love, that traditional sex roles are the best, and that the modern pursuit of happiness and fulfillment is a vile cancer. But Epstein never asks why the Victorian system died. If the patriarchal family was as desirable as he believes, it would have lasted. In fact, of course, it was not the best of all possible arrangements, especially for women, and they rebelled against it in numerous ways.

Victorian literature is full of cases of women going to gynecologists in hope that surgery would make them happy, or of taking the water cure, or seeking out faith healers for ailments that were more emotional than physical in origin. A handful of feminists attacked the social position of women in public, but vast numbers of women privately struggled against the constraints society in general and marriage in particular placed upon them. Nor did the lordly male escape the consequences of his position. I think it was John Stuart Mill who said that women denied liberty will seek power, by which he meant power in the home. Millions of Victorian marriages involved lifelong struggles between husbands and wives. As divorce became socially more acceptable, more and more people resorted to it.

Elsewhere Epstein rightly attacks the sexologists who claim marital happiness is only a matter of improved sexual techniques. The David Reubens and others of his kind have contributed to a revolution of rising sexual expectations that in the nature of things can never be realized. Married people can reasonably expect to find solutions to most sexual problems. But to expect that after thousands of sexual experiences the act will remain as thrilling as it was at first is to demand more of human nature than it can possibly deliver. On the other hand, Epstein is quite unfair to Masters and Johnson whose clinical research has provided us with literally priceless information on sexuality.

This is a reactionary book, not in a Goldwaterish sense but in denying that social norms are fluid and changes essential to a dynamic society. Quoting Tocqueville and invoking the patriarchal family, as Epstein does, will not do anyone the slightest good. Neither is it realistic to deny that changing social values have probably increased the sum total of human happiness, if only a little. Perhaps the sexual revolution has gone too far. Perhaps also Americans spend too little time devoting themselves to duty and too much in seeking happiness and personal fulfillment. Even so, the great majority are better off now than in the past when prudery, ignorance, and the grinding burden of work oppressed the great majority. And it is especially unfair to imply that society would be better off if women would only accept homemaking as their highest calling.

Epstein has tackled a difficult and important subject. He has made clear that, from the male standpoint at least, divorce is a bad business. But in seeking alternatives to it he has not been able to rise above nostalgia and so his book, valuable as it is, leaves the reader unsatisfied. Most Americans, even most divorced persons, still believe in marriage. Seventy percent of divorced persons remarry. What we need is not a backward glance at the good old days that never were, but help in reconciling our need for domesticity and security with our growing demand for freedom and personal growth. The book that will help us do that remains unwritten.

Angela Huth (review date 12 April 1975)

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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 the British ‘experience’ (or indeed the ‘experience’ of any Western country in which divorce is as unsurprising as marriage)—that is, alimony. In America, divorce is much more expensive. There, vast alimony is the compensation prize: a middle-class man earning $30,000 a year “could just barely afford a divorce.” Apart from that, in the many fields of generalisation into which Mr Epstein enthusiastically launches himself, there seem to be no differences there from here. Indeed, why should there be? It's hardly surprising that Mrs Jones in San Francisco, whose husband has deserted her for the local blonde, should have much in common with Mrs Jones in Dibden Purlieu whose marriage is in a similar mess. However, presuming that the glooms of break-up are peculiar to the inhabitants of the United States, Mr Epstein then serves them up in some tantalising slices: ‘The Most Detestable of Permitted Things,’ ‘A State of Tragic Tension,’ ‘The Bedroom Olympiad,’ ‘The Cost of Discord,’ run some of his chapter headings. And at once a suspicion of foreboding descends: somehow this omnibus of bad times is going to be dreadfully familiar, a compilation of things we've read so many times before. Also, right from the start, it's impossible to help noticing Mr Epstein's disinclination to let any particle of the squalid subject slip briefly through his net: he is a master at spinning out the obvious. In ‘The Cost of Discord,’ for instance, we learn that “clothing and feeding are probably the least of the expenses of bringing up children …” and he carries on for twenty-four lines to describe what he means by this, just in case we have missed the point. Now any writer can ask his reader to put up with long-windedness if he is enlightening or amusing, but to dim the pages with observations that are positively common-place seems to me the height of indulgence. “Divorce has changed the nature of the institution of marriage.” “Divorce is perhaps above all an uprooting experience.” What, I wondered, had inspired Mr Epstein to write a whole book of such revelations? Ah! The answer lies in the preface—most unsurprising of all unsurprising facts in the book, perhaps: Mr Epstein is himself a divorced man—“A graduate, so to say.” He speaks from real experience: he has need to communicate that “growthful” experience. And to sear us a little with What It's Actually Like, he entertains us to a few of his own memories. The print narrows on the page, he slips into the third person to warn us of the blow:

You are standing in a puddle and there is no solace in having touched the bottom … The feelings rolling within you are too many and too complicated to be sorted out with any clarity …

Or:

You sat in a comfortable wing-chair facing the couch on which sat your wife and your two sons, then aged seven and eight-and-a-half. The boys had been called into the living room to be told their parents were no longer able to live together and consequently they had decided to divorce … What you felt, what weighed you down, was a staggering sense of failure. It was one thing to bollix your own life, but now, in the bewildered looks in your sons' eyes, you saw that this time around you would not be the only one paying for your mistakes, you were bringing others down with you …

As an admirer of understatement in adversity I blushed at these reminiscences. They were included for a good enough reason: Mr Epstein explains he didn't want to write yet another book of tragic case-histories—“Katherine, an airline stewardess”—which in such an anthology quickly become a mere statistic. But boldly relying on his own case-history alone for a bit of atmosphere, Mr Epstein fails in his evocation. The memories, broken up like snapshots among the pages, glitter with a grave self-pity: they do nothing to convey “the dreary hum of daily (married) life” that leads so often to divorce.

Perhaps this is in part due to that relentless American solemnity when it comes to so dicey a subject as divorce. But even in the depths of marital break-ups there are light moments, for heaven's sake: it would have been rewarding to have had a few of them added to the list of pains and tragic wounds. (In case Mr Epstein doesn't believe me, let me provide him with one such moment from an English ‘experience.’ My first husband, during the process of our divorce, was having some difficulty in arranging a co-respondant. It was to be one of those gentlemanly set-up affairs. He didn't fancy taking a tart out to dinner before the platonic night, and none of our friends' wives seemed keen to help out. Finally, in desperation, he suggested I should disguise myself in my hair-piece for the night. Much mirth all round. A most engaging idea, I thought, though I didn't have quite the courage to go through with it. Wrote a TV play about it, instead, in which the husband and wife-co-respondant, naturally, think better about the divorce in the middle of the night …)

Having started out on his fat collection of unamazing revelations, Mr Epstein is at least consistent. He concludes with no surprises, in order not to shake us. “With divorce, The Dream of Family is Shattered,” he writes in his epilogue, “often turned into a terrible nightmare.” Divorced, undivorced, we can't but agree with him. We can go along with him, too, when he points out that “marriage today is nothing more than a possibility” and, finally, “Good marriages could well become rarest works of art.” Of course, divorce is the probability: and there's no reason to suppose this unhappy fact is likely to change. Mr Epstein's book may have helped to exorcise his own nightmare. For therapy—or enlightenment—on a larger scale, it is no medicine. The skilful assembling of familiar quandaries has the built-in danger of an abundance of sad agreement with the writer. And too much agreement with the obvious is inclined to send the reader into a state of drowsy numbness—even the divorced reader, whose ‘identifying,’ it should never be supposed, is any guarantee to total interest in the general problem of the whole nightmare subject.

Charles Fenyvesi (review date 10 November 1979)

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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, understated scholarship, and balanced judgment. Reading his commentary on what he calls “the everyday flow of things,” I hear the clatter of coffee mugs. His is an easygoing, neighborly tone—a Sunday afternoon's genial conversation over pecan pie or cheesecake about the changing mores of greetings, the blight of Boutique America (he refrains from nostalgia), the de Tocqueville Impulse (of defining America), and the Sin of Wasting Time (of watching television).

Unlike his British colleagues and his American mentors, H. L. Mencken and A. J. Liebling, Epstein gives equal time to opponents as well as to self-doubt; he avoids self-righteousness and represses insults. He raises his voice rarely, and when one least expects it. For example, he captures Walter Cronkite as “an instance of absolute fluency in the service of complete mindlessness, but then he has a face that only a nation could love.” He first compares Harrison Salisbury to Muzak, and then suggests that “when he describes a landscape one expects to be shown a color-slide.”

Epstein does not seem to urge any social action, and he can be equally charged with being a liberal or a conservative. One expects readers to strike back at him with the question: “So what's your point?” Or: “But where do you really stand?”

These are times that call for tracts rather than essays—purposeful jogging rather than a stroll. Epstein and his fellow essay writers are elegantly out of fashion.

James Wolcott (review date 24 January 1981)

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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 to me as soft and rickety as a termite-ridden rocker. Despite the counterculture's flirtation with Zen, pan-handling, and back-to-the-land movements, most Americans never have lost their romance with ambition, whether it's represented by Sylvester Stallone's Rocky slugging slabs of meat or the Corleone family garroting its rivals in The Godfather. Indeed, the most fanatically watched television show in the country, “Dallas,” is a pop aria to the pleasures of one-upmanship. Yet Epstein insists that not only is ambition under fire but that the posher things in life are now being disdainfully slighted.

Evidence of hypocrisy is, as usual, not wanting: authors of books deploring affluence who regularly call their editors for up-to-the-minute royalty statements; Marxist professors with two Volvos in the driveways of their summer homes. Esquire, whose pages spill over with advertisements for cars, clothes, travel, and other worldly treasures, runs an article on the pleasures of downward mobility.

Hypocrisy is always a fat target, yet Epstein neglects to mention the boom in lush up-scale magazines like Los Angeles and Andy Warhol's Interview—publications which unashamedly worship leisure and excess. Similarly, Epstein cites actor Richard Dreyfuss as an example of someone whose social conscience (translation: liberal guilt) makes him incapable of savoring his success to the fullest tang. Yet for every brooding Dreyfuss in Hollywood there's baby pasha like producer Allen Carr, whose life is a well-publicized whirl of screenings, disco parties, and gluttonous dinners.

To be fair, Epstein's quarrel seems less with America's pop culture than with its literature.

Even in quite serious contemporary American novels, a character drawn as ambitious is not a character to think well of; more likely, he is someone meant to be ridiculed, or taught hard lessons, or brought down with a thump.

Doing a Sherlock Holmes squint into a magnifying glass, Epstein traces this hostility to ambition through the novels of Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. For all his squinting, however, he fails to stumble across any trunks stuffed with fresh evidence. His discussion of Sinclair Lewis's career, for example, is such a perfunctory glossover that he doesn't seem to have explored the novels on his own but instead relied on the American lit. survey course platitudes handed down like dusty heirlooms from one generation of English professors to the next. Chalk seems to be scratching across the blackboard as the reader confronts such conventional yawners as, “In Babbitt, [Lewis] worked over the businessman, stripping back his skin after a thorough flogging to reveal the pretentions, hypocrisy, and pitiful aspirations lying underneath.” (Conventional, this, and misleading: Babbitt is a far more feeling and skillful novel than Epstein's whip-and-peel imagery would indicate.) A few pages later, Epstein trots out an even more tired complaint. “It was not so much that these novelists preached failure but that they impugned success, and thus debunked ambition. They brought down the house but erected nothing in its place.” How familiar this is! Once again American writers are being scolded for not being affirmative—for being (to use Babbitt's slang) knockers rather than boosters.

But were American writers really knocking ambition? Epstein neglects to mention the book in which Sinclair Lewis pays full sentimental tribute to vision and perseverance: Arrowsmith, his 1925 novel about a doctor who refuses to settle for safe success, but pushes on, on. (Not incidentally, Arrowsmith was—and remains—one of Lewis's most popular novels. It even won him a Pulitzer Prize nomination, which he refused.) American writers weren't really attacking ambition or success; they were trying to light a few firecrackers under the seat of that great slumbering oaf, philistinism. To achieve comfortable wealth and then sink complacently into one's fat, proudly ignorant of art or music or ideas—this is what aroused the scorn of a Lewis or Mencken.

Confusing contempt for success with contempt for philistinism enables Epstein to offer a few words in defense of Norman Podhoretz's 1967 embarrassment, Making It. After acknowledging the book's blemishes, Epstein writes:

Podhoretz's true sin, it seemed apparent from the reviews, was in saying that it is all right to succeed, there is nothing wrong in enjoying the emoluments that flow from success—nothing to be ashamed of about either of these things.

No, sorry, wrong: Podhoretz had his knuckles rapped not because he told the unfashionable truth but because he had no sense of tone or decorum. As Wilfrid Sheed noted in his review of Making It (reprinted in The Morning After),

Ambiguity is totally alien to Podhoretz's book, which has but one gear and one track and rolls down it like a Daily News van. For example, the dirty little secret of sex has been unveiled for some time, yet we still frown on people who boast about their sexual prowess as much as we frown on people who boast about their money.

Epstein isn't as vulgar or featherpreeningly vain as Podhoretz, but he too wants us to be up-front about worldly spoils—he could have called his book Ambition without Guilt: A Spiritual Guide for the Timid. But where would all this candor leave us? Sheed, again: “People sitting around discussing their success, even their success at Columbia University, would be as inspiring as executives modeling long johns in the locker room.”

Of course, if you stripped ambition of all tenderness and moral qualms the world would be an Ayn Rand urban jungle, with brawny geniuses striding girders and parapets, sneering at the ant-like rabble below. Epstein doesn't want to go quite this far. (He, for example, dissociates himself from the smiling-cobra Machiavellianism of Michael [Power] Korda.) Putting away the long johns, he devotes a chapter near the end of Ambition to an unpleasant subject: the “great grey bog” of failure. In many ways, it's the most interesting chapter in the book, for failure compels Epstein to turn aside from the onward-and-upward rhetoric and confront the social and psychological damage done to those whose lives are gutted by ambition. As Epstein understands, the most moving and harrowing study of failure was executed by Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie.

… Having himself started out low in life, having climbed a good way up, thence only to tumble back down, Dreiser knew all the bumps on the chute toward failure, all the splinters and rough places. He knew about the petty pride that resists commonsense action in reversing one's misfortune, the lassitude that drags a man further down, the mounting feelings of impotence that work against him. He knew about these things in large and in fine: about the meaning of an unemployed man's suddenly not shaving daily; about compulsive newspaper reading and seeking out warm places that take one away from looking for work; about how failure in effect desexes a man, slowly twisting him into a repulsively pitiable creature before the woman who once loved him. Dreiser knew about failure, and he knew it was no grand thing, but mean and narrow—and nothing more than misery.

As if afraid to linger on the frayed, careworn, stale-bread side of failure, Epstein swiftly moves on to Adlai Stevenson, for whom failure hovered like a radiant crown, a halo.

With neoconservatism now in the saddle, Ambition may find a responsive audience among highbrows, just as Wayne Dyer's I-gotta-be-me books won over the middles. But really, it's a far from exciting exercise. In his essays, Epstein can be cantankerous and flip, flicking smart asides off his thumb like rubber bands. Here he's dry, academic, a touch too Trilling-ish. (His “summing up” chapter is a pale echo of Trilling's call to reason at the close of Sincerity and Authenticity.) Worse, where the essays tend to be tidy, the book is a padded sprawl. In the first chapter alone, the text is seasoned with quotations from Benjamin Franklin, Stendhal, Michelet, Archibald MacLeish, Walker Percy, Adam Smith, Gertrude Stein, Disraeli, Emile Durkheim, Hazlitt, and (but of course!) Tocqueville; and the rest of the book contains mini-biographies of John D. Rockefeller, the Duponts, the Guggenheims, Mark Twain, Henry Ford, Henry Luce, Edith Wharton, Joseph P. Kennedy, and Wallace Stevens—overdone subjects about whom Epstein has nothing strikingly fresh to add. Reading Ambition, one sees poor Epstein trapped in his study, surrounded by mounds of notecards, compulsively sharpening pencils down to the stub as the walls begin to close in. … Had Epstein not wanted to make a major statement about the spiritual arthritis of our time, he might have written a succinct essay that could have carried a pugnacious smack. Instead, he's unloaded on us a book that wanders all over the place, aimlessly, repetitiously. Less would have been immeasurably more. Ambition is what does Ambition in.

Barry Gewen (review date 9 February 1981)

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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 disappearing from our culture (hence the title also is something of a misnomer). Where once young men were congratulated for showing drive and purpose, these days to describe someone as ambitious is to suggest a scheming, manipulative careerist who rises to the top over his or her colleagues' dead bodies—Horatio Alger looking out for Number One. This shift in attitude, says Epstein, should be a matter of great concern, for ambition brings out the best in people. He calls it “the fuel of achievement,” and warns that our society's current depreciation of ambition threatens to drain our energy and bring us to a stop. To reinforce his main point he devotes chapters to such related topics as the idea of success, the fear of failure, the decline of high society, and the contradictory emotions money engenders in just about everybody.

Much of what Epstein has to say is interesting or provocative. His observation, for example, that the ticket of entry into society has shifted over the years from family to wealth to fame neatly captures in one sentence a profound transformation. Yet Ambition: The Secret Passion is ultimately diffuse, unconvincing and, worst of all, irritating. Epstein does not so much argue as proclaim. Questionable assertions are stated as truths. Generalizations fly, and too often the reader can do little more than duck.

Some of Epstein's declarations are simple misstatements of fact. He says: “No one, apart from a few American novelists, has written about the special psychological burden of being unemployed.” Actually, there is a significant body of literature on this subject. I refer Epstein to the annual reports of the U.S. National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity and to the work of Dr. Harvey Brenner of Johns Hopkins.

Occasionally his pronouncements are wrong on a grander scale. To say, as Epstein does, that “wealth and contentment tend to be the attributes of the virtuous in the Old Testament” is to ignore Ecclesiastes, the books of the Prophets, and perhaps the entire prophetic tradition.

Most of Epstein's assertions, however, are neither right nor wrong; they are merely there, frustrating instances of a writer's attempt to persuade by substituting sermonizing for argument. Within the space of four pages of the first chapter Epstein tells us:

“In most respects, though, it appears that the more educated a person is, the more hopeless life seems to him.” (Evidence, please.)

“Money and prestige and power have always and everywhere been viewed as ends in themselves as well as means to quite useful ends.” (Always and everywhere? Among religious groups and cults, ideologues and idealists, fanatical movements and egalitarian movements of every stripe?)

“To be ambitious is to be future-minded.” (Are not conservatives and reactionaries like Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond ambitious, not to mention such backward-minded shrinking violets as Hitler, Mussolini and the Ayatollah Khomeini?)

“It seems unarguable, too, that ambition in the United States today is losing—if it has not already lost—its justification in the common culture.” (On the contrary, it seems at least arguable in the light of our mobbed professional schools, the hordes of aspiring filmmakers and rock musicians, the armies of hopeful authors, the legions of eager politicians, and the libraries bulging with “how to succeed” books.)

“Those periods of greater energy have been periods when ambition was a passion in good standing.” (But the 20th century, the very era when ambition has lost its standing according to Epstein, has released more human energy than we know what to do with.)

“There can be no blinking the fact that ambition is increasingly associated in the public mind chiefly with human characteristics held to be despicable.” (This explains why obviously ambitious political figures like Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, John Glenn, and Alexander Haig, to name but four, have been falling on their faces.)

And on and on and on. Epstein may even be right about some of the above, but sayin' it don't make it so; he has little talent for the oracular style.

I think Epstein gets into trouble whenever he tries to generalize because the topic he has chosen is too broad. In any case, “The fuel of achievement” is an inadequate definition for a serious discussion of ambition. It is possible to achieve great deeds or great misdeeds. Instilling a sense of purpose into the right sort of person is laudable; yet surely the world would be a better place if Hitler and Stalin had never dreamed their dreams. Epstein acknowledges the problem of moral perspective early on, but he never deals with it.

Instead, he falls back on a qualified version of traditional American boosterism, urging young people to strive for fame, power and wealth. Although he is less blatant than such success-mongers as Robert J. Ringer and Michael Korda, whom he roundly condemns, his message is similar, and from time to time his book reads like a Chamber of Commerce pamphlet toned down for more catholic tastes: “Deplorable and self-centered though much of the conduct of the robber-baron generation was, ruthless and rueful though many of its leading figures have come to seem, after all that is bad has been said about them, it needs to be said yet again that they built up the country.” If Epstein were Italian, he would be talking about trains running on time.

This is odd, since from his previous writing Epstein would seem especially qualified to discuss ambition. His starting point might have been the dedication to craft, a quality he has himself displayed and clearly appreciates. The ambition of the craftsman, his measure of success, is to do his job well. If money, power and fame accompany this (as perhaps they would in the best of all possible worlds), that is confirmation of a kind, but not particularly relevant. Too much attention to society's rewards is unseemly and vulgar; it detracts from excelling in one's work, or what Justice Holmes called “touching the superlative.”

Indeed, Holmes' own life provides a model of real ambition. Here is Edmund Wilson on the judge: “In Holmes' effort to touch the superlative by practicing his juristic profession with all its drudgery and its hard limitations, he evolves the conception of the ‘jobbist’ and even forms a kind of jobbists' club, which, however, except by correspondence, may not involve personal contacts. The jobbist is one who works at his job without trying to improve the world or to make a public impression. He tries to accomplish this professional job as well as it can be accomplished, to give it everything of which he is capable. The jobbist is alone with his job and with the ideal of touching the superlative—which in his grandfather Abiel Holmes' time would have been called being chosen for salvation.”

Epstein does not convince us that the drive to “touch the superlative” is dying in our country. Evidence of the opposite is all around, even in the mass culture that distresses him. Much of the continuing popularity of sports, I am certain, comes from the pleasure of watching skilled professionals perform to the best of their abilities in an unambiguous arena, touching the superlative in a setting where rules are clearly defined. And in that great wasteland, television, popular shows like Kojak present people week after week who are determined to touch the superlative; the actors on Lou Grant report that, judging from their fan mail, they have become role models for many of their viewers. Genuine ambition is alive and well in America.

Ambition and its concomitant, success, are inward qualities, affairs of the spirit. They are subtle, private, hidden—and not because, as Epstein suggests, people are ashamed of them. By focusing on outward manifestations—money, society, fame—Epstein neglects what is essential. He would have done well to ponder the Chekhov statement that serves as his epigraph but is otherwise neglected: “One would need to be a god to decide which are the failures and which are the successes in this life.”

Stephen Miller (review date April 1981)

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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 little about him. We need to know the character—or the intent—of his ambition. Nevertheless, ambition is a passion that bears watching because it smacks of excess. As the first entry in the Oxford English Dictionary has it, ambition is “the eager or inordinate desire of honor or preferment.” The third entry offers a more attractive definition: “a strong desire to be or do anything creditable.” Both sense of the word were current in Shakespeare's time and both remain current to this day.

In Ambition: The Secret Passion, Joseph Epstein is more inclined to praise than to condemn. “To discourage ambition,” he says, “is to discourage dreams of grandeur and greatness.” But there are dreams and dreams—those of Churchill and de Gaulle, those of Hitler and Stalin. It is true, as Epstein says, that “ambition has at all times been the passion that best releases the energies that make civilization possible,” but it is also true that ambition has released energies that have been civilization's scourge. The “fuel of achievement” is also the engine of destruction.

Epstein's book, however, is less a defense of ambition in general—he has little to say about the heroes of history—than a defense of commercial ambition, which has been the animating force in American life. Before the 18th century, commercial ambition was usually decried as a low and even immoral variety of the species. But in that century a number of writers—including Montesquieu, Hume, Johnson, and Adam Smith—began to argue that although commercial men were inclined to be narrow and boorish, they were also prudent and moderate and did not get embroiled in religious or political controversy. Summing up the views of the 18th-century defenders of commerce, Tocqueville said in Democracy in America: “Violent political passions have little hold on men whose whole thoughts are bent on the pursuit of well-being. Their excitement about small matters makes them calm about great ones.” Only in predominantly commercial societies could liberty be allowed to exist, because only in such societies would liberty not result in violent civic discord.

The framers of the American Constitution, especially Madison and Hamilton, agreed with this. In The Federalist they argued that only if America became an extended commercial republic, a republic in which a variety of economic interests were “regulated” by national legislators, could it become strong, stable, and prosperous—and avoid the discord that had contributed to the downfall of so many republics.

In America, then, a country devoid of hereditary privilege where all men were free to better their condition, commerce was actively encouraged. According to John Adams, “There is no people on earth so ambitious as the people of America”—ambitious not of honor or preferment but of commercial success. And this ambition, Adams said, made them “sober, industrious, and frugal.” “You will find among them,” Adams claimed, “some elegance, perhaps, but more solidity; a little pleasure, but a great deal of business.”

Epstein says very little about the philosophy of the framers, but he rightly associates commercial ambition with a belief in progress, and he rightly argues that “if the United States could be said to have … an underlying assumption governing its general behavior … then that assumption has been progress. …” Yet, according to Epstein, progress has recently come under attack; and commercial ambition “is increasingly associated in the public mind chiefly with human characteristics held to be despicable.”

In its broad outlines, Epstein's case is clear and persuasive. He defends commercial ambition against an educated elite that generally regards it at the very least as vulgar, at the worst as immoral. Although many of those hostile to commerce today speak in Marxist language, what they appear to yearn for is not so much a revolutionary utopia as a pre-capitalist order in which the vulgar know their place, the acquisitive spirit is held in check, and the “thoughtful people”—to borrow a phrase from a leading political scientist—are deferred to. According to Epstein, the educated elite has nourished its essentially conservative bias—or, shall we say, its aristocratic pretensions—on a body of literature that has, during the past half century, tended to admire failure more than success. Yet whatever its source, the contempt for those “in trade” is unjustified, Epstein says, since men of commercial ambition possess many admirable traits.

In support of his argument, Epstein stocks his book with trenchant observations about the virtues of a society organized along commercial lines. “As for the artificial distinctions that money brings,” he writes, “whatever may be said against them … they are nonetheless in the end more merciful than any other arrangement one can think of.” Epstein also offers a wealth of anecdotes to show the many interesting forms that commercial ambition can take. And finally, he fills the book with capsule biographies of famous American entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial families—Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Luce, Joseph Kennedy, the Duponts, the Guggenheims—as well as of such leading American writers as Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Wallace Stevens. He also throws in a biography of Adlai Stevenson, and ends with an affecting portrait of “An Unknown Soldier” in the wars of commerce—a businessman of no particular distinction who is shown to possess the same virtues that John Adams praised some two hundred years ago.

The biographies generally are effective. Dwelling on the imagination of the great entrepreneurs, Epstein suggests that for all their prudence and calculation, in some ways these men were creatures possessed. Preoccupied with their schemes and visions, they have had more in common with Captain Ahab than with George F. Babbitt. Epstein argues that for many entrepreneurs business has been enticing less because it has enabled them to better their condition than because it is an exciting and risky adventure—one that requires cunning, ruthlessness, imagination, and luck.

The anecdotes, which for the most part appear under a rubric called “Curiosity Shop,” are less successful, and seem to be merely digressions. The book also suffers from stylistic lapses—prose that is overheated and sometimes corny. But a more serious failing is that both the anecdotes and the capsule biographies raise questions that are left dangling—questions, precisely, about the distinctions among different kinds of ambition: commercial, literary, political.

The desire to better one's condition—the desire that animates many businessmen—is not what fuels a person with literary ambition, which rather resembles heroic ambition—the desire to make one's name in the world, the desire to be worthy of one's forebears. Is there not something in this distinction that makes it inevitable that writers will look down upon men of commerce? And what about political ambition? The capsule biography of Adlai Stevenson seems out of place in a book dominated by powerful entrepreneurs and, for the most part, successful writers. Whatever his admirable qualities, surely Stevenson was not one of America's more interesting politicians. And as Epstein himself suggests, there was even something lackluster and dilettantish about the quality of his ambition.

Neglecting politics, Epstein neglects a great American subject. Although they praised men of commerce as necessary to the health and stability of the country, the framers thought the country would not flourish without men of political ambition—men who aspired, as they themselves did, to win lasting fame as public men of honor, prudence, and wisdom. Both Hamilton and Madison were animated by that love of fame, which Hamilton in Federalist 72 calls “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” And both would have agreed with Francis Bacon that the best kind of ambition involves achieving the respect of other public men: “He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men, hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public.”

To raise this issue is perhaps to ask Epstein to have been more ambitious than he has chosen to be. As it is, he has produced a generally eloquent and witty attack upon those who “cannot own up to their interest in success … lest they be thought pushing, acquisitive, vulgar.” Ambition is a book both admirably free of cant and marked by what I would call critical generosity. For like the 18th-century defenders of the market, Epstein acknowledges that the company of commercial men may not be to one's liking. Still, “thinking about ambition,” he says, “has caused me to disregard the notion that our final judgment about the men and women of history hangs on the question of whether we should like to dine with them.” Commercial man may not be the finest flower of civilization, but we have learned in this century that to despise him is not only to despise prudence and moderation, but also to despise liberty.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 3 July 1981)

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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 should be able to uncover its many hiding places and faces once he strips off those layers of mystification and mealy-mouthed piety with which we have denied, suppressed, and hedged this passion about. The heart beats a little faster, for none of us is beyond a measure of glee at the unmasking of desire beneath the shroud of repressed denial.

To say that Epstein disappoints us is to understate the case. The book is a tedious exercise in coitus interruptus. Ambition, it turns out after all, is bourgeois common sense, “a certain Rotarian optimism …” Why Epstein persists in seeing his sanitized reduction of ambition from a passion to an interest as the resurrection of “a thing unseemly, in very poor taste, rather like a raging sexual appetite in someone quite elderly” is beyond me. The book has smooth sailing with a PG rating. It is fit for the eyes of every budding young American Horatio Alger and his contemporary female counterpart: shall we call her Harriet?

Epstein begins by stripping ambition down to “the fuel of achievement,” “the spirit of futurity.” “To be ambitious,” he tells us, “is to be future minded.” Sure, ambition produces “its usual perversities” but “whatever its excesses, ambition has at all times been the passion that best releases the energies that make civilization possible.” Epstein's favorite epochs, made possible by robust ambition, include Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, Italy under the Medici, France under Louis XIV and “one might wish to add to the list the United States of presidents Washington through Jefferson and England under Queen Victoria.” It is noteworthy that all the societies he mentions, with the possible exception of early America which hadn't quite got its act together in this regard, were expansionist, imperialist, or mercantilist city-states, empires, or nation-states, driven by desire for power and pelf, mistreating ‘barbarians,’ ‘lesser’ folks, darker-skinned folks, or simply their next-door neighbors. As Steve Martin has remarked about comedy, ambition isn't (necessarily) pretty.

Quick on the heels of Epstein's vacuous definition of ambition and his shopping list of favorite ambitious societies, begins one of a number of biographical sketches of ambitious persons. The first is Ben Franklin and the list includes, mostly, people who have made big bucks: John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Joseph Kennedy, though he throws in a few (Henry Adams) whose names were not made in the market. These cameo appearances by the ambitious departed are a species of hagiography, for clearly Epstein means to erect a pantheon of the ambitious for our edification. It's not quite as vapid as the self-help genre but it comes close. Why, at this late date, do we need a wholly inadequate sketch of John D. Rockefeller's life as an object lesson to the potentially wise? The individuals in Epstein's sketches never come alive—they are types set up for instruction, a species of capitalist socialist realism. They all point to Epstein's foregone conclusion, his epigrammatic summation of the meaning of America: “To offer a one-sentence gloss on American history, our has been a country of vast opportunity, enormous wealth, tremendous social fluidity, and a powerful belief in progress.” What's gone haywire, in Epstein's view, is that we remain a country of vast opportunity, enormous wealth, and tremendous social fluidity but we have lost our powerful belief in progress. It is just this he would restore through cheer-leading, positive thinking, and repeated reassurances that it's o.k. to be ambitious after all.

Who is this book meant for? Young people? The already powerful and successful? Balm for the ambivalent? Perhaps all of these in some measure. But it seems to me Epstein really intends to attack a host of enemies: hypocritical leftists and intellectuals, as well as professors and intellectuals, as well as the less-than-ambitious children of the successful who toss in the towel by becoming gardeners or truck drivers rather than Wall Street lawyers, doctors, and corporate leaders.

The people who really get Epstein's goat, and provide him with abundant evidence of rank “hypocrisy,” are authors of books that deplore affluence as the authors grow rich; “Marxist professors with two Volvos in the driveways of their summer homes;” and the “pharisaical spectacle” of revolutionary lawyers “quartered in their $250,000 Manhattan condominium, the critic of American materialism with a Southampton summer home …” on and on. Epstein's ire is considerable but misplaced. These are easy targets. More than one wealthy socialist has had to deal with the personal and political paradox (or apparent paradox) presented by his position. But to call this “hypocrisy” rather than to see it as an irony of the social relations and economic arrangements of capitalist society is simplistic. What does Epstein want? That the rich person with a social conscience shut up and enjoy himself? That he sell everything he has and give it to the poor? (If he were Carnegie or Rockefeller his actions would be ennobling philanthropy.) Does Epstein think social arrangements can be wholly without paradox?

A second group of persons comes in for Epstein's contempt: those who have ‘made it’ and then undergone a ‘crisis of success,’ together with those who haven't tried to make it at all. He notes the personal crises of such diverse success stories as Michael Harrington and Richard Dreyfuss, labels them both individuals determined to fail at success, then relabels their crises just one more example of a grim determination not to grow up. Ditto for all the Peter Pans spawned by the upper-middle class, all those feckless youths who would rather raise radishes than tear up Wall Street. He condemns them for choosing “the simpler life. “They have not failed life's tests,” he observes, “They have instead chosen not to take them.”

Amazingly, Epstein goes on to throw up as the example par excellence of ambition in our time Alexander Solzhenitzyn! That Solzhenitzyn would spit in Epstein's eye, having repeatedly condemned, in speeches and essays, the craving after ‘more’ that characterizes most of Epstein's thumb-nail sketched heroes of ambition, seems not to faze him at all. To call Solzhenitzyn's life a model of ambition is to pare that life down to Rotarian size, not to enlarge it.

When all is said and done, it is Epstein's vision of ambition that is pharisaical and hopelessly uninteresting. For all his words about “forming our own destiny,” for that is “what ambition is about,” he frames that destiny within the narrow strictures of success American style. He can do this because he presumes, against a vast body of evidence, that “equality of opportunity has grown greater and greater.” In a society in which fifteen percent of the population is below official poverty line and another 10-15 percent receive bare subsistence wages, it is Epstein's puzzlement that puzzles—but not for long. Epstein is a booster and boosters don't go in much for discomforting evidence and uncomfortable things like facts that may call their optimism into question. He can throw himself into a tizzy over the anomalous cases—a Marlon Brando earning $2.25 million for twelve days acting. But that isn't where the problem lies. The problem lies in a system of structural inequality in which income distribution, despite the graduated income tax, has remained fundamentally unchanged since 1910, and in which one-quarter to one-third of all American children, according to the Carnegie Council, are born into families with financial strains so great they will suffer basic deprivation.

Epstein begins with a self-proclaimed, bold attempt to reclaim ambition from limbo. Instead, his book works as a cover-up, a banal soporific. It may soothe the overheated brow of social conscience or throw oil over the troubled waters of pervasive social crisis. But Epstein's ‘secret passion’ turns out to be the de-fanged chant of the up-beat who hope that if they reiterate often enough just how terrific we have been and can be we will forget just how troubled we are.

Robert Sherrill (review date 9 October 1983)

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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 own?’”

On moviegoing: “Pauline Kael in The New Yorker is no longer quite to be believed. While she is doubtless the most talented of the people who regularly write about the movies, one too often feels that the movies are not sufficient subject for her—so that reading Pauline Kael prattling away page after page on, say, the movie Popeye becomes a spectacle akin to listening to someone play ‘Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats’ on a Stradivarius.”

On names: “Who is to say that, in their commercial instincts at least, the fantasy moguls of the West Coast were wrong? Would you go to see a movie starring Archie Leach and Issur Demsky, with Betty Perske in the female lead, in a Golbfisch Production? (Translation: a movie starring Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, and Lauren Bacall, a Goldwyn Production.)”

A writer who is as entertaining as Epstein shouldn't be wasting his time editing (The American Scholar) and teaching college kids (literature, at Northwestern University). If there were any justice, the government would take what the Pentagon spends on six gaskets and a six-foot aluminum ladder and subsidize Epstein to entertain us with essays full-time.

Russell Jacoby (review date 19 November 1983)

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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 Committee for the Free World, which Alfred Kazin savaged in The New York Review of Books. “Whenever I see a piece of print reading ‘The Committee for the Free World, Midge Decter Executive Secretary,’” commented Kazin, “I laugh.”

Epstein wasn't laughing. In 1973 he had chastised new conservatives who charged that “confusions about the glories of our national life” derived mainly from left-wing intellectuals. In 1983 he charged that left-liberal intellectuals spread confusion about the glories of our national life. He apprised the Free Worlders that “the contemporary literary scene is rife with writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a crude anti-Americanism.” Leading stockholders include Joseph Heller, E. L. Doctorow, Robert Stone, Ann Beattie and John Updike. Epstein objects to those writers and their “cliché leftism.” They all feel “angry, or soured, or depressed, or outraged, or filled with yearning.” Improbably, for Epstein those feelings are foreign to authentic artists, and they signal second-raters.

Like Hilton Kramer, he seems to believe that intellectuals, especially novelists, who dabble in politics constitute a new breed. Throughout recorded history, culture thrived uncorrupted by the crudities of politics—until the 1960s, from which we have not yet recovered. To illustrate, Epstein informed the Free Worlders that an intrepid colleague at his university had concluded that Walt Whitman was a racist, and William Carlos Williams a sexist. “Twenty or so years ago he would have been told by senior professors to knock off the politics and teach the books.” But “today even the senior professors are fearful of interfering with what they wrongly construe to be his academic freedom.” Oh, for the good old days when senior professors fearlessly guarded academic freedom!

Yet Epstein the sentry of literary un-Americanism and Epstein the commentator on American manners rarely meet in public. His more political essays have appeared in two pillars of neoconservatism—Commentary, where he recently chronicled his political evolution, and Kramer's The New Criterion—but he has not included them in this or his past collection. To be sure, the two Epsteins have had a sustained encounter in Ambition: The Secret Passion, a book that marked his definitive break with his left-liberal past. Throughout Ambition he grumbles that American novelists deride the solid American verities of money and success.

Ambition is almost an elegant self-help book. The back cover carries the label “Criticism/Social History” and a blurb from Forbes, “Must reading in executive suites.” Indeed the executives have reason to be pleased: the “criticism” is of failures and victims; the “social history” is of the rich and well-born. Epstein enthusiastically rediscovers the adage that it is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick. It turns out that Hemingway was wrong: the rich really are different. They even have better complexions: “In the faces of the wellborn and the wealthy there is frequently a lambency, a glow of something that is not light but akin to light.”

In Epstein's approach there is frequently a coldness that is not ideology but akin to ideology. A man of letters, he puts his money on the monied. He does not allow for an instant that those who reject society, or are rejected by it, may have principles and not just weaknesses. For Epstein, intellectuals who preach negation spread the curse of failure. The children of the rich are sent off to the “best schools,” where they are exposed to the carpings of tenured hypocrites. “They are taught to despise their parents' own aspirations and achievements.” In Epstein's utopia—which is, in fact, the reality—the ruling ideas are the ideas of the rulers.

Epstein the familiar essayist is much better. His loyalty to a nonacademic intellectual world makes him exceedingly valuable. With an obsolete verve, he blasts academic hustlers and promoters; he has no love for back-scratching professors, authors or reviewers. Indeed, compared with the professorial norm, his own career looks positively bohemian. Although he teaches at a university, he has no doctorate and has written no deadly monographs; instead, he has edited magazines and encyclopedias, and once even directed an antipoverty program. He has not passed through the mill, and it shows. His elegant essays summon up a cultural world, now almost vanished, in which literate intellectuals unfettered by semiotics and structuralism wrote for a public, not for a grant.

Nevertheless, at his best—and that is often superb—conservatism distorts his vision. Unlike other vigorous professor-baiters, such as H. L. Mencken, whom he frequently honors, Epstein shoots only to the left. He dumps on a Herbert Marcuse or a Michael Harrington; he has nothing to say about a Milton Friedman or an Irving Kristol. Little galls him more than radical professors with BMWs in their driveways or left-wing publishers with Southampton homes. State Department ideologues of authoritarianism or munitions executives with private planes do not bother him: they are, after all, honest. He denounces retail hypocrisy, not wholesale madness. Yet the critique of hypocrisy, T. W. Adorno reminded us, easily promotes naked force.

Epstein's political logic, or illogic, almost impales the essays on manners collected in The Middle of My Tether. Insofar as he believes that politics sullies culture, he can clear the air only by adding to the pollution—by writing political essays on culture. He half escapes this danger by separating his essays on manners from his more engaged pieces. Within the smaller universe of daily life, Epstein can graciously discourse without bumping into politics. Of course, he must travel prudently, choosing a route that does not pass a slum or an abandoned factory.

He is often successful. A typical Epstein essay is wryly titled “About Face,” and opens with Orwell's dictum “At fifty everyone has the face he deserves.” Epstein notes that he has several years to go to obtain “a noble brow, a strong chin, a deep and penetrating gaze, a nose that doesn't disappoint.” The prospects are not good; he has been told by various people that he resembles the actor Sal Mineo, the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and “a now deceased Yorkshire terrier named Max.” He is at a loss. “I have long appreciated the fact that the limits of self-knowledge begin at one's own kisser. To have stared at the damned thing so long and yet still not to know what it reveals is a true tribute to the difficulties of self-analysis.”

From there Epstein strolls through books and letters, meditating on what faces tell us. Few claim as a tenet of science that faces reveal character; yet somehow the mystery of personality is written in the face. It is our mode of operating in the world, drawing conclusions from faces. Epstein discusses the faces of Gide, Valéry and Auden; he pulls passages from George Eliot and Henry James. He chats about fat faces and offensively pretty faces, potato faces, dumb faces and more: makeup, plastic surgery, sunglasses. It is a perfect essay: learned and light, witty and thoughtful. The same can be said of many of his pieces—for instance, his reflections on New York City or receiving the mail or class reunions. They are treats, with sentences and thoughts that charm.

Yet in order to maintain his poise, Epstein habitually dances back from the edge. Not only does his universe shrink to daily life, he shrinks from upsetting or challenging his readers. That he writes of the world of upper-middle-class graying intellectuals—their books, hobbies and desires—is no sin, but he writes only in pastels. A deadening self-satisfaction often rises to the surface. Epstein has developed a personal voice that is almost too self-possessed and a rapport with his readers that is almost too unruffled. He continually returns to the phrase “for most of us,” which allows him to sink back and reassure himself and his readers. “For most of us,” he says, after all, life is fine. No sourness here.

In his last essay he reflects that the future does not interest him. Perhaps, he mulls, this indicates “the fact that, yes, I rather like my life as it is now.” The “yes” hints at fleeting belligerency, as if only depressed intellectuals would have us believe our lives are troubled. “Am I alone,” he continues, “in never having lost a moment's sleep over the rate of deforestation or the world's population growth?” He confides, “I have yet to toss and turn over soil erosion.”

From there it is a half step, which he neatly executes, to utter indifference to social and political realities. “For most of us,” those never seem to change—unlike daily life. “It is not, I suspect, the approaching ice age or the draining of the seas that depresses most of us; it is the little things. I do not wish to air my dirty linen in public, but may I talk a bit about my shirt problem?” And he does. Since the Chinese couple retired, laundries have mauled, at a much higher price, Epstein's shirts. This only begins the pestilences visited upon him. For $110 the Barclay Hotel assigned him a room with broken beds and a view of the air shaft; the postal service has deteriorated. Soon he'll grouse about the servant problem.

Along the byways of his everyday life Epstein writes essays that crackle with wit and insight; he is an observer with a gift for detail and language. Yet the turf is small, and is perhaps getting smaller; even here, conservatism and self-satisfaction threaten to dull his sensibilities. His more engaged essays, which he has not collected, challenge and accuse; they are also fractured. He braves the hustlers and professors, so as to embrace wealth beyond the hustle. He derides fashionable politics, and fashionably preaches Americanism. Not yet 50, Epstein risks a future playing two roles, a fireside philosopher for aging intellectuals and a literary consultant for money managers.

David Bromwich (review date 8 June 1987)

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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 call an “easy-chair” essayist. He has a taste for the older, less easy essayists, as he demonstrates sometimes by writing about them, more often by imitating or stealing their effects. “Vulgarity is the garlic in the salad of charm”: Cyril Connolly. “Flattery is the pit in the plum of praise”: Joseph Epstein.

“Imagine,” he invites us, in an essay composed of a mildly expurgated selection from his journals—“Imagine, then, my journal entries about people whom [sic] I feel are my enemies. Vengeance, the Italians say, is a dish best served cold. My plan is to serve mine posthumously.” Lest you suspect him of getting above himself, he instantly confides that “my only hope [for posthumous publication] is that standards continue to fall at the same splendidly alarming rate as they have been for some years now.” In another writer this would pass as self-irony. In Epstein, it goes with an inveterate distrust of himself and others—the private accompaniment of his public self-esteem.

Still, all his more pronounced traits are glossed over by a habitual and relaxed pomposity. “One of the few things I have ever disagreed with Henry James about is. …” “Was it in A. J. P. Taylor's autobiography that I read … ?” This, again, is the easy-chair style. Hazlitt, Lamb, Shaw, Chesterton, and the other essay writers whom Epstein alternately lauds and ventriloquizes were capable of nodding off into prefatory disclaimers like these. But they told you not only that they had read certain books, but something interesting about the books. Epstein has done intelligent work as a reviewer; but the freedom of these essays (all but one written for his own magazine, the American Scholar) has made him wearingly sententious. These days, when he wants to show himself thinking about books, he has to fortify his prose with solemn banalities. “[Conrad's] heroes are among the loneliest figures in literature and among the most moving in part because of their solitariness, which gives them their tragic dimension.” That, if you like, is the depressive Epstein; the manic comes out in a passing shot like “See you later obfuscator.”

Both of the above sentences are wide of the norm in this book. Still, Epstein writes about style so constantly, with so ponderous an air of staking his claim, that his essays seem one long entreaty for a judgment of his own worth as a stylist. The truth is, he writes well enough to be read, sometimes, with pleasure, for paragraphs at a stretch, but not well enough to set up as an authority on writing. “She is too intent,” he remarks of Anaïs Nin, “on ‘the quest for the self,’ as she more than once puts it, but after a page or two [of her diaries] I invariably find myself giving her quest a rest.” There he is, neatly cutting up a piece of California-sounding jargon; yet the jingle of “quest-rest,” which ends his own sentence, is the sort of optional humor that a surer writer would avoid.

Even in his best conscious effects, Epstein is a gagman—in this resembling at least one talented writer he loathes, Philip Roth. His most appealing stuff calls for a broad delivery; as in the following passage, which begins with an extract from his journals:

“Five years ago I found much about life absurd; nowadays I find many of the same things merely sad. It would be good to be able to regress a little in this sphere.” As a Borscht Belt comedian might say, “Hey, c'mon folks, these are the jokes—yuk it up!” The comedian's name in this case might be young Jackie Werther.

Here I think he spoils the joke, as he commonly does, by verbiage at the end. Even when he gets the punch line right, he has an unsettling habit of explaining it away. He never, he says, read Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, or quite all of Lord Jim. “Is there a pattern emerging?” Then he gives a separate sentence on how he seems to dislike books that have the word “Lord” in the title.

When not on stilts, Epstein ambles along at a folksy-chumsy pace (the model, now, being closer to Thurber). This game, too, he gives away by a certain acquired coarseness, a scholastic vulgarity. To carry it off, at any rate, you need very fine tuning; but under Epstein's touch the sober, slow, Midwestern style becomes a placeless and timeless patois, in which people “allow as how” they'd like to do something, in which boys are “lads” and girls are “lasses,” and in which the author can say “If I had my druthers.” These, once more, are anomalies, but “for the vast most part” is not. The extra word is a tedious embroidery of a necessary commonplace. It says, in effect, “Writer was here.” But language is more impervious than that: it cares for the traces a writer has left, not for how hard he tried to leave them.

Much of Epstein's writing, in matters of argument no less than style, is similarly occupied with the pedantry of small differences. Consider the book's opening essay, “Work and Its Contents.” It starts off by taking issue with Michael Walzer's proposal that degrading work be equally shared. By referring to Walzer as “a social theorist of sorts,” Epstein implies, cunningly, that there are only theorists of sorts, whereas he himself is a practical fellow. But the argument that ensues is pointless. It says that work is lucky if it's pleasant, unlucky if it's not, and anyway a part of life we're better off with than without. Epstein believes that work is more vital to our nature than play, and he invokes Carlyle to that effect. Carlyle, however, took this view a long way; for him, the cotton picking of Negro slaves counted as work, and he defended it accordingly. Though Epstein has crotchets, he shows no sign yet of going this far. The essay, in fact, seems to have begun, and should have been kept, simply as a homage to his father, who used to tell him every morning to get cracking.

The foregoing is a typical plot for an Epstein essay. The typical contents are: anecdotes, quotations, names (casually lifted or impressively dropped). He shares with a few good essayists and a great many bad ones the ambition of using an apparently shapeless mass of materials to suggest a bold and inquisitive temperament. Yet his subject matter is limited. Almost all these essays, as will have been plain already, are about two things: books and success. Let me put it more dramatically. Two demons, Culture and Chicago, haunt Joseph Epstein's imaginings. They are fighting for possession of his soul (sort of); and the essays are a dialogue between them. Or rather, a monologue with an auditor who holds veto power over every utterance. Culture wrote the essays. Chicago's job is to remind the author that books aren't money. This news usually hits Epstein awfully hard. To recover, and in an effort to placate both of the contesting parties, he summons all the extrinsic facts about himself that might prejudice both in his favor. For example: that businessmen admire his prose; and that a friend once called him “the Sammy Davis Jr. of American letters.”

Of the 16 essays in this book, I enjoyed reading three: one about eating too much, one about being “a former good guy,” and one called “My Friend Martin.” The last is an affecting, as well as a vivid, eulogy, though it is echt Epstein to describe one of his friend's special virtues as follows: “He was very efficient—that is to say, unfailingly correct—at spotting closeted homosexuals.” By contrast, “A Former Good Guy and His Friends” may be the most disturbing thing in the book, for it exposes the author in a way he doesn't quite seem to grasp. He writes of his own high school rotarianism in a curious stretch of self-analysis:

No one was too lowly for me to court. I became a boredom-proof listener, a full-time dispenser of bonhomie. Sashaying through the halls of our high school, greeting my innumerable conquests in the Good Guy sweepstakes, I uttered a stream of babblesome salutations not to be equaled for inanity outside a major league infield: “Hi babes,” “What say,” “How're you makin' it,” “Take it easy,” “Hang in there,” “How's it goin',” “Be good,” “Yo!” and 15 or 20 other utterances of equal profundity that I have since forgotten. … Still, I may have exulted too much, albeit secretly, in this knack I had for making friends easily. Sometimes I would try this knack out, like a professional tenor singing in the shower at home, for the sheer pleasure of exercising it. I would choose a young thug (“hoods” we then called them), or a shy girl, or someone whose background was utterly different from my own, and set out to win him or her over to my ever-enlarging stable of friends. Almost always I succeeded. It was pure art, really—friends for friends' sake.

Oddly, he believes that he has now stopped being this kind of good guy. To readers of this book, it will be clear that only his tactics and his audience have changed. Now he wants to be liked, not for his salutations but for his prejudices. He aims, it's true, to attract only a certain class of friends, and doesn't mind having enemies. But his knowing just how to put down Norman Mailer, or some other celebrated writer of the day; his saying that in the '60s “E. T. A. Hoffmann, not Abbie Hoffman, was my idea of a hero”; his report of a fan letter he once received from Anthony Powell, and the humble-servant reply he puts into print (his work, beside Powell's, was “a small quid for a large quo”): these are, above all, ingratiating attitudes, on exactly the same level of profundity as “Yo!” or “Mellow greetings, yookie dookie!”

“To learn the degree of one's own mind,” reflects Epstein, “let alone that of others, is not so simple. It is chiefly because he knew his own mind so wondrously well that Montaigne, among other reasons, shall always be honored.” The anticlimactic “is not so simple,” the extra puff in “among other reasons,” and that unhappy “shall” (an illiteracy of the educated) deserve mention in the journal of “Your Basic Language Snob,” which is what Epstein calls himself in one essay. But he does, in a sense, know his limitations. As he observes in a journal extract:

Through my ersatz eminence as editor of a respected, if still less than dazzling, magazine, I find myself [now] more frequently in touch with writers and intellectuals of some—how to say it?—standing. Might as well note down these meetings, for the practice they provide in portraiture and for a 20-watt light bulb on the age.

This is certainly disarming, perhaps more so than it can afford to be. But it is meant to be dismissed. On the limitations of others, these essays contain a much larger fund of observations, seriously meant. “Fritz,” for one, whom Epstein worked with once at a jewelry concession: “a fine companion,” “in all a decent sort,” he was “a boozer, not a nipper but a binger. He would miss work for two or three days, then come in as if nothing were amiss, his same good, gentle self. For reasons never known to me, and perhaps not to himself, he was not to become one of the world's winners.” I find the last sentence so abrupt as to be almost opaque. Being a winner has nothing to do with this anecdote; and besides, what would qualify as a “reason”?

Maybe, after all, Epstein measures himself too much against the dazzling winners of this world and compares himself too comfortably to those he thinks it safe to regard as losers. These moods, seemingly opposite, are of course allied with each other, and they bring out a streak of meanness in the author. He is more gracious, and more gentle too, when pondering the great writers whose posthumous fame has made them appear unworldly. Thus in his essay on sports, he calls himself a fair athlete among writers and a fair writer among athletes; and, thinking of Hemingway's comment about the risk of getting into the ring as a novelist with Mr. Tolstoy, he decides to turn the conceit around: “Let me put it this way: I'm ready any time to play Ping-Pong with Mr. Balzac. And if Mr. Dostoyevsky ever cares to go one-on-one half court with me or to shoot a little game of ‘Horse,’ I'm ready to take him on, too.”

This is both funny and—a rare thing with Epstein—unmannered. Indeed, the joke is better than the worldly wisdom it pays the way for: “As with sex, so with sports: too much talk about it tends to leave one a bit dubious.” This strikes me as wrong. There is no connection, not even a negative one, between performance and bragging in either of the pursuits in question. On the other hand, if what Epstein believes to be true of sex and sports were true also of “the possession of general culture,” all the talk in Once More Around the Block would tend to leave one a bit dubious.

Colin Welch (review date 7 November 1987)

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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 last afternoons with Uncle Morris Shapiro or, alternatively, by elegising about terminal days at Grossinger's—an East Coast resort unfamiliar to me but, according to the omniscient Shirley Robin Letwin, well known for Jewish jollity, junketing, browsing and sluicing, a sort of American Brighton with knobs on. By the same token, I would not expect to accompany with such delight ‘once more around the block’ a chap called Eliot Lowell Winthrop III rather than plain Joseph Epstein.

Mr Epstein's genealogy, if humbler than Lowell's, must have been at least as prodigiously helpful. (His father was in fact a salesman who enjoyed his job and was good at it: a standing rebuke to the unctuously patronising Arthur Miller.) His genealogy enables him confidently to tackle any idea or theme, not only seriously but unseriously, with dazzling displays of American Jewish wit and wisdom, argot and wisecracks.

Some of you will flinch at this prospect, as at the thought of a month at Grossinger's or pickled herring and sour cream at every meal. Don't, I beg you. Not without reason did George Will call Mr Epstein ‘America's premier essayist’. Between the jokes he is serious and thoughtful: indeed many of the jokes are themselves at root serious and thoughtful, earning more than a laugh from readers of the American Scholar, where most of these pieces first appeared. An endearingly old fashioned, gentle and reflective tone often prevails, recalling premier American essayists of another day like Oliver Wendell Holmes. Revering that great man as he does, Mr Epstein will presumably be more flattered by the comparison than by being thought of, as a good friend once thought of him, as ‘the Sammy Davis Jr of American Letters’.

By this sincere but poisoned compliment Mr Epstein was gratefully appalled. He would be ‘willing to pay anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars on any given night simply not to see him [Mr Davis] perform.’

Mr Epstein is clearly a man of taste. His bêtes noires are on the whole chosen with great discrimination. They include Woody Allen, Leonard Bernstein and the Beatles (at least when ‘wrongly called “geniuses”’); Studs Terkel; Meryl Streep (at least when awarded an honorary degree by a publicity-crazed Yale); Norman Mailer (said to be ‘the most talented writer we have just now’: if this be so, Mr Epstein bids us wake him later); Gore Vidal and Alfred Kazin (who compared Mr Epstein, much to his gratification, respectively with Hitler and Zhdanov, their dispraise to him no faint praise); all purveyors of ‘psychobabble and trashy corporate and computer talk’ like ‘supportive’, ‘input’ and, in the modish sense, ‘workshop’; Walter Cronkite, D. H. Lawrence and Hugh Hefner as ‘humorless’; for various reasons, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Renata Adler, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia Marques and, quite inexplicably to me, William F. Buckley Jr. Mr Epstein actually damages one of the best Bill Buckley stories by telling it in a version perhaps truer but surely less funny than mine. As I have it, Bill put ‘Vidal, Gore … 176’ (say) in the index of one of his books, and sent Vidal a signed copy. The vain beneficiary at once looked up his name, turned feverishly to the page indicated and found no reference to himself in the printed text, only a pencilled note in the margin, ‘Good to have you with us, Gore’, or words to the effect.

Anathema to Mr Epstein are also nouvelle cuisine (like ‘devouring a Kandinsky or a Frank Stella painting’); with reservations, Kenneth Tynan; the classless society, as exemplified by Chicago University (aiming at ‘passionate Bohemianism’, achieving often only ‘grim scruffiness’); Stephen Spender (Mr Epstein prefers not to jeopardize his strong distaste for Spender's writing by risking a personal encounter); beards, vanity car number plates and car telephones; pretentious first names like Ashley and Fairfax; the Sixties, the Me Decade (to him the You Decade) and its gurus, Allan Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Herbert Marcuse and Abbie Hoffman.

No one who dislikes all these persons (Buckley excepted) and phenomena can be all bad. Our favourable impression of Mr Epstein is confirmed by all the people and things, in fact far more numerous, he warmly approves of and eloquently celebrates. Many can be deduced from the converse of his dislikes. They conspicuously include eating, reading, friendship (oh, yes), curious but interesting information and a good laugh.

Agreed, not all those who pontificate about humour (didn't Freud called it joke-work or the like?), as Mr Epstein does at length, are themselves noted rib-ticklers or mirthquakes. Mr Epstein quotes Wittgenstein to the effect that people with different senses of humour spoil each other's game: instead of throwing the ball back they ‘put it in their pocket’. A shrewd remark: but somehow I can't see Wittgenstein rolling them in the aisles at Blackpool. At Grossinger's, by contrast, Mr Epstein might score with such traditional pleasantries as the one about the Jew accused by a drunk of sinking the Titanic: ‘What do you mean? An iceberg sunk the Titanic’—‘Iceberg, Greenberg, Goldberg—you're all no damn good.’ Or the crack about the man who was so impervious to evil tidings, so wearily above it all, that, if you told him his eyeballs had just dropped out, he would only reply, ‘no sweat, he had another pair in the car’.

Or Mr Epstein's rueful perception that in New York everybody looks Jewish, even the cab horses in Central Park. Or his superb rendering of the American television warning: ‘Due to mature theme, viewer discretion advised’, which he translates as ‘Simulated fornication, extreme violence and filthy language follow—get the kids the hell out of the room’. I find him very funny indeed, as I hope he might find it if I called him the Les Dawson of American letters. He is indeed much besides: but then, so is Les Dawson.

Agreed too, not all who write much about friendship, as Mr Epstein also does, make good friends. Mr Epstein quotes St. John Perse's freezing judgment on Gide, ‘a man of this sort intoxicates himself with friendship more than he actually attaches himself to a friend’. Mr Epstein, by contrast, plainly has countless friends—his writings must have won him many more.

He wryly laments that his diaries are not ‘namely’. They contain no Mitfords, no Waughs (lucky for him—he doesn't like Wodehouse), no André, Willie or Morgan, no Windsors or royalties whatsoever. He leaves his apartment too little to be able to compile a really interesting index—with, under the letter R, for example, Rathenau, Ravel, Max Reinhardt, Lord Reith, Rilke, Rodin, Ida Rubinstein and so on. He mildly envies Count Harry Kessler: ‘This afternoon Cocteau and Picasso suddenly entered my room and were just as suddenly gone again’. Another Spectator puzzle: imagine all these nine people suddenly entering Mr Epstein's room and report what they all said before they just as suddenly left it.

The proof of Mr Epstein's capacity for friendship is not of course that he has met Saul Bellow, Lillian Hellman, John Sparrow, Martha Graham, I. F. Stone, Kissinger and other nobs of that sort. No, it lies in his loving portraits of people who won't matter to history but matter to him. I single out a whole masterly essay devoted to a chap called Martin. Who he? Well, until he sadly died, he was a friend of Mr Epstein's—in this respect, if alas in few others, a lucky man, luckier than Bill Buckley, luckier than I.

Sanford Pinsker (review date spring 1988)

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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 in the pages of American Scholar.

In short, we can imagine having lunch with the second Epstein: no doubt he would order a hearty meal (no tofu with a side of alfalfa sprouts for him); he wouldn't wring our hearts with soggy tales of his midlife crisis or the darter snail's plight; he would probably pick a three-star restaurant and throw some good conversation about the Goncourts into the bargain. In a world that too easily divides itself between the angry and the anxious, Epstein is, of all things, satisfied. At the age of forty, he tells us, he “stopped complaining”:

This will seem rather less uplifting than it at first may sound when I go on to say that I was greatly aided in this resolve by having the ground for complaint swept out from under me by having almost everything in life I had ever hoped for … among the assets I tote up as my own: a wife I adore, work that keeps me perpetually interested, good health, and (thus far along) supreme good luck. I also like where I live.

Far be it from me to wish Mr. Epstein marital discord, the loss of his job, poor health, or a siege of bad luck, but I must confess that I read his lines with a certain amount of embarrassment. What essays, I keep wondering, can come from a voice that fairly crows about its smugness? Or, put another way, how will he differ—except by way of highbrow allusions—from those who figure that in a dog-eat-dog world, it is better to be a top, rather than a bottom, dog?

The answer, of course, is that the two Epsteins have more in common than the author of the 16 essays collected in Once More Around the Block would have us believe. Granted, he knows enough about the Chicago Cubs to yack it up with the Great Unwashed; he cheerfully admits that he has never gotten round to finishing Lord Jim; he can even recall “the stew of American life,” when he went through basic training with Missouri farmers, Appalachian miners, an American Indian auto mechanic, a black car salesman from Detroit, a Jewish lawyer from Chicago, and a fundamentalist high-school teacher from Kansas. But for all his efforts to be a Good, Egalitarian Guy, Epstein tends to look at American culture by sighting down his nose. He enjoys nothing so much as pulling down liberal pretentiousness or in sniffing out examples of the trendy, the frivolous, the mush-headed.

Sometimes it is a matter of language, pure and simple: “Mention to me that when you were young your parents were very ‘supportive,’ tell me that before ‘finalizing’ your plans you would like my ‘input,’ remark that the job in which you are ‘presently’ employed provides you with a ‘nurturing environment’—say all or any of these things and you will not, I hope, see a muscle in my face move.” Epstein is, in the words of the essay's title, “Your Basic Language Snob.” But he can also cut you dead if there are oxymorons on your bumper.

The other day, in a parking lot where I live, I noted a rather dingy Saab automobile, with an antenna for a telephone on its roof, an Oberlin College decal on its back window, and bumper stickers reading “National Computer Camp” and “I Support Greenpeace.” Now there is a vehicle with a lot of class—and, symbolic of our time, a lot of class confusions.

Epstein keeps a keen eye out for such cultural confusions; indeed, they are the stuff of which his familiar essays are made. He can, for example, work himself up into a good verbal mad when he considers (a) how inflation has raised the ante where recommendations, book jacket blurbs, and literary prizes are concerned, (b) our current mania for book lists that will turn us instantly into educated men and women, and (c) how bookstores have turned both efficient and boring. At bottom, Epstein keeps insisting, most people live lives of noisy desperation—and this includes, perhaps above all, those who went ga-ga in the late sixties. How else to explain this portrait/caricature of the hippy that, even in his twenties, Epstein “confesses” he was not:

I was not yet thirty, and hence technically trustworthy, but exceedingly ill-prepared to join the kiddie corps. I had a family and a well-paying job; I had, for crying out loud, a mortgage. Wearing my hair in the style of George Eliot or pulled back in a ponytail like Debbie Reynolds did not seem to be, as people said at the time, “my thing.” I prefer to think that I had too much irony—and, I hope, iron—in my makeup to smoke pot with either a straight or a laughing face. I rather liked to wear a necktie; had I wished to wear bell-bottoms, I should have joined the Navy. Allen Ginsberg was not my idea of a serious writer, nor Timothy Leary of a clear thinker, nor Herbert Marcuse of a profound philosopher. The sixties, when you got right down to it, was not my idea of a nice time.

Epstein makes much—perhaps a bit too much—of his predilection to see E. T. A. Hoffman, rather than Abbie, as his hero. The point in all this, of course, is to place himself on the side of the angels, which, for Epstein, is also the side of adult hood, responsibility, and seriousness.

But Epstein is also savvy enough to know what a John Simon has yet to discover—namely, that snobbishness must be occasionally leavened with a dash of self-deprecation. So, Epstein breaks into his meditation on turning fifty (“An Older Dude”) to tell us that “I happen to be writing this in a short-sleeve rugby shirt, chino pants, and tasseled loafers. I am an older dude myself”—this, lest we imagine him scrivening away like Bartelby, with cheap three-piece suiting and a quill pen.

Unfortunately, what begins as a rhetorical ploy quickly turns into an affectation. In an essay about eating—one that chews over our current fascination with the decaffeinated, the low fat, the noncholesterol—Epstein begins by telling us that “though I am prepared to admit that Gluttony can be deadly, I am not at all prepared to say it is a sin. As soon as I pop this chocolate-chip cookie in my mouth, I shall attempt to explain what I mean.”

What follows is something like the standard formula for a familiar essay, Epstein-style: there are offhand references (“Was it Cyril Connolly who said that within every fat man a thin man struggles to get out?”) and literary tidbits (“… Edith Wharton was a woman with an eye always out for the main course.”); generous helpings of autobiography; and a close that brings us full-circle to the chocolate-chip cookie that was presumably in Epstein's mouth the whole time:

There is, then, a deep fraudulence at the heart of this essay. While writing it I ate a fruit salad, munched on salt-free crackers, drank the abysmal brew known as diet soda, kept a postcard-size picture of the obese Orson Welles taped to my refrigerator. More shocking to report yet, while writing this essay, I actually lost two pounds. Oh civilization! Oh bloody discontents!

Epstein's subjects change from essay to essay, but his techniques remain predictably the same. When he wonders, in a piece called “This Sporting Life,” if there is any way to justify the staggering number of hours he spends as sports fan, he sets up his argument this way:

What can be said on behalf of all the time I have put in watching games? Does it come to nothing more than—in the most literal sense of the word—a pastime, or passing time? Have my many hours spent watching games, either before my television or “live” (what a word!), been without any redeeming value? Am I doing nothing more than killing time? Enough questions. Stop stalling. Justify yourself or get off the couch. All right, since I have a few hours on my hands while awaiting a football game from the West Coast, let me try.

I cite these examples—there are others as Mr. Epstein pokes around his neighborhood—because they raise some interesting questions: when does a bit of stylistic razzle-dazzle turn “cute,” then cloying, and finally infuriating? Put another way, at what point do Epstein's essays begin to take on the dreary condition of thick collections of humor (e.g., The Oxford Book of Light Verse or The Big Book of Jewish Humor):

Reading joke after joke, comic piece after comic piece, is like eating a cookie that is all chocolate chips—it doesn't take long for one's teeth to begin aching and one's lips to purse like those of a bank officer greeting a couple who has missed their last eleven mortgage payments.

Epstein's idea of a well-turned joke—and this as one who writes both about linguistic purity (“Your Basic Language Snob”) and humor (“What's So Funny?”)—is to quote Jesse Jackson (“Values lead to values.”) and then to crack: “See ya later, obfuscator” or to say of Anais Nin's penchant for the introspective, “… after a page or two I invariably find myself giving her quest a rest.” Evidently it is harder for him to resist playing it cute than it is to pass up a chocolate chip cookie.

It is also hard for Epstein to suffer fools gladly or, for that matter, even at all. Take a subject like “work.” As Epstein would have it, never have so many pulled so hard at the wrong end of the stick. After all, what could an anticapitalist possibly know about work? A book like Studs Terkel's Working, for example, insists that the world of work is “about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.” Moreover, Terkel's FM radio talk show has a seemingly endless parade of guests eager to kick corporate America in the slats. Epstein imagines a typical show this way:

It might be an interview with a man who has written a book about, say, IBM having recently acquired the Gerber baby food company, and he has discovered that the plumbing connected to the urinals in the executive washroom at IBM leads directly to the assembly line at the Gerber baby food factory, and … “That's right, Studs, it's as bad as you think.”

Closer to home, Epstein's father was a salesman, and not only that, but one who enjoyed his work, and was good at it. Had Arthur Miller known his father, Epstein argues, he might well not have gone on to write the “lumpy and mawkish play about Willy Loman” we know as Death of a Salesman. In “Work and Its Contents”—as in other excursions into literary judgment—Epstein rests his case on assertions he regards as self-evident. The point about work, he tells us, is really quite simple: it is

neither intrinsically dignified nor undignified; it is the people doing the work who give it its character. There are people who can make the creation of poetry or leadership of a large university or corporation seem loathsome, and then there are people who can make the job of porter or waitress seem a good and useful thing.

Why, then, does Professor Michael Walzer take to the pages of Harper's with an article entitled, of all things, “Dirty Work Should Be Shared.” According to Professor Walzer, in the best of all possible worlds, machines or robots or some such would do the nasty business of hauling out the garbage. But short of that, “we should all do it.” Now, nothing—not even a dangling modifier—gets Epstein's dander up more quickly than an egalitarian sentiment, especially when it barely disguises its political agenda.

Walzer's article ends on this note: “Society's worst jobs should not be the exclusive business of a pariah class, powerless, dishonored, underpaid.” Epstein responds as follows:

When one begins to talk about work in connection with power, honor, and payment, one steps onto a verdant field of quicksand. The world's work is, after all, only rarely paid for commensurately with its worth … I used to hear the argument made fairly regularly that teachers are greatly underpaid, and at some point in this argument someone would inevitably say, “Why even garbage collectors make more!” As someone in favor of better education—a courageous stand for me to take, don't you think?—this argument always made me a trifle edgy. I thought that garbage collectors deserved more. For one thing, teachers are usually teachers by choice, while garbage collectors collect garbage for want of anything better to do. For another, a good teacher is rather rare, but who knows a bad garbage collector? But if we are going to talk about the underpaid, what about that national treasure, that lonely yet proud figure, on whose shoulders so much of the quality of a country's culture depends—I speak of course of that splendid and stalwart chap, the essayist.

As I have tried to point out, one reads Epstein's essays in a variety of ways: on one's guard, in disbelief, but also (let me admit it) with a certain delight. He can be, and often is, a formidable stylist, especially when his grinding stone and axe are propped in the corner, when his sheet of one-liners is folded up inside his pocket, and when he writes from the deeper regions of his heart. “My Friend Martin” is a moving example of the last item at full-throated strength. I suspect Mr. Epstein's neighborhood would be a richer, less contentious place had there have been more Martins and less straw people in Once More Around the Block's pages.

Michael Dirda (review date 29 January 1989)

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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 closure in the minor novels of Charlotte M. Yonge should save their money for a subscription to Diacritics or Signs; Epstein's essays repeatedly mock academicians “who manage to make literature seem much more complicated while at the same time a good deal less interesting than one would have thought possible.” If it didn't sound so disparaging, one might call Partial Payments the adventures of a soul among the masterpieces. Practicing what he calls “literary portraiture,” Epstein hopes more to discover and estimate the moral character of authors than to offer literary criticism of their work.

Sounds pretty old-fashioned, doesn't it? In fact, Epstein belongs to the middle-brow tradition of the journalistic Man of Letters, and his forebears include such figures as George Saintsbury and Austin Dobson, Joseph Wood Krutch and Van Wyck Brooks, all of whom specialized in writing well for general readers about the books and writers they loved. Which is why I think of Epstein primarily as an entertainer: He may hope to correct taste and lead new readers to Evelyn Waugh or Henry James, but there is nothing really new in anything he writes, beyond an engaging point of view and a fine prose style—neither to be sniffed at and both the hallmarks of the born essayist. Of course, readers of The New Criterion and Commentary, where most of these pieces first appeared, wouldn't sit still for the detail, argument and illustration required by real criticism and scholarship.

But even intelligent readers don't usually want seminars; they just want to have fun (of a rather specialized sort), and Epstein provides a carrelful. Of the 19 essays collected here, most offer appreciations of favorite essayists or novelists, from Matthew Arnold (whom Epstein holds up as an ideal man of letters—a quixotic venture, if ever there was one) to H. L. Mencken, from V. S. Naipaul to boys' sports author John R. Tunis. These assessments are so enthusiastic, so well-done that sharp booksellers should label each chosen author, in the manner of wine importers, “A Joseph Epstein Selection.” They would immediately sell out their copies of Beerbohm's Seven Men, Waugh's Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.

Not that it takes special skills to admire such authors, or such books. Where Epstein really shines is in rehabilitating the neglected, as in the superb, and often moving, revaluations, “Is It All Right to Read Somerset Maugham?,” “The Awkward Genius of Theodore Dreiser,” and “George Santayana and the Consolations of Philosophy.” These make clear that Epstein likes best those writers engaged with life itself, men and women who share hard-won wisdom, who know that all is vanity but still manage to make something beautiful, who recognize that life's sadness gives urgency to life's pleasures.

Seriousness, moral character, gravity—such late Roman virtues are very much Epstein's, and he measures his subjects against them. “Psychology wants to know what a man's problems are; character has to do with how he surmounts them.” Marguerite Yourcenar is “serious about serious things—and that, nowadays, is not everybody's notion of how novelists ought to conduct business.” Too much of this uplift would be hard to take, were it not for Epstein's “mixed” style. He salts his paragraphs with aphorisms from his reading, biographical tidbits (more of these appear in his three volumes of familiar essays), unobtrusive puns, sports lingo and slang. At its best this prose is hard to better, is almost as good as Randall Jarrell's; occasionally, though, it suggests a cultured Northwestern professor and editor of The American Scholar straining to sound like a hip, street-wise dude.

Nonetheless, Epstein really irritates some readers only when he approaches writers he doesn't like (though no one in Partial Payments suffers the beatings administered to Mailer, Updike, Roth and Beattie in the 1985 Plausible Prejudices). Knowledge that S. J. Perelman “was fundamentally not nice does not lubricate one's laughter; quite the reverse, it can cause one to gag on the gags.” Maybe. I think these literary portraits make too much of the impact of biography on our judgments of a writer's work. Writers and artists are notoriously bad citizens, with unfashionable politics, messy private lives, abandoned children and teen-aged lovers. Only when we start judging artists and creators as moral exempla do we run into the problems Epstein finds in the work of Perelman (despicable character), Borges (too fanciful), E. B. White (kneejerk liberal politics). Epstein himself raises this biographical problem, without grappling with it, in his piece on Dreiser—a terrible man in private life and yet “America's greatest novelist.” This tendency to preachiness reaches its apex in a paragraph about E. M. Forster which proclaims that the 1960s made Forster's liberal vision seem “so thin, so hollow, and finally so empty.” As Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui.

Since we share many of the same tastes—I admire virtually all the writers Epstein praises—I am also sorry that he is too “serious” for purely imaginative art. He appreciates prose style, humor, commonsense, character, politics, moral purpose, but to the pure beauty of form, to literature as fable, vision, speculation, game, extrapolation, arabesque, he has virtually no sympathy whatever. Still, as Oscar Wilde used to say, only an auctioneer can like everything. Even when I disagree with him, I still find that there is no contemporary literary essayist quite as much fun to read and reread as Joseph Epstein.

Carol Iannone (review date 21 April 1989)

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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 deliciously amused and amusing, studded with choice nuggets from their author's wide and varied reading. The voice is totally his own, both genial and astringent, honest, unhurried, subtle.

The keynote essay in Partial Payments is an appreciation of the now-unfashionable Matthew Arnold, whose belief in the “interconnectedness” of “literary, moral, and spiritual values” makes him an important figure to the Resistance. Arnold's insistence “that nothing was quite so important as literature and that literature was never to be treated as an end in itself” runs bracingly counter to academic critics who have managed to depreciate literature both by placing it on the same level as popular culture and by making contemporary criticism—with its arcane theories of structuralism, semiotics, and deconstructionism—an inaccessible, self-enclosed exercise in gameplaying.

Another target of Epstein's Resistance is modernism, or at least the excesses of modernism resulting from the belief that literature must be difficult, tormented, and bleak. Thus Epstein commends to our highbrow attention certain writers whom critics nursed on the haughty premises of modernism might well disdain—Barbara Pym, Max Beerbohm, Philip Larkin (“the poet for the nonprofessional”), Somerset Maugham (in an essay pointedly titled “Is It All Right to Read Somerset Maugham?”). Epstein argues that the work of these writers yields modest but sure rewards: sheer reading enjoyment, style, humor, common sense, insight into human nature, “plain and powerful truthtelling.” In Epstein's hands these authors become antidotes to the “modern taste” for “geniuses who appear as wounded personalities, maniacally obsessed, psychologically crippled.” Take his presentation of Max Beerbohm, for example. To get a picture of Beerbohm, Epstein instructs:

One might imagine D. H. Lawrence … Recall his passionateness—his passion, so to say, for passion itself—his darkness, his gloom. Think back to his appeal to the primary instincts, his personal messianism, his refusal to deal with anything smaller than capital-“D” Destiny. Do not neglect his humorlessness, his distaste for all that otherwise passes for being civilized, his blood theories and manifold roiling hatreds. Have you, then, D. H. Lawrence firmly in mind? Splendid. Now reverse all Lawrence's qualities and you will have a fair beginning notion of Max Beerbohm.

The kind of stiflingly ordered society against which modernism rebelled no longer exists, of course (if it ever did), and Epstein is right to challenge the persistence of gratuitous unconventionality and outscale rage as literary values. Even a crabby, tortured figure like Evelyn Waugh, who could in some ways be termed a modernist, earns Epstein's appreciation for the way his “pain and terror” alchemize into “joy and laughter for his readers.”

All this is by no means to make Epstein sound like some kind of predictable conventionalist. He never overestimates his modest writers, and he is capable of a gentle, generous assessment of an avant-gardist like Jorge Luis Borges. Tom Wolfe, for all the page-turning excitement and satisfyingly funny scrutiny of liberal pieties in The Bonfire of the Vanities, misses “the truth of the human heart.” And the luminous Anton Chekhov is one case, Epstein exquisitely judges, where the absence of “a coherent world view” keeps even so excellent a writer out of the very first rank.

But in general Epstein has shamelessly brought back into the critical vocabulary certain straightforward concepts previously banished as hopelessly antiquated. His one foray into children's literature, a shining essay on John R. Tunis, lauds the boys' books by that writer for their artful representation of such old-fashioned notions as the importance of character, discipline, perseverance, and learning from defeat. And the underappreciated French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, a major figure for Epstein, reminds us of “the difficulty of life and its heroic possibilities.”

Yet another aspect of Epstein's remedy for the decline of literary culture is his rejection of current political orthodoxies. In an assessment that would anger “those sentimentally aligned with the fate of Third World countries,” Epstein argues that V. S. Naipaul, “far and away the most talented, the most truthful, the most honorable writer of his generation,” has seen “these newly independent peoples conned, ill-used, and generally diminished by their own would-be leaders, and others with their own special agendas.” Epstein can appreciate the wisdom and style evident in the novels of E. M. Forster but questions the value of “their paeans and pleas for the life of the instincts” in a world grown sadder from the eruptions of the counterculture.

Epstein is the kind of critic you can agree with even when you don't; the grounds upon which he discusses literature are so fertile that even if you dissent from individual judgments, you can savor what's behind them. On the question of “ultimate meaning” in literature, however, Epstein is a bit puzzling, implying as he does that “ultimate questions about the meaning of life” can sometimes be part of the problem in literary excess. He seems especially drawn to figures who deny any sense of the transcendent, from his favorite essayist, H. L. Mencken, to Theodore Dreiser, for whom Epstein claims the status of America's greatest novelist. Yet, no matter how much some may advise against it, men and women will continue to ask such questions, and literature, if it is to have the “central place in the strivings of men” that Epstein wants for it, will have to try to answer them. But if literature does indeed resume that “central place,” it will owe at least a partial payment to Joseph Epstein.

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

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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 extraordinarily wide. He writes with the same urbane ease and seeming intimate knowledge of Arnold and Santayana, of Waugh and S. J. Perelman, of Henry James and Tom Wolfe, of Dreiser and Marguerite Yourcenar, of Chekhov and Walter Lippmann, of Borges and E. B. White. The essays have charm; they have a modicum of wit; they flow with such conversational suavity that in reading them at times one imagines one hears the ghost of a dry New England accent; they are, in short, an ornament to belles-lettres, and it would be hard to find, for the general reader, a better general, and on the whole undemanding, introduction to, say, Santayana than Epstein's essay on that philosopher. Yet this very lack of rebarbativeness precludes the possibility of any sudden incandescent flash of insight; there are no new revelations on a writer's life or his work; we are never, as it were, led up to some peak in Darien to be given a glimpse of a hitherto unsuspected and unexplored ocean.

Epstein's strengths and weaknesses as a critic are perhaps best revealed by his essays on the two least important writers in this collection: John R. Tunis and S. J. Perelman. Born in 1889, Tunis came from a poor family with rich connections, went to Harvard, became a freelance writer, and from 1938 onwards produced a series of extremely popular books for boys, all of which have a background of sport: baseball (The Kid from Tomkinsville), American football (All-American), athletics (Iron Duke) or basketball (Yea! Wildcats!). These come over, in Epstein's description, as exciting stories with a strong—though never overt—moral message. Epstein first read Tunis at thirteen, and his tribute to him, as a writer who began to shape a view of life which he still holds, is interesting, warm and generous.

Perelman, however, provokes no such feelings of identification, and the tone of the essay is radically different: nagging and aggressive, substituting assertion for argument and persuasion, while the chief complaints against the writer seem to be contradictory. On the one hand, Epstein asserts, we expect from the humorist “a certain sanity, a certain decency, a certain balance”; yet Perelman was such an unpleasant character, behaved so monstrously towards his family and friends, that once we know about his life, we find it impossible to find pleasure in his work. On the other hand, he asks, given that Perelman was so unpleasant, how was it that he was unable, unlike Dreiser or Waugh—both, in Epstein's eyes, equally or more unpleasant—to produce work of the stature of theirs? Indeed, the essay concludes with the view that “had things worked out differently, he might have been an American Evelyn Waugh”. The sentiment reveals something one has suspected all along: Epstein does not really understand Perelman's art. He quotes, only to ignore, the author's own remark. “To me the muralist is no more valid than the miniaturist. … I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop”, and then proceeds to castigate him for so often taking as the impulse for his comic pieces “the foolishness that regularly appeared in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, idiotic advertising copy, show-biz vulgarity, dentistry, the melodramatic novels and films he had read and seen in his adolescence”. But it is in just these pieces, where the subjects are trivial, and not in “Acres and Pains”, which Epstein vastly prefers, that Perelman's linguistic genius reaches its highest point; and though it might be going too far to see them as social criticism, they are certainly a splendidly vicious attack on cheap, shoddy and vulgar language and ideas. Empathy with a writer's work (which can excuse his life) or with his life (which can explain his work) is Epstein's main critical tool; when it fails him, as is only too obviously the case with Perelman, there is nothing with which it can be replaced.

George Core (review date winter 1990)

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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.

—Henry James

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 commentator of great perceptiveness and subtlety. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I will observe that Epstein is also one of the best essayists now regularly writing personal reports; that his occasional short stories—some of which have appeared in this magazine—are markedly above average; and that his distinguished editing of The American Scholar long ago made its readers forget the uninspired—but lengthy—editorship of his immediate predecessor. All of this is to say that Joseph Epstein does nothing in the literary vein with his left hand. He is, with Tom Wolfe, Dave Smith, and a few others, one of that increasingly rare breed—the American man of letters—born after 1930.

Plausible Prejudices (1985) is essentially a series of dissenting reports about American literature, especially modern and contemporary writers such as Robert Stone, John Irving, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Ann Beattie, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and Joan Didion. Mr. Epstein sees little in the last several decades of American prose that meets his high standards; he reports favorably only on earlier generations of American writers: among those figures whom he admires are Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, A. J. Liebling, and James Gould Cozzens.

The new collection contains only a few dissenting reports—for example the balanced, if ultimately negative, accounts of S. J. Perelman and Walter Lippmann. As with his essay on Cozzens in Plausible Prejudices, Epstein attempts to rescue Somerset Maugham; he treats him very handsomely and incisively, as he did Cozzens. I am most surprised by the high marks he awards Maugham, Theodore Dreiser, and Tom Wolfe, most disappointed by his depreciation of E. B. White. Even though he is a Jamesian (James is the presiding spirit and intelligence of the book), Epstein mounts a powerful argument for Dreiser as the best novelist this country has produced. (“James is caviar, Dreiser a good boiled potato; one cannot live exclusively on caviar.”) I would say that James, Melville, Hawthorne, and Faulkner are all greater novelists than Dreiser—and not merely because each man is a far greater stylist. But Mr. Epstein is far too shrewd a critic to avoid the issue of Dreiser's flatfooted style—not to mention Dreiser's deplorable habits (“the death of the party”) and politics (“his politics, being despicable, are only worth despising”). His pithy and witty remarks about Dreiser's elephantine prose (Mencken “once remarked that Dreiser had ‘an incurable antipathy to the mot juste,’ but that ain't the half of it”), ravenous sexuality (“he used women as other men used cigars”), and simple-minded notions (“a psychopathic potpourri of prejudice and zeal,” said W. A. Swanberg, whom Epstein quotes) will provide most readers, including Dreiser's greatest admirers, with cause for merriment—as well as a sensible perspective, wide and deep, from which to view his career and accomplishment as a writer.

This is Mr. Epstein's stock-in-trade, so to speak: he presents his critical commentary against a running account of the writer's life. He asks such questions as “Why did homosexuality seem … at the center of E. M. Forster's books but not at the center of Somerset Maugham's?” The questions he asks are almost invariably probing and probative and serve to reveal the essence of the given writer's career. I quote his question about the sexuality of Forster and Maugham because I think he proves his case in each instance, a case that I would not have thought could be made so convincingly for either author, especially Forster. Of him Epstein writes: “Can it be, thought, that while Forster's novels are in no way patently homosexual, the impulse behind them is homosexual?” He answers himself by saying: “the novels upon which E. M. Forster's reputation rests now seem chiefly screens for their author's yearning for freedom for his own trapped instinctual life”; and “the chief impulse behind Forster's novels, with their paeans and pleas for the life of the instincts, was itself homosexual. … The effect of this is to render [his] novels obsolete, and in a way that art of the first magnitude never becomes.” With the exception of A Passage to India I believe Mr. Epstein is right. Although I don't share his enthusiasm for Maugham, I agree that he remains very readable; and I like Epstein's remarks about Maugham and modernism—for instance Maugham “wrote dead against the grain of modernism, with all its difficulty, preferring instead to write as plainly as possible about complex things.” (“No one can accuse the modernist writers of not keeping critics gainfully employed,” he adds, adverting to the critical establishment that has largely ignored or deprecated Maugham.) In contrast he sees Waugh the novelist as a modernist—“a master of irony, of decisive reticences, of abrupt juxtapositions of material that today seem cinematic.” Yet, as Epstein points out, “as a man, Waugh came more and more to hate modernity.”

The essay on Waugh may be the best of an excellent lot. I don't see a weak piece in the collection, and for one reason or another I have reread many of them, including “The Outrageous Mr. Wu” (on Waugh), “One Cheer for E. M. Forster,” “E. B. White, Dark & Lite,” “Tom Wolfe's Vanities,” and “Mr. Larkin and Miss Pym.” The essay on Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym (“literarily, and spiritually, the two writers were as brother and sister”) is one of Epstein's most sustained and best performances. He begins with some general observations about England, especially postwar English culture and the contemporary literary scene, because both writers, as he remarks, are “quintessentially, untranslatably, English.” He goes on to develop a detailed comparison between the two writers and friends: “If any two writers can be said to occupy the zone where art is not invaded by politics, Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin are those writers.” “Each, in her and his respective line, marched quite alone.” “Part of the appeal of Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin is their solid common sense. Not a quality in notably abundant supply among writers of our day.” Throughout Partial Payments the author makes other illuminating comparisons: Chekhov and Tolstoy, Arnold and Eliot, Perelman and Benchley, White and Thoreau. Such acute comparisons—some obvious, others not—provide one essential tactic in this critic's battery.

Mr. Epstein's love of metaphors and his aptness in striking them make for a lively style. Of Walter Lippmann he writes: he “seemed perfectly equipped to be what in later years his readers took him for: a machine built for dispensing disinterested opinion.” Of Lippmann's biographer he observes: “With a life so elaborately intertwined with public events as Lippmann's, Steel has his hands full merely laying the carpet, without attempting to find the figure in it.” Of Santayana he says: “Boundless and boundary-less, he roamed free, all of Europe his demesne, like a Henry James character from the late period with all the Jamesian sensibility, but without any interior conflict requiring resolution.” He is also good at skewering clumsy metaphors. Of Chekhov he observes: “It will not quite do to say that these stories represent ‘a slice of life,’ a grossly inept metaphor, since life, as you may have noticed, is no pie.” But he is quick to quote others who have coined good metaphors, such as V. S. Pritchett, who said of Forster: “He looked like a whim.” Epstein's favorite metaphors seem to derive from card-playing. He observes of Santayana: “He loved his father, whom he could not admire, and admired his mother, whom he could not love. Two interesting cards to be dealt so early in life.”

One of the pleasures of reading Joseph Epstein's criticism is savoring his shrewd generalizations about literature, the literary life, and the literary marketplace. Several canny observations about style appear in Partial Payments, of which this may be the best: Waugh “knew that style … was the great preservative of literary art—that which allowed it to live beyond its time.” Epstein is equally shrewd about the importance of point of view and belief in art. “To be an essayist is to divest oneself of the belief in a set or system of ideas. All the great essayists … are not so much anti-philosophical as a-philosophical.” In this book, as in his collections of personal essays, he comments intelligently on teaching: “Sad to admit, but a sign of great literature may be that it cannot be altogether successfully taught. Confronted with masterworks, pedagogy does not stand mute—never mute—but awkwardly inept.” Epstein is at his wittiest and most acerbic about the excesses of contemporary criticism: “A semiological study of Woody Woodpecker is the wave of the future,” he remarks in comparing contemporary critics to disadvantage with Matthew Arnold, a great critic, as he makes plain.

I have so few reservations about this superb book that it seems churlish to mention them. The order of contents eludes me, except for “Matthew Arnold and the Resistance” and “A Boy's Own Author,” the first and last essays. (The latter, a lovely tribute to John R. Tunis, is one of the most engaging pieces here.) The occasional slips in syntax (dangling modifiers), in diction (cant usages for such overworked words as masterful and crucial), and in usage (journalistic style) are baffling in a writer otherwise so careful and exact. The book, like Plausible Prejudices, should have an index for readers like myself who will return to it more than once.

My prejudices may not be so plausible as Mr. Epstein's, but nevertheless they are close to his. I think him slightly off the mark on Tom Wolfe, whom he thinks our best journalist: in my book that honor goes to John McPhee. I disagree with him about Dreiser, as I have said; I think that he overrates Evelyn Waugh (especially Sword of Honour), whom I too relish at his best; I believe that he doesn't quite do justice to White as an essayist and writer of children's stories, even though he proves his points about White's melancholia and his politics.

Joseph Epstein's admirers include one reviewer who wants to know what he thinks of “every writer who has ever lived.” This absurdity has a nugget of sense. I would like to have his reports on Henry Mayhew, Joseph Mitchell, Winston Churchill, V. S. Pritchett, William Trevor, and the greatest novelist of the present time—Patrick White. Regardless of what writers he chooses to consider, I will be reading his new accounts of “the personal drama of the writers who wrote the books,” and I urge you to do so.

Of his—the critic's—job he has written: “One remarks upon an unappreciated writer here, lets the air out of an inflated reputation there, combats a literary tendency one finds pernicious, or calls to the fore an essential but neglected tradition.” “None of this,” he continues, “is trivial work. Done well it is important in and of itself; gathered together, it can add up to something of significance.” He wrote this in Plausible Prejudices; it proves even truer of Partial Payments.

Note

  1. Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, by Joseph Epstein.

Edmund Fuller (review date winter 1990)

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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 late Richard Ellmann and other excellent men of letters, he considers the lives of the writers germane and illuminating to their works. Thus the biographical component is important to what he has to say.

He rehabilitates Matthew Arnold (as critic rather than poet) and quotes him, aptly for present-day writing: “When the right standard of excellence is lost, it is not likely that much of excellence will be produced.” His thoughts on Arnold yield not only a great deal of richness about literature but also a good deal about the current state of universities.

Even with a writer so extensively considered as Henry James, Mr. Epstein successfully redirects attention and further revives appreciation. Apart from that essay, “Henry James: Assailed by the Perceptions,” James turns up in almost every other chapter of the book, sometimes lightly in passing (e.g. Beerbohm's comment that he looked like “a Russian Grand Duke of the better type”), sometimes to far more serious, often surprising, juxtapositions. In discussing Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, Epstein observes: “Henry James was interested in moral drama, Tom Wolfe is here interested in the drama of social status, of which he ultimately morally disapproves,” although it preoccupies him.

In the piece focused upon him, James is quoted as saying: “I have a moral horror of seeming to write thin.” He never did, either in style or content. This added to the growing bitterness he felt at not being able to reach a large public. In his late years he complained to William Dean Howells of a “sense of being utterly out of it.” One of Mr. Epstein's best insights is that “the comic view is at the center of James's vision.” I wish that same, seldom perceived, point had also been made in the otherwise admirable essay on Chekhov. Even in the rueful, melancholy tone that cloaks the Russian's plays, especially The Cherry Orchard, a detached sense of the human comedy underlies all.

Rehabilitation is undertaken in “Is It All Right to Read Somerset Maugham?” Late in life that adept storyteller cautioned his nephew, Robin: “You must remember the intelligentsia despise me.” He was sneered at and dismissed as a popular writer by what he called “highbrow critics,” though respected by many men and women among writers his contemporary. The art of telling a straightforward story compellingly is a high one, and all great writers since Homer have possessed it, however much more in the way of breadth, depth, and style may enrich the tale.

Currently the mass production of trash is at a peak in all media presenting stories. Maugham was a popular but not trashy writer. Mr. Epstein praises his style for “lucidity, fluency, and economy,” and credits him with inexhaustible, keen-eyed exploration of the vagaries of human nature. To a less formal extent Jonathan Yardley, in several pages of his admirable memoir of his own family, Our Kind of People (1989), gives some deserved rehabilitation to the now neglected novelist J. P. Marquand, who suffered much the same fate as Maugham.

To discuss every essay in a brief review is impossible. Excellent lines occur in all. Of Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym, considered together, he notes that both “wrote against the grain of their time.” He perceives that these platonic friends, “literarily and spiritually … were as brother and sister.” Of George Santayana he writes: “Boundless and boundary-less, he roamed free, all of Europe his demesne, like a Henry James character from the late period with all the Jamesian sensibility but without any interior conflict requiring resolution.”

Other writers included are Mencken, Waugh, Walter Lippmann (“a Delphic oracle on a deadline”), Borges, Forster, Dreiser, Marguerite Yourcenar, E. B. White, S. J. Perelman (least significant), and John R. Tunis (in affectionate gratitude for his books for boys).

In one of the finest essays, “A Cottage for Mr. Naipaul,” he gives a high encomium to V. S. Naipaul as “far and away the most talented, the most truthful, the most honorable writer of his generation.”

In regard to Mr. Epstein's indebtedness to these various writers, on the strength of this book I would stamp his account Paid in Full.

Jeffrey Hart (review date 12 August 1991)

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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 together high culture and street smarts.

The essays in his book are rich and marvelous, so rich indeed that I advise you to read them slowly, perhaps one per day. After all, they originally appeared at three-month intervals in The American Scholar. If you try to read straight through the book, it will be like trying to read straight through, well, Montaigne.

Here's a sample of Epstein at his best, from a recent Hudson Review essay in which he discusses the current fiasco of the American academy:

“It's not what I had in mind,” said my friend, eight, nine, maybe it was even ten years ago. He had just returned from a Modern Language Association meeting in Houston, which he described in what for him was scarifying detail: Marxists, professional lesbians, obscurantists were all over the joint—they appeared not only to be in charge but to give the meeting, and hence the occupation of teaching literature, its character. “It's not what I had in mind,” he repeated, wistfully, without irony or anger. He had studied at Columbia toward the close of its glory days … Columbia, in the days of his graduate study there, retained an unmistakable and immensely impressive metropolitan spirit, which years afterward still clung to my friend, who taught in a suit and wore a serious hat. But what had once seemed the apogee of the “profession,” as university teachers of literature had come to refer to themselves in their collectivity, was now clearly its anomaly. Then in his late thirties, my friend, with his metropolitan spirit and Arnoldian notions about literary culture, was a young fogey, already a dinosaur. Most distinctly, it was not what he had in mind.

George Garrett (review date 13 October 1991)

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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 with generational differences, and the characters (no trendy minimalism here) have backgrounds and long memories. People come and go—there is a remembered trip across the South in “No Pulitzer for Pinsker”—and Harry Resnick, protagonist of “Low Anxiety,” even though he has to stay put, vividly imagines far-ranging fantasy journeys in his Chrysler New Yorker; but everything that matters takes place in Chicago.

With the possible exception of Count Peter Kinski of “The Count and the Princess” (and he has spent most of his adult life in Chicago), all these people know the city and take a real pleasure in it. Chicago readers will be at once engaged and challenged by routes taken and not taken as the characters drive all over the city and suburbs, as they live in and pass through ever-changing neighborhoods, eat and drink at familiar clubs and restaurants (a lot of memorable meals are consumed), shoot golf and baskets, swim and play tennis at a variety of country clubs, and all with an acute awareness of the weather and, sooner or later, what is happening on the lake:

“He drove the few blocks down Lake Street, turned north on Michigan Avenue, passing Saks, Neiman Marcus, Magnin's, Water Tower Place, and Bloomingdale's, while on the radio he learned that a local rapist had been apprehended in Michigan, a policeman had been wounded in a shoot-out at a currency exchange on the South Side, and the Dow Jones had fallen again. He turned onto the Outer Drive just north of the Drake Hotel. The lake was green in the coldness of the March day, the waves seemed not merely relentless but aggressive.”

One thing all the stories have in common, something the characters share, is not only the authoritative and authentic sense of a place with all its nuances and shadows, but also some of its character and energy and the relentless, yes, aggressive sense of change that seems to be a constant. And there are other constants in these stories. Except for the elegantly realized Paula Melnick in “Paula, Dinky, and the Shark,” who proves Epstein can empathetically create a fully dimensional female protagonist (truth is, all his women characters are alive and memorable and kicking), the central characters are all middle-aged; and, except for Count Kinski, all are Jewish. We know what they wear, what they drive and where they went to school and what radio stations they listen to and how they have come this far.

The stories are of a conventional length, but clearly have more weight and density than many contemporary short stories. There are other differences from literary fashion. For instance, the majority of protagonists are businessmen; for variety there are also a mobster and a literary biographer. Epstein's businessmen are not the same, but each is tough, intelligent, sensitive and imaginative. And they love the work they do. You can believe in their success and just as easily identify with their problems.

One of the conflicts, inevitably, is the collision of different cultural worlds. Here, for instance, in “Kaplan's Big Deal,” supersalesman Sheldon Kaplan takes a first look at University of Chicago academics who are colleagues of the woman he is courting:

None of the men had shoeshines; all of the women wore glasses. No one in this room, he imagined, had been much of an athlete or dancer when a kid, or had trouble with the IRS, or was likely ever to call him to ask if he could get them tickets to a Bears game. No, this was not his room.

Language binds the stories also. Five are first-person stories; all are accessible, characterized by clarity and that aptness of style to substance that our ancestors called decorum. The four third-person stories differ in tone according to subject and central character but share the good storyteller's habit of pushing the narration as close to first person as possible. This is a kind of magic trick in fiction, but is the stock and trade of the experienced essayist. Similarly, the habit of the pithy and pertinent aphorism is shared by most of Epstein's narrators.

The remarkable, deeply moving title story, an account, told by a friend, of the doomed lives of the gifted (golden) Goldin twins, asks big questions as it deals with the mystery of talent and squandered gifts. This story is a little masterpiece that sets the tone for the whole collection, even as it proves that Joseph Epstein's gifts are true and abundant and altogether enviable.

Craig Collins (review date March 1992)

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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 to be speaking “in my capacity as chairman of the Committee to Re-establish Stereotypes Built on Gender.” After speculating on the different gambling proclivities of various ethnic groups, Epstein thoughtfully adds, “Various anti-defamation leagues—Chinese, Black, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Texan, Rumanian—wishing to protest this paragraph may reach me at my office, care of the director, Center for Advanced Ethnic Insensitivity.” Mencken must be smiling in his grave.

None of his comments are really insulting, though Epstein doesn't mind a good put-down. Indeed, one of the essays lauds the perfectly aimed barb. He lists examples from the usual suspects—Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill—but the highly literate Epstein has a sufficiently firm grasp of the esoteric to include novelist Josephine Herbst's claim that critic Leslie Fiedler looked “like one of those soft people in Turgenev.”

Epstein pontificates in like fashion about the sweet taste of juicy gossip and the thrill of fame, and he offers “a few kind words for envy”—all of this without any trace of de rigueur guilt about what are, after all, character flaws.

An Epstein essay is like a conversation with an average guy, assuming the average guy has a gigabyte of literary anecdotes stored in his brain. Almost every essay includes a parade of historical figures, from the famous to the obscure, who step on stage long enough to deliver a clever quote and then move along.

In the piece on envy, we hear from Herman Melville (“Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy?”) and Horace (“Sicilian tyrants could never have contrived a better torture”), and we learn that Orwell called envy “a horrible thing [which] is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it.”

If name-dropping were a crime, Epstein would be facing 20 years to life. In the piece on gossip alone, the cast of characters includes: Salman Rushdie, Rushdie's American wife, Dante, Fidel Castro, Evelyn Waugh, Stendahl, Jackie Onassis, writer Isaac Rosenfeld, John Dewey, Wittgenstein, Sidney Hook, Bertrand Russell, Justice Holmes, Harold Laski, Sir Frederick Pollock, Lewis Einstein, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Louis XIV, Henry James, Marcel Proust, E. M. Cioran, the Rev. Sydney Smith (founder of the Edinburgh Review), Lady Mary Bennet, Lady Grey, Lord Grey, J. A. Murray (who worked on the Edinburgh Review), Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Ilchester, and Lord Byron.

Epstein is a compulsive quoter. One might be tempted to explore the implications of this. Is Epstein endeavoring to display his intellect? Is he merely living off the wisdom of others? What defines a good quote? Should a quote be fresh rather than pithy, if it can't be both? The answers to these questions could be the subject of a very good essay about Epstein. In fact, this essay has been written by Epstein himself. He included it in this collection (“Quotatious”) in a self-analytical preemptive strike that doesn't seem entirely fair to marauding book reviewers.

Having collected the literary equivalent of sound bites for years, Epstein makes an occasional and usually transparent effort to manufacture his own memorable bon mots. Sometimes he succeeds rather nicely.

In an essay unfortunately not in this collection, Epstein knifed local politicians when he said his native Chicago “remains a city that stands in refutation of Lord Acton's maxim by demonstrating, again and again, that only a small amount of power can corrupt absolutely.”

In this collection, Epstein displays his talent for metaphor (construction workers near his home “appraise passing young women with a jeweler's eye and a burglar's conscience”) and for a good opening line (“Unlike every other paragraph I have written in my life, this one I am writing while wearing a red fez”; how could one not read farther into this playful piece about hats?).

Some of his lines are quite funny. When describing his gastrointestinal brush with mortality, he says his doctor “put me through an examination that steadied me in my already firm resolve to spend all my days as a heterosexual.”

Some don't quite click. In an essay about his height, he says that “one of the nice things about having been Napoleon (5′ 2″) is that at least no one could ever accuse you of having a Napoleonic complex.”

For anyone who loves words and loves to read, Epstein's work is entertaining. But the stylish exterior of these essays masks a deeper … nothing. There's not much to them in the way of insightful comment or fresh analysis even about the simple things in life, such as confronting a social bore or buying a new hat. Each essay is a tale told by a clever writer, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Hey, he who lives by the quote, gets reviewed by it.)

This is a bit of a disappointment. Epstein is best known for his literary criticism, and at that he excels. He is editor of The American Scholar, the quarterly publication of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society. Two of his previous books, Partial Payments and Plausible Prejudices, collect some of his best critical pieces. He claims to read on average five hours a day, and the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated is well reflected in these analyses of contemporary authors.

Epstein's efforts have made him an expert on form but not on substance. He admits in a personal essay in this collection that he “would rather read a stylish book than a style-less more scholarly book on the same subject.” This habit has polished his wit but possibly impoverished his knowledge. He can quote widely from Milton (neither Berle nor Friedman, he adds helpfully) to Butch Cassidy and the Brothers Goncourt, and he writes with zing but with little intelligent or original thought.

Politically, Epstein probably should be classified as a neoconservative. A member of the National Council for the Arts (the group that advises the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts), he has favored government subsidies for artists but denied that not funding someone is the equivalent of censorship. Characteristically, he chided grant recipients with this quotable assessment of their position: “We're the cutting edge. You buy the scissors.”

In writing elsewhere against the oppression of political correctness, he made a humorous reference to “Dykes on Bikes,” which he claims is a regular participant in San Francisco's gay rights parade, and repeated a joke likening feminists to pit bulls in terms of humorlessness. Joyce Carol Oates immediately wrote a letter to The New York Times describing Epstein's resignation from The American Scholar as “long overdue.”

Literary comment, rather than social comment, is Epstein's forte. He should stick to it (though he has just published a collection of short stories that may be worth a look). He should, to borrow his words, be content to indulge his “strange passion for acquiring the knack of writing interesting sentences.”

Thomas Filbin (review date spring 1994)

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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 mock any attempts to schematize it.” He further observes that, “The disadvantage of a literary point of view is that those who seek it—or are stuck with it—give up the notion of ever possessing a small body of mastering ideas that might explain the world for them. (This, of course, has come to seem less a disadvantage as, at the end of the twentieth century, such ideas—among them Marxism, Freudianism, variants of Structuralism—are today, if not totally bankrupt, at least in Chapter Eleven.)”

In the eighteen selections in this volume, Epstein navigates by the longitudes and latitudes of coherence and factual analysis, believing the traditional form of the essay as practiced by the likes of Samuel Johnson and Edmund Wilson to be timeless and in no need of apologists.

Pertinent Players is devoted to particular figures in letters and public life (the fact that they are nearly all men will surely be noted by the author's detractors), and is a pantheon of notables who in Epstein's assessment transcend their own age. If this were a physical place, it would be late Georgian with niches and busts, scrolls and bunting, and vaulted ceilings that would inspire reverence. The admittees are ones he finds interesting or was asked to consider in reviewing books concerning them. (The essays originally appeared in Commentary, The Hudson Review, and The New Criterion.) His subjects fascinate him, he says, for different reasons. In some instances he asks why individuals achieved what they did against the odds, while others failed despite all the predictors of success being in place.

His modus operandi is to be classically expository, interesting, and sympathetic, while posing some question or taking up the cause of a reputation deserving an upgrade from second class. Here Epstein is king of the hill, writing clearly and succinctly, adding to each pound of revelation a dollop of wit.

He opens with a stirring overture; “The Mere Common Sense of Sydney Smith” highlights the English clergyman whose aphorisms amused Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Abraham Lincoln. One of the founders of The Edinburgh Review, he was a satirist and critic whose candor probably cost him the bishopric his worldly ambitions coveted. His striking characteristic for Epstein is the refusal to grumble over the cards dealt: “If my lot be to crawl, I will crawl contentedly; if to fly, I will fly with alacrity; but as long as I can possibly avoid it I will never be unhappy.”

Smith wrote in support of religious toleration, education of the poor without flogging, and much preferred the pleasures of beef, beer, and books to dour religious doctrines. Epstein's treatment of him is affectionate without becoming sentimental; and the same manner is adopted in the closing essay, “Remembering Sidney Hook.” Hook, unusual in being a public philosopher in twentieth-century America, applied rational argument to political and social issues, and had an unshakable commitment to that method when others were too easily swayed by ideologies. Epstein liked Hook for many things, not the least of which was having a sufficient sense of the ridiculous to recall in his memoirs an incident with Bertrand Russell at a Greenwich Village party; while Russell was trying to put the moves on a beautiful woman, Hook pestered him as to whether he still believed in the theory of types.

The most insightful piece is on the life and work of Desmond MacCarthy, a man who was offered membership in the Apostles as a Cambridge undergraduate. He had the early promise of greatness without ever becoming great, but was wise enough as a critic “not to have been interested in the last word; only in having his say.” The result, argues Epstein, is that what some might disparagingly term “familiar criticism” holds up very well even forty years after MacCarthy's death. “The Short Happy Life of Robert Louis Stevenson” is in the same tone, praising a scribbler who spent his limited time on earth in permanent domestic chaos and generally bad health but who nevertheless cranked out estimable prose that won the approval even of Henry James.

“Ben Hecht, the Great Hack Genius” praises the talent who sold himself to Hollywood but never valued money, and who grew up in the Chicago Renaissance where being a newspaperman meant living in the tumultuous human laboratory of “whorehouses and madhouses, courtrooms and poolrooms, hangings and fires, riots and theatricals.” Hecht perhaps comes closest to Epstein's definition of a fascinating writer by virtue of being one “whose failures are more instructive than his successes.” He was in his time a journalist, novelist, poet, movie director, screenwriter, and womanizer. The critic Harry Hansen called Hecht “the Pagliacci of the fire escape,” and Ezra Pound once said he preferred to be an expatriate because, “There is only one intelligent man in the whole United States to talk to—Ben Hecht.”

Amidst all this merriment, Epstein takes up the issue of H. L. Mencken and anti-Semitism in “Mencken On Trial,” an essay which has the pace and structure of an interesting criminal proceeding at the Old Bailey. Epstein allows the case for the prosecution to go forward without interruption. Mencken diary entries about Jews do not sit well, certainly not with Epstein who calls himself “one of those touchy Jews … generally on the lookout for insult, a veritable truffle dog of anti-Semitism.” But in conducting the case for the defense, Epstein points out troubling inconsistencies in the prosecution's evidence. Mencken's feelings about Jews were difficult to fix on a slide for clear viewing. He was a man given to generalizations and so contentious and opinionated that he often contradicted himself. The Mencken who might make a note in his diary about a “young,” “suitable,” “intelligent,” “shrewd” or even “Hollywood” Jew is to Epstein the culture-bound Mencken who democratically mocked all ethnic groups including his own “Krauts.” Mencken's convincing character witness is the passionate farewell column (January 1, 1939) he wrote for the Baltimore Sun titled “The Problem of the Refugees,” which insisted that the United States should shoulder the refugee burden of German Jews, and scolded those “political mountebanks who fill the air with hollow denunciations of Hitler, and yet never lift a hand to help an actual Jew.” With Epstein as counsel for the defense, Mencken gets off with a hung jury if not an outright acquittal.

Other fine selections in this book concern Chamfort, William Hazlitt, Italo Svevo, Maurice Baring, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Carl Sandburg. In all of these Epstein is informed and deliberate, producing boldly drawn portraits that never lapse into caricature.

If Epstein has a fault, it is his tendency to become a casual polemicist by sometimes not taking time to present reasons for what he dislikes. It is never wise for a critic to descend to being a mere curmudgeon. If you are determined to give offense, it seems a better strategy at least to fire your shots at a target rather than simply let the gun discharge into the air. In “Selling Henry James,” Epstein mentions a course in James he once taught, during which, in a discussion about a possible homosexual relationship between characters in the story “The Pupil,” a student “remarked dryly that perhaps there ought to be a statute of limitations on discovering homosexuality in literature.” Epstein quotes the statement approvingly, but does not seem to feel it necessary to explain why it is desirable for a student or critic so amiably to put on the blinkers when confronted with a question of interpretation.

“First Person Singular,” a consideration of several contemporary autobiographies, is marred a bit when Epstein takes Shirley Abbott to task for “feminudging,” which I infer is his pejorative for maintaining a general tone of complaint that women in literature, either as authors represented on the bookshelves, or even as subjects of stories, haven't always fared well. Epstein thinks it a mark of silliness for anyone to go on in this way, no doubt because of his general antipathy toward what he and others operating from the neo-conservative side of the trenches deem the unwarranted balkanization of literature by the new academicians he takes delight in thumping. There is surely much silliness in the remedies some of these cultural warriors propose, but it is unbecoming to a writer of Epstein's intelligence to make statements which imply that literary neglect on account of gender is either a myth, or if true is immaterial. Say it ain't so, Joe.

Epstein's two previous alliterative collections, Plausible Prejudices and Partial Payments, combine with Pertinent Players to create a body of work that I hope continues. Those to his left will continue to pummel him because he writes about “pale males” and is no doubt incorrigibly Eurocentric. But his or anyone's views are his own to hold and justify, and I consider this a point that needs to be writ large: shouldn't a critic have an inalienable right to like any writer he pleases? Advocating one's favorites is only prescription, not proscription. A list of authors well loved is not a canon which condemns others to oblivion.

Joseph Epstein's importance lies in having a willful affection for his subjects that doesn't rise or fall with the fashion. He eschews theories of literature in favor of the practice of literature, and aims to deliver a broader version of truth than the narrowness of specialization permits. And I for one would prefer an essay on man to an essay on one man's pancreas.

Epstein is droll and earnest company, and even if you aren't a member of his particular sect of literature, the tour of its hall of heroes is not to be missed.

Sanford Pinsker (review date winter 1995)

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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 inventor, was Montaigne. The sixteenth-century French writer pops up with some frequency in Epstein's essays, but it is Montaigne's legacy of philosophic skepticism and the eminently quotable phrase that matters even more.

Epstein prides himself on being “out of it” at a time when being in threatens to be everything. Or to put it a slightly different way, his skeptical-cum-curmudgeonly posture hardly leaves him at a loss for fit targets: nearly any contemporary novelist, all car salesmen, Ralph Lauren's ubiquitous Polo. Epstein scours each and all with just the right mixture of condescension and playfulness, highbrow throw-offs and uncompromising common sense. If the world of the nineties is divided among those men who pull their gray, thinning hair into tight ponytails, those who think about it but probably won't, and those who find the whole idea simultaneously ridiculous and appalling, Epstein clearly numbers himself in the last camp.

Indeed, one suspects that he has always brought the same fastidiousness to his mode of dress that he now brings to the crafting of individual sentences. Epstein may not have affected $70 bowties and top-of-the-line tasseled loafers when he was a teenager, but the arc of his sartorial conservatism was apparently pointed that way from the beginning. So, when the countercultural sixties insisted that one's shirt and psyche “hang out,” Epstein tucked both in:

As best as I can date such an event, I believe I began to feel out of it roughly in 1966. Around that time the curtain fell, dividing the country between the young and the not-so-young, and I found myself, even though only twenty-nine, on the not-young side of that curtain. The student revolution had begun, and I—in taste, temperament, in point of view—had ancien régime so clearly written all over me that I might as well have worn a powdered wig.

Small wonder that he so identifies with the J. Alfred Prufrock who comically laments that he grows old, grows old. Epstein seems always to have regarded himself as middle-aged (even during the decade when he ought to have been decked out in bell-bottoms and Birkenstocks), so now that he is in fact fifty-eight, the whole dreary business of counting up the years gone and those decreasingly left ought to be cause for genuine alarm. But it isn't—because for all of Epstein's wry self-mocking about how out of it he is (an earlier collection of familiar essays was titled The Middle of My Tether), he is doing quite well, thank you very much. As Henry James, a frequent source of Epsteinian sound bites, once put it: “I like growing old: fifty-six!—but I don't like growing older. I quite love my present age and the compensations, simplifications, freedom, independences, memories, advantages of it.”

Just as comics will tell you that the secret of being a successful stand-up is timing, timing, and timing, Emerson was fond of reminding his clerical contemporaries that religion in America demands but three things: soul, soul, and yet more soul. For the familiar essayist, the requisite ingredients are selection and illusion, which often turn out to be so interchangeable that they might as well be the same thing. I raise these matters for several reasons: first, because Emerson—a writer Epstein does not much admire—is the founding spirit of The American Scholar, the quarterly Epstein edits. Published “for general circulation” by Phi Beta Kappa, the journal takes its title from Emerson's 1837 address to the new initiates at Harvard College. Like nearly everything Emerson wrote, “The American Scholar” was rife with high transcendental purpose. It was, in the language of anthology headnotes, a declaration of American intellectual independence. How it might have gone over with the group that first heard its now-famous definition of the scholar as “Man thinking” I cannot say with precision, but I suspect that they were, to a man, much impressed.

The rub, of course, is that such calls to high purpose have a nasty habit of wearing off midway through the following week. It is one thing to hear Emerson proclaim that each person has a Shakespeare deep inside who needs only to be released and quite another matter to produce a King Lear. American thought is filled with similar instances of giddy possibility not tied to concrete accomplishment. Indeed, the “inspirational lit” section of any bookstore provides all the evidence one needs to see contemporary avatars of Emerson in action.

Writing under the moniker of Aristides, Epstein launches each issue of The American Scholar with a familiar essay that is about as far from Emerson's airy musing as one could imagine. Where Emerson is unrelievedly ponderous, Epstein is playful; where Emerson piles one topic sentence onto another, Epstein writes coherent—and eminently readable—paragraphs; and perhaps most of all, where Emerson bathes us in large doses of nineteenth-century Romanticism, Epstein is a no-nonsense, tell-it-as-it-is realist.

This last item has been somewhat troubling because it occasionally gives rise to equations that link Epstein with courage—as if speaking one's mind in America ought to be a cause for national celebration. Mr. Epstein eschews such drivel (he also eschews the word eschews, feeling that it ought properly to be followed by Gesundheit), and he does so in a paragraph worth reproducing if only to make clear the essential difference between Messrs. Epstein and Emerson:

Whenever I have been cited for courage, it has been only for expressing forthright opinions on mildly controversial intellectual matters. The first thing to be said about this is that these matters never seemed all that controversial to me—they seemed, in fact, rather commonsensical—or I should not have been able to be so jollily forthright about them. The second thing to be said is that expressing any opinion in our country doesn't really require anything like courage; in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, in China, saying what one thought had meant courting death. The only penalty one pays here is to be excluded from certain parties, which, to someone who prefers to stay home anyhow, is no penalty whatsoever. Speaking your mind in America is not my idea of courage and nowhere near my idea of heroism.

I have no doubt that Epstein means what he plainly says, but at the same time I find myself lugging around the suspicion that he may be protesting a tad too much. If there is anything more uncommon than common sense, I have yet to find it; nor have I ever been entirely convinced by a writer who waves off good reviews with a Jimmy Stewart golly, it weren't nuthin' special pose. Epstein knows how good a writer he is, and he is very good indeed.

After all, to point out in essay after essay just how buck naked are many of those who would pass themselves off as emperors—of style, of taste, of the world according to what's happening now—is no small matter. And though it is certainly true that Epstein need not worry about being rounded up in the dark of night because somebody on his very long enemies list figures that the best way to deal with this fellow is to chop off his hand, it is probably also true that some coin more consequential than party invites has been paid.

Indeed, the real risk for Epstein as familiar essayist is that his pieces will turn formulaic, that his voice will begin to sound familiar rather than surprising. Given the sheer number of essays he churns out, these risks are genuine and scary possibilities. Hence, what I mentioned earlier when I talked about selection and illusion, illusion and selection. The typical Epstein essay begins with an attention-grabbing lead, then settles comfortably into its announced subject rather as a well-bred gentleman of a certain age and ethos might sink into his leather wing chair, a brandy snifter in one hand, a legal pad in the other, with strains of Mozart wafting through his well-appointed study from a state-of-the-art sound system. Consider, for example, this opening to “Livestock,” a piece about domestic pets:

“My young friend,” Aldous Huxley once instructed an aspiring novelist, “if you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is keep a pair of cats.” Whether this is good advice or not I do not know, but for me, a simple if more than occasionally pretentious essayist, one cat has done nicely. In recent years I have spent more time in the company of such a creature than I have with any human being, and, speaking for myself and not the creature in question, I find that it has its subtle compensations.

What follows is an intricate weaving of Epstein's memories of cats (and dogs) past with what that subject drew from such writers as Montaigne (“When I play with my cat who knows whether she diverts herself with me, or I with her!”), the English writer J. R. Ackerley (My Dog Tulip), Edith Wharton, and T. S. Eliot. As it turns out, I have never been much of a cat lover, and I wonder what Epstein would say if I did a number on those literary types (one usually meets them in departments of English) who think it a display of great wit to name their cats Troilus and Cressida. Would he admit that equal standards apply to both geese and ganders, or would he haul out even more snippets from the Great Books by way of documenting how inspirational felines have been? And what if I upped the allusion ante by punching “cats, critiques of” into my trusty computer? Even though Epstein may be the old-fashioned sort who earns his allusions the hard way, my hunch is that he has a subject Rolodex when it comes to rounding up the usual suspects.

If all this makes Epstein's familiar essays sound like so much smoke and mirrors, let me hasten to add that here is precisely the place where selection comes into the mix. If it is a truth universally acknowledged that all art is selection, the familiar essay lives or dies on how well its author chooses this example rather than that one, this learned citation as opposed to another. Epstein has an uncannily good eye—and an even better ear—for unrolling a rumination: never too many highbrow allusions, never too many examples piled uneasily one atop another. Repeatedly Epstein fires off (a phrase, by the way, that he would never use) memorably funny lines, ranging from puns that would make James Joyce shudder (e.g., the definition of a toupee? “Hair apparent”) to these very personal thoughts about creatures he does not much care for: “Many are the animals I wish had never made the ark. I have never met a rodent I liked.”

To grouse about writing this good is rather like not bothering to check one's mailbox: each gesture indicates a refusal to join in life's party. So what if Epstein's politics turn out not to be quite yours? So what if he strikes some as a pompous, self-satisfied twit? The bald fact is that Epstein has such an infectiously delicious voice that the only thing his familiar essays have to fear is their consistency. Read too many of them in a single swoop and even his best cracks can turn a bit tedious—or perhaps the word I'm groping for is precious, which is not a terribly precise critical term, but there it is. At least it's better than cute (a word that would, no doubt, send poor Epstein up the wall), and it's damn sight better than lurching into thick slabs of jargon about how his prose is socially constructed or how it represents late capitalism's last gasp. By calling him our American Montaigne I mean to pay him a high compliment, even though we both know that far more than an ocean separates the two writers. Still, Epstein is probably the best familiar essayist we have—and that, as Epstein himself might quip, ain't exactly chopped liver.

Penelope Mesic (review date 28 May 1995)

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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 American society, supposedly homogenized by the mass media, can sustain two such fiercely distinct personalities.

Most of the essays in Ehrenreich's The Snarling Citizen first appeared in Time or the English Guardian. They startle and invigorate because those who espouse liberal causes—feminism, day care and a strong labor movement—all too often write a granola of prose: a mild, beige substance that is, in a dull way, good for us. Ehrenreich is peppery and salacious, bitter with scorn, hotly lucid. She can find something shocking to say about cleaning house, exulting in the fact that working women, after “decades of unappreciated drudgery” are no longer measuring their worth by keeping their homes “cleaner than a motel room.” Moving to a bigger, dirtier House—of Representatives—she cheerfully lambastes it as a “halfway house for long-term miscreants and un-indicted felons.”

In “S&M as Public Policy” she blisters those eager to build punitive measures into the welfare system, writing, “For poor males we have prison; for poor females, welfare—and there's no reason why one sex's punishment should be any less onerous than the other's.” Her further, Swiftian recommendation is flogging indigent mothers—“it will make the hawks and wonks feel much better without starving a single child.”

More gently mocking the “celebrants of Purim and Kwanzaa and Solstice” who overstress their ancestral traditions, she remarks that when asked to fill in a blank for ethnic background, she always writes “none,” and dryly notes, “Skepticism, curiosity, and wide-eyed ecumenical tolerance are also part of the human tradition.”

Show Ehrenreich a sacred cow and she will tie its tail in a knot. Writing of Salmon Rushdie, she feigns envy: “for what writer has not dreamed of enjoying global fame while his publishers are picked off one by one?”

Occasionally, Ehrenreich relents, admires and bestows sober praise. This is most apparent when she writes about the separation of church and state, pointing out that “not all the founding fathers believed in the same God, or in any God at all.” She goes on to remind us that the real issue is not that of giving the church too much power, but of giving the state too much power. To associate government intimately with religion, is to endow it with more than earthly legitimacy: “By stripping government of supernatural authority, the Founding Fathers created a zone of freedom around each individual human conscience … They demystified government, and reduced it to something within reach of human comprehension, protest, and change.”

These moments, when Ehrenreich lays mockery aside, are rare. In general her essays are slash and dazzle, outrageous generalization with an underpinning of scrupulously accurate fact—designed to fix our attention and hold it by force. These pieces are indeed wonderful, but they were designed to be read in the public press, against a background of border wars and plane crashes. This is a voice lifted to carry to the back of a crowd.

A voice in every way more intimate is Joseph Epstein's. As the Godfather Don Corleone once said, “Everything is personal,” and reading these essays we feel Epstein would say much the same thing but with a more benign inflection. Like the first essayist Montaigne, Epstein tells us a good deal about himself. He is something of a dandy, at least in his choice of neckties. He abhors the notion of carrying other people's business slogans and logos on one's person and can't see a poor fish in clothes emblazoned “Ralph Lauren,” without thinking of Art Carney on the old Honeymooners show exclaiming, “Yo, ho, ho, Ralphie boy!” He loves colored paper clips, fine-leaded mechanical pencils and is in general, as many authors are, “quite nuts about office supplies.” In the course of two pages he can, and does, quote Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Goldwyn, Gustav Mahler, Arnaldo Momigliano, the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, Clifton Fadiman and his own mother, thus giving the impression that his solitude is like most people's cocktail parties.

But the point of Epstein's kind of essay is neither to press quotations into a sort of bouillon cube of experience nor to make a collage of one's foibles. It is to capture ordinary life and thought and render it significant without robbing it of its freshness—in other words, an impossible task. The great danger in the enterprise is creating the same triviality life itself is often guilty of, producing well-turned phrases on a so-what theme. To this danger Epstein occasionally succumbs.

But more often he uses his elegance and beauty of cadence humbly, in the service of his affections. In the essay “Here for Mink” he writes of his mother, a “woman without sentimentality or nostalgia,” who “granted [him] enormous freedom,” and of whom Epstein says: “We were beyond intimacy. We were at that stage of affection where we understood each other without having to explain much, where we knew we could rely on each other without any qualification, where we loved each other so much that we didn't have to display our love in outward endearments. I miss her, like mad.”

By offering us this vision of a reciprocal and uncomplicated love, he is following his own advice: “If everyone seems to be rushing to blow out the trembling match of culture and leave us in darkness … then those who love life are under the obligation not to desert it—not yet anyway. Best not to concentrate altogether on the sycophancy, cowardice, and fraudulence of a society that feels as if it's in decomposition … Better to think instead of large-hearted men and women who refused to be daunted in much darker times than ours.”

For all their differences Epstein and Ehrenreich have this much in common: they scorn the generality of human conduct, its veniality, its spite and dumbness, precisely because they have worked to keep before them an image of what is better.

Rex Roberts (review date 5 June 1995)

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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 affectations—expensive French bow ties, for example—even as he laments the American affinity for overpriced baubles, fancy automobiles and foppish haircuts, subjects that bring out the curmudgeon in him.

As writers of familiar essays are wont to be, Epstein tends toward the solipsistic—his word choice—and having reached the further side of middle age, he has grown wistful as well. Epstein himself confesses he has been in his “anecdotage” for decades. Even the book's title seems melancholic: With My Trousers Rolled is borrowed from T. S. Eliot's elegiac poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Epstein can make his readers laugh out loud, but he longs too ardently for an almost always preferable past, and that longing sometimes slips into stubbornness—an “I-know-what-I-like” chip on the shoulder.

In “A Very Private Person,” for instance, he regales us with retorts to reporters who phone him for his opinions on various subjects—retorts that he presents as appropriately sarcastic but that read unnecessarily churlish. Then again, Epstein recalls with pride the time a book reviewer described him as crankish. “I have often found that people who think themselves sensitive are capable of much greater cruelty than those who don't,” he writes, sounding a bit like Polonius—“their firm belief in their own sensitivity allows them to get away with so much more.” An observation he might ponder himself.

More seriously, Epstein tells us three times—in different essays, of course—that he enjoys reading the obituaries in the daily paper. “I am interested not only in famous deaths but in quaint ones,” he writes with unabashed condescension, “such as that of Ruth Ford, age ninety-two, who ran what sounds like a lovely store selling music boxes in Manhattan.” He also remarks in several places that he has been conscious of his life as a work in progress since his boyhood, “a work of art—possibly, I grant you, a botched one—that I have been putting together for more than half a century.” In the end, solipsism doesn't mix well with melancholy—that “botched” business is bothersome, wearing rue with a difference.

Perhaps the problem with the collection is that Epstein repeats himself, even to the point of recycling anecdotes and quotations. In truth, these essays should be savored rather than devoured, read with affection one at a time, over weeks and months. Like the raconteur who holds forth nightly at the local saloon, the writer of family essays is best appreciated in small doses; enjoy a few stories, then move on down the bar. “Whenever I am addressed by the title of Doctor, I always want to—and sometimes do—say ‘Please read two chapters of Henry James and get right into bed’” writes Epstein in a delightful piece on puns, malapropisms and misplaced metaphors. Just so, as Epstein might say. One essay, taken with brandy before bedtime. Do not exceed recommended dosage.

Michael Dirda (review date 23 July 1995)

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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 his syntax remains plain and clear, Epstein's diction cavorts between the high style and the low, zigzags from scholarly quotation to slightly outmoded slang, undercuts the possibly pretentious with the appealingly personal. Epstein likes being a serious reader of serious books—these pieces first appeared in the American Scholar—but he also considers himself something of a regular guy, disdainful of phonies and zealots, an admirer of the slick, the professional and the moderately raffish.

In this current batch of his reflections Epstein takes up cars, pets, beards and hair styles, fame, music, the decline in the quality of American life, and his mother (who during her lifetime read virtually none of her son's published work). One of the particular delights of these pages arises from Epstein's real flair for metaphor and analogy. Here, for instance, is our man on his cat:

I hope that I have not given the impression that Isabelle is a genius among cats, for it is not so. If cats had IQs, hers, my guess is, would fall somewhere in the middle range; if cats took SATs, we should have to look for a small school somewhere in the Middle West for her where discipline is not emphasized.

When Epstein isn't zinging you with his similes, he's charming you with his quotations. We learn, for example, that Edith Wharton once described a cat as “a snake in furs.” In a single sentence he can mix Yiddish humor, literary allusion and a neat pun: “Conscience, remorse, heavy and even self-invented guilt—ah, now we are coming into my country—the country, to misappropriate Sarah Orne Jewett's famous title, of the pointed fingers.” In this same piece—on writing habits—Epstein tells us that he tries to compose between 800 and 1,200 words a day. “On those rare days when I have been able to write two thousand or so such words, I am so deliriously smug that I am really quite unfit to speak even to myself.”

Where some essayists might perceive the human condition as a disease or a bitter joke, Epstein tends to regard it as a hokey, vulgar and yet strangely affecting Memorial Day parade in a small Indiana town. Of any of his essays one might say, as he does of a minor piece of music: “It was too brief, but what there was of it, was, to use an elevated critical term, swell.”

William H. Pritchard (review date autumn 1995)

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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.

In the preface to his first collection of pieces Mr. Epstein places them in the tradition of the familiar essay, which he traces back to Addison and Steele in England and (much more interestingly, he would agree) to Montaigne. He says that the familiar essayist must have a point of view, must write about what a predecessor in this mode, Joseph Wood Krutch, defined as “subjects which are neither obviously momentous nor merely silly.” The greatest pleasure in writing such an essay, Epstein admits, comes when a reader tells him that this or that particular one—about names or jokes, or hairstyles—says what that reader has always felt. Since I have read all of these essays, most of them more than once, I can testify to the truth of such felt correspondence. But aside from invoking the “universality” or “natural” character of the feelings raised by this or that piece, what is there to say about how familiarity breeds—in Epstein's own word—content?

One might start with something as important, though doubtless impossible to pin down, as the matter of readability. Mr. Epstein is immensely readable, on the first time through and on subsequent readings. (Need one point out that it is extremely convenient for him to edit a magazine in which he is allowed to be familiar four times a year? Where else could he command such a regular venue for such reflections?) It may even be said of these essays, without being patronizing, that—as Kingsley Amis once remarked about the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett—their very forgettability makes them that much the more rereadable. One of Mr. Epstein's most amusing earlier ventures is titled “Penography” and tells the story of his relationship to penmanship, handwriting, fountain pens. I remembered little about it except for title and subject; upon rereading, it was as if for the first time, and delightful. Epstein's familiar essays don't have plots and don't develop arguments you're required to weigh, qualify, dissent from or agree with. They're like Shakespearean “trifles, light as air” that sometimes come to seem “strong as proofs of holy writ.”

In Pertinent Players (one of his three collections of essays about other writers), Mr. Epstein has written well about Hazlitt, probably his most impressive precursor as a familiar essayist, and who addressed himself to the matter in an essay from Table-Talk, “On Familiar Style.” In that essay, which contains as much good sense as has been written on the subject, Hazlitt says that the familiar style equally rejects “unmeaning pomp” and “low, cant phrases”; it doesn't throw words together but avails itself of the “true idiom of the language.” To write in this “truly English style,” he says

is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes. … It does not follow that it is an easy thing to give the true accent and inflection to the words you utter, because you do not attempt to rise above the level of ordinary life and colloquial speaking.

Hazlitt also wrote an essay titled “On the Indian Jugglers,” which Mr. Epstein once cited in an essay (“Balls-Up”) where he confessed to his own addiction to the activity of juggling. Juggling, he says, is “the recreational equivalent of art for art's sake”; it is “Play, almost with a vengeance.” It's natural then, to draw the analogy between the unnatural and difficult art of juggling and the art of giving a true accent or inflection to the words of a familiar essay. In both cases, the practitioner makes it look easy, like play that belies the practiced skill of its performance.

On occasion Hazlitt attempts a fairly broad ironic humor, as at the beginning of his famous essay, “On the Fear of Death,” where he argues that, since he wasn't alive in the reign of George III, why should he regret not being alive in the world that will come after him? Here is the robust, good-sensical Hazlitt tone:

When Goldsmith, Johnson, Burke, used to meet at the Globe, when Garrick was in his glory, and Reynolds was over head and ears with his portraits, and Sterne brought out the volumes of Tristram Shandy year by year, it was without consulting me: I had not the slightest intimation of what was going on: the debates in the House of Commons on the American War, or the firing on Bunker's Hill, disturbed not me: yet I thought this no evil—I neither ate, drank, nor was merry, yet I did not complain: I had not then looked out into this breathing world, yet I was well; and the world did quite as well without me as I did without it.

This is perhaps a little too robust for Mr. Epstein, who in “Time on My Hands, Me in My Arms” (which explicitly mentions Hazlitt's essay) considers his middle age as the clock continues to tick:

As for me, I have begun to conclude that I have the gift of perpetual middle age. I at any rate think it a gift. … I rather like being middle-aged. I feel in this regard like Henry James, who wrote to a friend: “I like growing old: fifty-six!—but I don't like growing older. I quite love my present age … But I don't keep it long enough—it passes too quickly.” Just so. How to slow things down, that seems to me the question. Living all one's life in laundromats or listening to commencement addresses delivered by the prime minister of Sweden—a little time stopper I once underwent—doesn't seem to me quite the solution.

Hardly a novel idea, the wish to stop time, at least to slow it down, especially as we get older and time moves faster. But I'd never before thought of resorting to the extreme time-stopping strategy of catching Sweden's prime minister at a commencement address.

Mr. Epstein likes to crack wise, and he wouldn't think of resisting the impulse to make a joke out of a serious matter like mortality. He's plenty serious about writing books and essays, and though he spends as much time as possible reading and thinking, those activities should issue in writing of one's own (“Whenever I come across a politician or business executive who mentions that one of his hobbies is reading, I invariably mutter, so, too, is one of my hobbies reading—and another is breathing”). Or, inquiring into himself as a listener to serious music, he presents us with the following boast: “I have, to begin with, an astonishing musical memory—there is no piece of serious music, I have discovered, that I am incapable of misidentifying or forgetting altogether.” As if that weren't enough to redefine the boast, he adds, “This power seems to grow on me.” Such a discovery doesn't prevent himself from wishing—indeed probably makes the wish all the more poignant—that, should he be reincarnated, he would be transformed into the great, supremely literate music critic, Donald F. Tovey. (As an admirer of Tovey this side of idolatry, I salute Epstein's acumen and wish him good luck.)

One of Robert Frost's best slogans, by way of telling his students what to strive for, was “Common in Experience, Uncommon in Writing.” As with previous collections, Epstein's subjects are invariably common ones—keeping a pet, anecdotes, cars, beards and other facial adornments, one's heroes, the question of vanity. But it's not obvious where the uncommonness in his writing lies. Partly in the titles, surely (the essay on beards is titled “Hair Piece”), but mainly in the way his style plays inventively about the surface of things. From an earlier collection, I remember an essay titled “About Face” which is, yes, about the human face and in particular about Mr. Epstein's version of such. Typically self-regarding, an unfriendly reader might say, of this writer who is always talking about himself. But something uncommon in writing is done with the common subject: “I have been told by different people at different times that I resemble the following odd cast of characters: the actors Sal Mineo, Russ Tamblyn, and Ken Berry, the scholar Walter Kaufmann, the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and a now-deceased Yorkshire terrier named Max.” Sal Mineo crossed with Walter Kaufmann seems like enough; combined with Oswald and Max the terrier, the result is formidable, a really odd and pleasing creation. In the new volume Epstein is forthright and candid about his short haircut, undramatically brushed the same way he brushed it in college: “A friend recently likened my hair, in its immutability, to Astro Turf, which I took as a compliment.” He can be recognized instantly as “the least likely man in America to show up in a ponytail.”

Mr. Epstein is the scourge of trendiness, in hair and other styles. He even distrusts a moustache unless it was in place by about 1947 (Dean Acheson gets good marks for his), and he believes—sensibly, in my view—that “Too frequent changes in the arrangement of a man's facial hair make him slightly suspect.” More than once he has characterized himself as happy with life in the slow lane. In the new collection “Nicely Out of It” nicely describes not only its hero's cultural status and sense of himself, but is a good example of how, in one of Mr. Epstein's improvisatory performances, one damn thing leads to another. He begins “Nicely Out of It” by wondering whether he was ever truly “with” it, with “life” in its “full and fine vibrancy.” Quickly he concludes that the last time he experienced this state was at age seventeen, walking down the corridors of Senn High School in Chicago with a cashmere sweatered young lady at his side. He began to feel out of it, by his best calculations, roughly in 1966 (Epstein was then twenty-nine), when he failed to get on satisfactory terms with the New Student, with rock music lyrics, with sixties movies, with pot (the “good stuff” he kept passing up at parties). Since then, progressive stages of out-of-it-ness have left him having never seen an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, never having watched “L.A. Law” or Arsenio Hall, never attending the Whitney Museum Biennial. He finds himself not taking offense when a reviewer calls him “crankish” and “rearguard” and identifies being out of it with, importantly, being out of New York City. He doesn't mind that a bit; after all, think of what a with-it New York life might involve:

Much time, I imagine, would have to be spent at art galleries and shows looking at many doubtless extraordinary, mostly extra-aesthetic objects. Evenings would find one at a vast variety of new restaurants, tucking into all sorts of dubious delicacies. Either before or after dining one would be expected to buzz off to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an evening of interminable avant-garde opera or to an unpleasant play on a terrifying subject Off-Off-Broadway.

He might, he fears, even wind up wearing an earring. In Chicago, by contrast, the food of choice is Italian beef-and-sausage combination sandwiches and the cultural institutions (the Symphony, the Art Institute, the Lyric Opera), good as they are, are subordinate to the Chicago Bears, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox, and Blackhawks. As for new novels, he's really out of it, hasn't kept up with Roth, Bellow, Mailer, or Updike, nor with Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, or Gabriel García Márquez. (Too bad, I say, he has “taken a pass” on Updike's Rabbit at Rest, a book not to be missed.) He doubts that he could name twenty members of the United States Senate, where once he knew them all. When he picks up a newspaper he turns first to the obituaries.

So where does the man who is truly out of it end up? What are his loyalties, first principles, “positive values” as they used to say? What does he believe? Well,

that honor is immitigable; that so, too, is dignity, despite the almost inherent ridiculousness of human beings; that one's life is a work of art, however badly botched, which can be restored and touched up here and there but not fundamentally changed; that, in connection with this, integrity includes coherence of personality; that elegance, where possible, is very nice, but there are many things more important than style, loyalty and decency among them; that a cello is a finer instrument than an electric guitar, and that a man ought to start out the day with a clean handkerchief.

Those truths, the really important ones, seem to him self-evident. But of course they would be intolerable, poured out in this way, if they had not been preceded by so many amusing pages of “negative” stuff, the stuff of Epstein's humorous play.

Never very far from the center of any Epstein familiar essay is a sense of what he calls “the capriciousness of language,” that sense that makes him one of our liveliest critics of words. I can't begin to express the pleasure I've received from a sentence he quotes (in “Toys in the Attic”) from a student who wrote that “Madame Bovary's problem was that she couldn't make love in the concrete.” Some years back he reminded me that an all-but-forgotten journeyman catcher for the Boston Braves named Clyde Kluttz had “nomenclaturally … the worst of both worlds.” All the more affecting then, when this wordman slightly lowers the verbal temperature and writes a splendid piece—the concluding one to the volume—about his mother.

Among the many interesting things he tells us about this woman of “no cultural pretensions,” “very limited curiosity, except about people,” and a less than intense concern about her son's literary career (“Having changed someone's diapers may tend to make you rather less impressed with him later in life”), is that, over the course of his growing up she asked so little of him: “I have no memory of my mother telling me to sit straight, go study, wear my galoshes, clean my plate, remember my gloves, mind my table manners, come in early, hang up my clothes, get a haircut, or any of the rest of the standard repertoire of mother-to-son communication that most boys undergo from the age of six until, defeated, they finally leave home in their early twenties.” Mrs. Epstein assumed that her son would know these things on his own, and if he forgot his gloves on a cold day he might well remember them on the next cold one. I don't mean that Epstein treats his mother unhumorously; indeed he remarks that, in return for her lack of demands on him, he didn't ask much of her either “except a fairly high level of those services generally available, at great expense, at a very good hotel: dining at all hours, laundry and maid service, messages.” As with writing about his boyhood in Chicago or about the shops and streets of Evanston where he has lived for years, Mr. Epstein has the fictionist's grasp of detail, of nuance, of the look and feel of things. Something like this unsentimental embrace of the real comes through movingly in the book's final paragraph, when he admits that from an outsider's viewpoint his mother and he didn't look to be intimate:

In the conventional way, I suppose we weren't. We were instead beyond intimacy. We were at that stage of affection where we understood each other without having to explain much, where we knew we could rely on each other without any qualification, where we loved each other so much that we didn't have to display our love in outward endearments.

At this moment the familiar essay sounds a note beyond familiarity, and certainly nothing like an essay.

George Thomas (review date November 1995)

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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 barbarities and enjoy their absurdities large and small. He once accepted, but later had to return, a publisher's advance for a book on snobbery. That he has not written that book matters little—in his frequent, pertinent observations on the subject he has in effect already written it, spread through his essays.

He understands the allure of fashion by remembering what it was like to feel with-it: “conformity, or living in spiritual consonance with one's own time, is no small pleasure. I myself last felt fully with-it nearly forty years ago, a period I often think of as the most pleasant in my life.” He understands snobbery because he understands his own. On car ownership, for example, he is a reverse snob: choosing modest, dull cars, he “is thus able secretly to look down on the fellow in the grander car”.

Surprisingly then, he says little directly on political correctness. Perhaps he feels he can safely leave that to others and turn to subtler nuances of taste. He does touch on it obliquely a few times, including in one of the best pieces in this collection, on courage and the superiority of heroes over role models. He has never been called upon to show physical courage, he says—all he has ever done is express a few “commonsensical” opinions. “Speaking your mind in America is not my idea of courage and nowhere near my idea of heroism.” Armed with both a first-rate mind and a cheerful disposition as Epstein is, the weapons of malice, pettiness and envy must seem as threatening as distant popguns; still, it looks like courage to me.

Indeed, it occurs to me that showing physical courage, which is the courage Epstein esteems most highly, may be easier in some circumstances than showing moral courage. In a situation calling for physical courage, failure may bring opprobrium; in the case of moral courage, success may. Anyway, such is the sort of musing that an Epstein essay implicitly encourages its readers to pursue.

At his best, which is most of the time, Epstein writes with an uncommon measure of both wit and wisdom. Even at less than his peak (a piece here on cats, another on hair, for example) he shines. Anyone who can write on cats and retain the interest of an ailurophobe (I can vouch for this) or spice a piece on hair (which I'm afraid he has titled “Hair Piece”) with sentences like this—

Without their hair and the careful coiffing expended upon it, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings, the major network anchormen, would have to sell neckties, which would be fine by me.

—would be worth the effort it takes to get hold of his writing even in times of high literate standards.

Epstein once wrote that his essays spring from the lifelong habit of recording both his own more interesting thoughts and those of others. His filing system, whatever form it takes, must by now be immense. His writing is filled with quotation, anecdote, the observations of friends, and his own experiences, drawn together into an almost faultless exploratory sequence. (Only “almost”: his jokes are inexplicably painful.) The words of favourite writers—Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Montaigne, Philip Larkin, Edith Wharton—appear regularly, but I would not be surprised if in this collection he has quoted 200 other people, most of them writers.

Epstein quotes appositely, and is himself quotable, a potential major source for any successor. Aware that what he wants to say has often already been said, exquisitely, and eager to pass on not merely the wisdom but its author to his readers, he provides in his quotations a double service to us. I am grateful, for example, for knowing Evelyn Waugh's opinion that “now that they no longer defrock priests for sexual perversities, one can no longer get any decent proofreading”, and for this extract from Mary Grierson's biography of the musician Donald Tovey:

There was a sound of clapping in the next room, and Miss Weisse went to the door to look in. A small boy of ten was applauding vigorously, and the score of a Haydn quartet which he had just finished reading was lying on the table in front of him. He looked up in confusion and said, “Oh, I beg your pardon, I thought I heard it.”

As Quadrant readers of long standing may recall—from reprinted Epstein pieces in the 1980s on Maugham and on Barbara Pym and Larkin, among others—Epstein is a master of literary appreciation. He brings that same appreciative faculty to the subjects he tackles in his essays—appreciative rather than critical, marked by a personal approach, a preparedness for enjoyment, the presence of humour and the desire to please. At his best he fits his description of his own heroes:

figures who love life without being taken in by it … They are able to keep the seemingly contradictory notions in their heads that life is both a game and a deadly serious business, a play full of laughter and heartbreak.

His admiration for personal virtue, especially courage and cheerfulness, shines through this book, and more than makes up for his occasional gloominess and bad jokes. At the end of an essay here on social decline and fall, in which he discusses the idea and gives pertinent examples of present decay, and laments that “our gains in contemporary life all seem so uncertain, while our losses seem so absolute”, he concludes:

Best not to concentrate altogether on the sycophancy, cowardice, and fraudulence of a society that feels as if it's in decomposition. Better to think instead of beautiful children in concentrated play, of Mozart's music for oboe and harp and flute, of Winesap apples and cold green grapes, of large-hearted men and women who refused to be daunted in much darker times than ours.

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

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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 taste for the deflation of literary reputation.

These last are not cruel or ‘smart-ass’ (as he might say), only blessedly unbedazzled by stardom.

He is capable of good jokes at the expense of writers he admires (‘The Enduring V. S. Pritchett’). Epstein is worried when Pritchett, who is otherwise clear-eyed, lapses into

the poetic. In one story a man sticks his hands into ‘his optimistic pockets’ … several clerks have ‘dejected buttocks’, for which perhaps trousers with ‘optimistic pockets’ ought to be recommended.

His enthusiasms shine; he not only talks of his subjects' writing and quotes revealingly, he also tells of their lives and their circumstances, and successfully leaves us ‘a bit smarter about the subject under study’. It is pleasant to learn, for example (‘Wise, Foolish, Enchanting Lady Mary’) that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's father commanded her to marry ‘a gentleman with the wonderfully Wodehousian moniker of Clotworthy Skeffington’ (she eloped with Wortley); and his sense of period comes as a blessed relief, it is now so rare. He does not mistake Lady Mary's 18th-century sense of caste for what we would today call snobbery. He suggests the hierarchical pyramid of the time in a few easy phrases:

Gardening with Italian peasants, chattering with innkeepers, befriending women in Turkish harems, Lady Mary could be charmingly old shoe, but she always kept nearby a high horse for mounting when it pleased her.

Evidently, Epstein has charm of manner, as well as of matter. He quotes a character in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as saying that with some authors you feel you would like to call them up on the telephone. Epstein is just such a writer as, in his view, his admired Edmund Wilson (‘Bye-bye, Bunny’) is decidedly not: ‘the critical equivalent of a traffic-cop’, apt to lecture other writers in print, calling e. e. cummings ‘half-baked’. To which cummings riposted by describing Wilson as ‘the man in the iron necktie’. Thus, in a couple of quotes, Epstein introduces us to a literary spat, and makes me laugh.

He rightly deplores biographical intrusiveness (though he admits he is not above it himself) and only mentions Edmund Wilson's ‘sexual low jinks’ because Wilson wrote of them, for some reason:

… scoring in the Princeton Club in his seventies, mounting the old bed in his Talcottville house, in BVDs and his ‘uncomfortably bristling double garters’, with his dentist's wife … the least dignified of sexual clowns—the old goat.

Philip Larkin left an order for his journals to be shredded, which Monica Jones obeyed: ‘… send a dozen long-stemmed roses and a note of appreciation to the faithful Miss Jones’. However, despite the indignities, Wilson remains ‘the great maître d' of literature in the 20th century’.

Epstein calls biographical knowledge ‘that snake in the Garden of Eden of literature’ but in the case of Elizabeth Bishop (‘Never a Bridesmaid’) lets the snake out of what we would call the cupboard. Bishop herself ‘believed in “closets, closets, and more closets”’, and Epstein is of the opinion that knowledge of her troubled life, her lesbianism and ‘what is euphemistically called her drinking problem’ forces the reader to look at her quiet and understated poems with a different eye, and a puzzled one. About the drinking he is particularly explicit:

She fought alcohol all her life, and frequently lost. No sedate tippler, when she drank she was a three-sheets-to-the-wind, fall-down-the-stairs, break-your-collar-bone, blue-eyed, hide-the-hair-tonic drunk.

The reason for his vehemence is honesty; he believes that praise of her work has become too automatic. She is good, but not that good; he is engaged in a clean-up operation, even if it does mean dishing the dirt.

Towards Philip Larkin he is fairness itself. (‘Mr Larkin Gets a Life’). He wishes that Larkin in his letters had not said some of the things he did say,

because they can only be used against him by people who, along with being impressed by their own virtue, cannot stand too much complication in human character.

He points out, truly, ‘the strange fact that reading Philip Larkin always does cheer one up’. After all, however you unpeel the irony, Larkin's own recipe for poetry was ‘to make readers laugh, make them cry, and bring on the dancing girls’.

Larkin chose the comparative obscurity of Hull, whereas in America—and this never ceases to astonish—

the generation of Lowell-Jarrell-Bishop-Schwartz-Berryman-Roethke was not least remarkable in its collective ambition. In their careers—if not in their sad lives—everything was calculated … they formed a near-perfect daisy-chain of mutual promotion.

It was time that was pointed out; the more you learn of them the more chillingly obvious it becomes.

A ‘sucker for stylish writing’ would obviously love F. Scott Fitzgerald (‘The Third Act’): ‘his lush, lovely style, style to the highest power … style this persuasive is otherwise known as charm.’ Inevitably such a quality has made the charmless uneasy, and some have doubted Fitzgerald's intelligence in order to level things up a bit. Epstein flicks such begrudgers contemptuously away. Fitzgerald ‘put his intelligence at the service of imagination. Dumb like a fox, they used to say; Fitzgerald was dumb like a writer.’

However, this lover of style enthrones a comparatively maladroit verbal performer at the top of his pantheon: Theodore Dreiser. This is because of Dreiser's insight into, and sympathy with, the human heart. In Jennie Gerhardt, Epstein believes, Dreiser performed the near impossible: the portrait, in Jennie, of ‘uncorrupted goodness’. Therefore Epstein stands back before Dreiser—one almost sees him raising his panama—‘in reverent awe’. This depth of seriousness, never advertised, underpinned by his own stylish way with idiomatic American (for which I am a sucker), gives these essays more than a surface glitter; it makes them shine.

Sanford Pinsker (review date spring 1998)

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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 under study.” Moreover, he continues,

The reason I wanted to do this is that I recognized a serious gap in my learning that might now be filled; or that I was fascinated enough by my sketchy knowledge of the subject to wish to look further into it; or merely that—to adapt the words I once heard the English humorist Stephen Potter utter when asked why he wrote such peculiar books as One-Upsmanship, Gamesmanship, and Lifesmanship—I was “out of work, you know.”

That Epstein can come off as a world-class curmudgeon (he does not suffer fools gladly or otherwise) is true enough, but it is even truer that he means every word about his autodidacticism. He is an “amateur” in the best sense of the term's Latin root—a lover rather than a narrow specialist; and what Epstein loves is books, along with the sheer joy of writing well about them. He takes this collection's title from his reconsideration of Joseph Conrad, a man who struggled with every English sentence he wrote on his way to becoming a superb stylist, who dramatized a dark vision of human destiny as “life sentences,” and who, in effect, served out a life sentence himself to the high demands of his art. Epstein's introduction adds yet another, closer-to-home possibility—namely, that “literature, for those who truly believe in its powers, is also a life sentence, but of a very different order [than applied to Conrad]. As such a believer, a true believer in literature, I feel that this particular sentence is one I myself can do, as they say out in the yard, standing on my head.”

If Saul Bellow's Augie March thought of himself as “going everywhere,” one might say that Epstein writes literary essays about everyone: Montaigne, C. P. Cavafy, V. S. Pritchett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy, Philip Larkin, and others. In each case Epstein takes a measure of the writer under discussion, seamlessly combining biography with social history, and always paying careful attention to the shape and ring of individual sentences. In the process some reputations are deflated, some reaffirmed—and that, after all, is what critics rightly do: they are the culture's watchdogs, always aware that the writers who are widely read have an enormous influence, for good or ill, on our national character.

Thus far I have talked about Epstein in the abstract, but this is not a very good way to get at the heart of why his literary essays are among the best currently being written. That is a matter of appreciating the personal voice which beats just underneath his various observations. Take, for example, the following paragraphs about the ups and downs of F. Scott Fitzgerald's career:

American literature has known other one-great-book authors—Mark Twain in some ways qualifies, and so, in others, does Melville—but none has quite the airy quality of Fitzgerald, who wrote two very boyish early novels that no one would bother reading today if their author had not also written Gatsby; a rich but perhaps overcooked fourth novel, Tender Is the Night; a handful of winning short stories; and an uncompleted final novel. Sometimes it seems as if Fitzgerald, in writing The Great Gatsby, had hit the lottery.

Especially does this seem the case when one totes up Fitzgerald's personal deficiencies. Raucous, often pathetic drunkenness is high on that list. Churchill once said that he always got the best of alcohol and alcohol never got the best of him. Not so Fitzgerald, who may have been an alcoholic as early as his college years. The Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, were to drinking what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were to dancing: the top, the colosseum, the Louvre museum, and so forth.

Or consider these lines directed toward Philip Larkin, a man whose literary reputation took a nose dive after a biography and a collection of his letters revealed just what a bigoted rotter he actually was:

On the charitable side, critics have written that, though Larkin's views may have been hideous and he a terrible fellow, nonetheless the poems remain and it is for the poems alone that he should be remembered and for which we should be grateful. The general line rather echoes Larkin himself on the World War I poet Wilfred Owen, of whom, in a letter to Robert Conquest, he wrote: “W.O. seems rather a prick, really, yet the poems stay good.”

Meanwhile the self-appointed members of the thought police in our universities have before them the happy task of raking Larkin's poems for evidence of unacceptable opinions. Odd, is it not, that an on-the-make character in one poem, “Posterity,” should be named Jake Balokowsky, a Jew? Misogyny is easily sniffed out. Racism may present a tougher job; but maybe not, for is not any admiration for the British empire, as in “Homage to a Government,” evidence of racism? And what about homophobia? Stay on the case: it must be there somewhere. Academics exist who will find all this not in the least tiresome work.

Not surprisingly, Epstein prefers to work against the grain, and in the process to talk about writers with the complexity, sophistication, and—yes—compassion they deserve. Anything else is, for him, at once reductive and extraliterary. Does that mean he excuses everyone and everything? Hardly. In discussing the sad end to which Edmund (“Bunny”) Wilson came, Epstein quotes a particularly whining entry from Wilson's journal of the 1970's and then concludes, “So, for the poor Bunny, it went—another day, another dolor.” And in revisiting Robert Lowell's career, Epstein puts his finger on the salient fact (other than Lowell's heroic battle with madness) that is likely to matter when literary historians render their judgment: “Lowell's may have been one of those literary reputations that needed him to be alive, stoking the fire to sustain its flame. His vocation may have been stronger than his gift.”

In discussing modernist writers Epstein understands (as many do not) that bad people often make good art. For biographers especially, this raises a number of vexing questions, not least of which is how to deal with the mountains of evidence, literary as well as extracurricular, and how the story they choose to tell affects the culture at large. As Epstein puts it, in sentences filled with the crackle for which he is justly famous:

The roll of artists in the modern age is filled with alcoholics, misanthropes, megalomaniacs, major-league neurotics, creeps, drips, and simple bad hats. The list of those noted for kindness and acts of unmotivated goodness is shorter than the list of four-star restaurants in Duluth. When yet another artist with a difficult personality presents himself to be written about, the biographer must choose either to sympathize, understand, and explain away the unpleasantness, or nail the fellow to the wall.

The last sort, compilers of what Joyce Carol Oates calls “pathographies,” seem currently to be in the saddle, and this Epstein rightly deplores.

Like any artist worth his or her salt, Epstein never lets you see his paragraphs sweat. They look so effortless, so easy—that is, until you try to duplicate their rhythm, their intelligence, their snap. Indeed, that is why readers seeking a unified thread that binds one essay to another will surely be disappointed, for as Epstein notes, “What unites this collection … is the interest of the man who wrote them.” And that, for Epstein fans, is quite enough. What we have in Life Sentences is an accumulation rather than strict thematic or chronological consistency.

However, Epstein's disparate essays here do join with the other books of his I've previously discussed to present varying angles on the admittedly slippery business of literary culture. The poet William Stafford once wrote a line that has haunted me ever since I first heard it: “Truth has a long and complicated road.” So too does culture—and it may be that books directly addressing dogfights about the canon, or claims and counterclaims about inclusiveness, are less helpful than the philosophical meditations of Geoffrey H. Hartman, the cultural history of Janice A. Radway, or the passionate eloquence of Joseph Epstein. As cultural watchdogs these writers work quite different sides of the street, but taken together their books can help us see literary culture as more, much more, than fighting words. We have enough occasions when people reach for their metaphoric pistols. What we badly need are moments when the pleasures and clear benefits of serious reading are spoken about in full, intelligent throat. These books offer precisely such moments.

Merle Rubin (review date 15 July 1999)

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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 “familiar essays,” is his sixth book-length collection. The first piece, which gives this book its title, introduces Epstein standing naked at his bathroom mirror after a shower: “not,” as he puts it, “an altogether enrapturing sight.” This leads him to reflect on how much importance he, like many of us, has attached to his physical self-image: too much.

In another essay, Epstein considers the problem of information overload. While it's nice to be well-informed on a wide range of topics, it's better to be able to distinguish what is ephemeral from what is of lasting significance, he concludes. “Do I really need to know more—or anything at all, really—about Strobe Talbott or Liam Neeson?” he wonders, adding, in self-deprecation, “You are reading the words of a man who actually took an hour out of his life to read an interview by Norman Mailer of Madonna. If any lingering respect you might have had for me has vanished and you wish to stop reading me here, I shall of course quite understand.” Most of us, I suspect, will wish to read on.

Epstein's essays have some of the qualities one associates with a conversation with a good friend: directness, ease, sincerity, and affability.

Napping, name-dropping, the strangely potent charms of favorite songs are some of the other topics he discusses.

Although Epstein is quite definite about what he likes and what he dislikes, he is also capable of changing his mind when confronted by strong evidence. “Trivial Pursuits” explains how the author, once a diehard sports fan, came to share George Orwell's view that “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, and disregard of all rules” and is part of “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

Along with the felicities of Epstein's own prose, his essays are enhanced by his discerning use of provocative, memorable, and enlightening quotations.

Not surprisingly, a man who gets so much out of other people's words has a lot to say about the joys of reading and the problem of choosing the books that are most rewarding. “There is something invigorating,” he declares, “about reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—invigorating and inspiring—something that makes you believe, while you are reading it, that the panorama of life, in all its complication, has been mastered.”

Epstein's friends and mentors are another source of quotations—and inspiration. The thoughtful and cultivated social scientist Edward Shills is the subject of the poignant essay that concludes this collection. “My friendship with Edward,” reflects Epstein, “was to be the crucial intellectual event of my life.” Under Shils's influence, he recalls, “I began to see the world as simultaneously more complex and more amusing.”

Gravity, responsibility, knowing when to put away childish attitudes and become, in the real sense, a “grown-up”: Epstein laments that these qualities, which he very much admires, are no longer much admired in our youth-obsessed culture. Deftly blending gravity with a saving touch of levity, his essays exude a civilized urbanity that many readers will find restorative.

Susan Balée (review date autumn 1999)

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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 my rib cage, a cup of fennel tea at my side. Not only was the experience itself delightful, but it left a pleasant afterglow, a warm tingling in my synapses. I found myself wanting to tell everybody what this guy is like between the covers—so funny, thoughtful, original—and, happily, this review gives me an opportunity to do so.

As anyone paying attention to the literary arts in America knows, the best writing in this country today is nonfiction prose. While most of our fiction writers stutter with postmodern uncertainty, our essayists and memoir writers pipe up with confident, distinct voices. Of these distinct voices, Joseph Epstein's consistently hits notes beyond the rest of the choir (his work appears regularly in The Best American Essays and other anthologies). In short, he is one of America's best living essayists.

Further, when the man is dead, his works will continue to have a life of their own. In fact, Joseph Epstein's essays will be read long after the rest of this generation's scribblings have sunk into obscurity for a very basic reason: Epstein serves as America's conscious—if not our conscience—and he's the guy bearing witness to our era. I don't doubt for a second that centuries from now, people will turn to his essays to understand this period of American history, just as people now turn to Samuel Pepys's diaries for a peep at seventeenth-century England. Dissertation students of the twenty-third century will doubtless cite him as evidence of what educated Americans read and thought about in the waning decades of the second millennium.

Going back in time, Joseph Epstein also compares favorably to Michel de Montaigne, that great essayist against whom all others are measured. Like Montaigne, Epstein derives some of his greatest insights from the most trivial of topics, as in my favorite from this collection, “The Art of the Nap.” This piece begins simply enough with Epstein describing the nap-master's art—how to grab twenty winks without getting rumpled. How to meet Morpheus for a quickie without spending the night in his clutches.

Place matters. “I nap well on airplanes, trains, buses, and in cars and with a special proficiency at concerts and lectures. I am, when pressed, able to nap standing up. In certain select company, I wish I could nap while being spoken to.” As a dozeur par excellence himself, Epstein forgives his students when they nod off in his classes. “… What the hell, if they cannot arise from my teaching inspired, let them at least awake refreshed.” What a refreshing attitude for an English professor!

To nap, perchance, to dream—Epstein's mind ranges to his dream life. He contemplates dreams, insomnia, sleep cycles. Most of us realize we spend a third of our lives sleeping, but Epstein does a more careful accounting of how he's spent his time on earth:

… Sleep—slightly less than one third of total; watching men hit, chase, kick, and throw various-sized balls—eleven years, seven months; reading—thirteen years, four months; following the news—three years, six months; eating and activities connected with digestion—four years, eleven months; daydreaming and hopeless fantasizing—five years and seven months; gossiping, sulking, talking on the telephone, and miscellaneous time-wasting—undeterminable but substantial. …

They say the unexamined life is not worth living, but that's a sin that Joseph Epstein will never be guilty of. He examines his life at every turn, and we are the wiser for it. Most of this book is about growing old, growing up, looking back, looking down (“time passes, the day darkens, the grave yawns—and yet I still cannot resist a joke, a witty formulation, a piece of well-made frivolity”) and finding a penny on the ground. Epstein adjusts his mental gravitas to the downward pull of age, but he's still got a good bit of boy in him—that happy-go-lucky, ball-playing Jewish kid from Chicago rides with him still.

That kid grew up and, surprising even himself, became an intellectual; he had opinions that he defended, that he published. He became an editor and published the opinions of other people. He informed himself, all the better to inform others. Knowledge is power, but is information? Epstein grows old and, with trousers rolled, he steps out of the sea of facts and scrapes its flotsam from his soul. He wonders whether “it isn't possible to live deeper down, at some more genuine, less superficial level of life than that promised by an endless flow of still more and then yet again even more information. It has taken me a good while to understand this, but it turns out that the only information I am seriously interested in is that about the human heart, and this I cannot find any easy way to access, not even with the best of modems, fiber-optic cable, or digital technology.” Way to go, Joe. You've hit on a home truth. Tell Narcissus to close his eyes and get in touch with his heart. Tell this whole narcissistic generation that, 'cause it's something we need to know.

Knowing what matters teaches us what doesn't. Another stellar piece in this collection, “Ticked to the Min,” deals with life's minor irritations. Rage diminishes with age, or, as Epstein puts it, “In these my sunset—make that my dusk—years, I have become a calm, gentle fellow, a relative pussycat, almost comatose. Save the ticking, hold the max.” Yeah, anger wanes but irritation rises. Each mot du jour leaves Epstein sore—highlight impact, process, intriguing, and focus, and then hit the delete key. Please.

Then there are the wordmongers on the nightly news, hawking the day's bloody deeds. “… Like the old Persian kings greeted by bad news, I say let's put out the messenger's eyes. Or, in the case of all these television Johnnies and Janes, I say let's put out their hairdos.” No sparer of high culture, Epstein also finds Ralph Waldo Emerson “a great gasbag. … He was the original talk-show host, with no guests other than himself.” But perhaps this isn't a surprising judgment, for Epstein's the fella who says in another essay, “my natural inclination is to prefer talent to genius.” Talent is what he learned he had himself, a talent for small things well turned. A talent, in other words, for essays, “I operate at the level of the sentence,” he tells us. “I live less in the world than in my head. I long for a wisdom I know I shall never attain.” And yet, he's content, he knows he's lucky. He's found his audience and we've found him. Better still, he's found his life's work, and he's good at it:

Work is for me the antidote, not for any of the world's ills, but for all of my own. Work keeps the black dog from the door, the blue funk on the other side of the window. When working well, my life falls into place; I needn't search for life's meaning but seem temporarily to have found it; I am, in a world not notably arranged for sustained felicity, as close to happiness as I am likely to get. That's what's in it for the talent—the sweet delight in exercising one's gifts—and that is everything.

Like all talented writers, Epstein is a devoted reader. Another sharp essay in this collection is “The Pleasures of Reading.” He expresses brilliantly what I have tried, far less brilliantly, to convey to my students in literature classes—the reason why reading matters.

What wide reading teaches is the richness, the complexity, the mystery of life. In the wider and longer view, I have come to believe, there is something deeply apolitical—something above politics—in literature, despite what feminist, Marxist, and other politicized literary critics may think. If at the end of a long life of reading the chief message you bring away is that women have had it lousy, or that capitalism stinks, or that attention must above all be paid to victims, then I'd say you just might have missed something crucial.

Reading good literature connects us to other minds, places, times. It keeps us from feeling alone: someone else has gone through what we are now enduring.

Which is why many older readers will find solace in Epstein's reflections on growing old—he's there now, he's currently doing that. Now a sexagenarian, he reads the obit page with avidity. “A bad morning is one on which three of the deceased are younger than I and two are just a few years older. This means that the machine gunner is out and firing indiscriminately. It would be a great help if one knew the exact date of one's own death—one's own true, so to say, deadline—though I am sure that, even with years of warning, one would still manage to be unprepared. I have always regarded the phrase, ‘untimely death’ as the poorest possible usage; hard to imagine, for oneself, a timely one.”

We learn that one's interests narrow with age, but that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Why waste mental energy on politics, movie stars, major league pitchers? “One is resigned, too, to the world's comedy: idiots rising to the top, fanatics dressed up as idealists, boobs confidently in control.” The trick is not to let it make you mad. To let passion subside and detachment grow. To ditch ambition and hope for perspective. Epstein wants to learn to live in the moment, for the moments that remain. “I have to lose my yen for then, suture the future, and at long last put the pow! in now—to make each day, that is, as delight-filled as possible.”

Truth be told, I think the guy is gonna make it—make the most of each day, that is. In the course of this book he survives triple bypass surgery and the death of his best friend. He's grown vulnerable and conscious of his heart, but those are doubtless preconditions for living in the moment and making the most of it. Joseph Epstein is a man on whom nothing is lost, so I look forward to reading, in his next book, whatever new wisdom he's found.

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

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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 lips over Joseph Epstein, Jaguar owner, the young man with the Burberry coat who has now a $300 fountain pen. But his way of telling you about such vulnerabilities is so fetching you want to reach through the confessional screen and embrace the sinner. And anyway, all that stuff about incidental luxuries doesn't really matter. “My snobbery,” he sighs, “is of a different kind, the kind I think of as intellectual snobbery.”

Here is the deal on Name Dropping, one of twenty-four subjects he gives a chapter to (others: Jobs: Waspness; Class; Taste; Status; Clubs and clubability; Intellect; Politics; Celebrityhood; “Fags and Yids”; the Dining Table; and “[The Art of] With-it-ry”). He begins by coming clean on his own indulgences. We are to know that the young Joe Epstein bruited it about that he knew personally two champion boxers and also a comedian (Morey Amsterdam), to be sure, a comedian “whom I don't think it would be imprecise to describe as a third banana.”

My name-dropping fell off until I became an editor of a scholarly magazine [The American Scholar] that had an editorial board with some highly droppable names from the worlds of art, intellect, and scholarship: Lillian Hellman, Jacques Barzun, and Diana Trilling are a representative sample. Later I was made a member of the National Council on the Arts, which caused business in this line to pick up substantially. At quarterly meetings in Washington, I met and spent a fair amount of time with Celeste Holm, Robert Joffrey, Roberta Peters, Martha Graham, Toni Morrison, Robert Stack, Helen Frankenthaler, and other men and women who are, as the English say, rather namey. Some I came to like, some I thought greater bores than are found on a howitzer, some I had no feeling about at all. By now most of those still alive probably have little or no memory of me.

That opening whets the appetite, which will be completely gratified. Epstein goes on to tell us tantalizingly about further adventures with droppable names.

“I had a three-year friendship in the late 1970s with Saul Bellow [Three years? What happened? You will run into Bellow elsewhere in the book.] I was once taken to a Chicago Bulls basketball game—in the $350-a-seat front-row section [Invite Professor Epstein to a basketball game? Expect to seat him in the royal box.]—by Gene Siskel, whose fame came from his television show on the movies with Roger Ebert [This is cunning. We are supposed to know who Siskel and Ebert are. Is it snobbish to plead ignorance? Certainly it would be snobbish to pretend not to know]. Before the game he introduced me to Oprah Winfrey, who seemed, like many another early middle-aged woman, tired after a tough day at the office. [This is what the true cosmopolitan would bother to notice in Oprah Winfrey: That she looks tired.] I had coffee and dessert with Dick and Lynne Cheney at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington [Dessert? Did they call him over only after the main course?] and Lynne Cheney at another time had a light dinner at my wife's and my apartment before giving a talk at Northwestern University. [Why was the dinner light? Why tell us it was light? Is a snobbish purpose being served? Why not have a special dinner for Lynne? Or would that be … slavish?] I was once the only guest on The Phil Donahue Show, in connection with a book I wrote about divorce [Tantalus here: his own divorce?], a ninety-minute show that felt just a tad longer than a bad fiscal quarter. In connection with the same book, I was the subject of a most unreal article in People. [People has never more deftly been shown to the foot of the table.] I've dined with five Nobel Prize winners, three in economics, two in physics. I went to high school with the film director Philip Kaufman, who remains a friend. One of Monica Lewinsky's attorneys is another friend of mine. I had a whitefish dedicated to me and Pierre Boulez by a great though too-little-known chef named Ben Moy. I occasionally receive nice notes from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I've never, alas, slept with, or known anyone who slept with, Rita Hayworth [The “alas” here is an uncommon common touch in Epstein.] With that, I believe I had got most of the name-dropping out of my system.”

That's it. Epstein was off to another running start. And while doing this, the character and personality of the snob-taxonomist are artfully limned.

Plenary indulgence in hand, Epstein goes to town on his name-dropping virtuosos.

There is Picasso biographer John Richardson, title holder. Epstein quotes from Richardson's Sorcerer's Apprentice. “I told Princess Margaret the story of Picasso's quest for her hand.”

Epstein gives us the scene. Attending a music festival in Aix-en-Provence, Richardson was “longing for sleep, but, ‘unfortunately, Segovia, most revered of classical guitarists, had the room above mine, and was practicing for a concert later in the week.’ When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attempted to visit Chateau Castille, the house in France that Richardson lived in with his friend Douglas Cooper, Richardson is able to report Cooper's delight in telling friends: ‘The Onassis woman tried to invade my house, but I sent her packing.’”

The whole idea of name-dropping is to bring up a personal encounter with someone whose name generates awe, curiosity, or a pang of envy. Something that a revealed historical familiarity with the two prize fighters and the failed comedian would no longer do, now that Joe Epstein had grown up and got around. We are reminded that a snob can only attain true satisfaction at the expense of others. If everybody knew Segovia, not many points could be had from complaining that his guitar next door kept you awake. If everybody has a fur coat, what, actually, does a fur coat then do for you? The only excuse for having one would be that it keeps you warm, even as a stretch limo allows you to stretch out your legs. Epstein goes on to capture perfectly the volatility of snobfare. John Sparrow, the warden of All Souls College, “used to save the letters of the poet Edith Sitwell, though she never saved his. But once he became warden of the prestige-laden All Souls, Miss Sitwell began saving Sparrow's letters, at which exact point John Sparrow ceased to save hers.”

Snobbery is a recent phenomenon, however organic the appetites that foster it. We are informed that there are no snobs in Shakespeare, Dante, Aristophanes, or the Bible. The principal support system for snobbery came with caste, most rigid in Great Britain. In America we had Waspness. After that, wealth. But these infrastructures of snobbery are slipping away as we dither on about them. A nobleman in Great Britain becomes, more and more, simply that. As in “Henry Mortimer V.” The Waspocracy has all but disappeared as a class-identifying blood line, and rich people don't any longer constitute a dominant class—there are too many of them. The public can envy the resources of the rich, but the rich can't get to the head of any coveted line merely by touting their wealth.

Snobbery of opinion, on the other hand, is an undepletable reserve. Epstein revels in it. “Someone tells me that he thinks, say, Death of a Salesman is a great play, and my mind goes—click—foolish opinion, betraying a want of intellectual subtlety, a crudity of sensibility.” Here Epstein acknowledges the infirmity of inverse snobbery. A sentient snob is naturally attracted away from popular enthusiasms. “Twenty-five years or so ago, I thought Humphrey Bogart a swell actor; the Bogart cult killed it for me. I mock—though never to their faces—people I know who buy what I think crappy modern art, pretending to enjoy it. If lots of what I take to be indiscriminate, and therefore non-discriminating, people take something up I can almost always be relied upon to put it down, at least in my mind.” There is danger in opposing categorically that which is popular, and awful danger in assuming that the discriminating eye will always make out the superior—“[E]ntire ages have vastly undervalued individual works, often whole bodies of visual art, whose majesty is now thought to be beyond argument.”

Professor Epstein gives a few keys to sound deportment in life in the whirls of snobbery and affectation. To begin with, one should be cautious about language. “The title ‘professor’ always convey[s] a slight comic tinge, and was also conferred on the man who played the piano in the bordello.” Much of necessary accommodation to modern life is done by declining to court singularity, while declining also to disavow what is singular. “Otto Kahn, the successful New York financier, whose assimilationist efforts caused him to be described as ‘the flyleaf between the Old and New Testament,’ once told a friend, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ ‘Really?’ the friend is said to have replied. ‘I used to be a hunchback’ making the point that, even with vast financial and social resources, it is not so easy to de-Judaize oneself.”

The young man who cherished not so much the Burberry coat as the ownership of it is knowingly submissive to many social norms. “In my own dress and manner, I would like to think myself existing in a permanent state of ironic conformity to the decorum of the day.” He quotes Harold Brodkey. “We want to be dressed, and we want others to be dressed somewhat similarly, partly for the democracy of it, and partly so that we are speaking a halfway common language.” But important that when you do this, you should know that you are doing it. The irony permits you to genuflect to the queen.

Accommodation with convention requires us to go along even with major delusions, most prominent of them, opines Epstein, that college education does no more for American youth than supply them the satisfaction of a college degree. Professor Epstein's own guess is that not more than two percent of those who attend college are lit up, intellectually and culturally, by the experience. “Most people come away from college, happy souls, quite unscarred by what has gone on in the classroom. The education and culture they are presumably exposed to at college never lay a glove on them. This is the big dirty secret of higher education in America.”

Well … Joseph Epstein's standards are exacting and a bit idiosyncratic, but his marksmanship is keen. The book is rich with barbs. “Outside America, the Susan Sontag act never quite took flight. She never caught on in France. And why, after all, should she have, doing as she did an imitation of a French intellectual when the French had more than enough of the real thing on hand.” The New York Review of Books is Sontag's habitat. Speaking of which, “If one wanted to study intellectual snobbery in America through a single institution, one could scarcely do better than peruse the contents of and contributors to that biweekly journal.” The Review has made the “snobbishly brilliant connection between high culture and radical politics, making left-wing views seem integral to high-brow culture. The Anglophilic role in the magazine was [always] large; some issues had more English than American contributors. A joke went the rounds that when one of the journal's two principal editors went to London, he was treated as if he were the Viceroy of India home on furlough.”

And Epstein is very wise, and penetrating. Good taste, he summarizes, is really “good sense.” Good sense in friendship, “represented by tact, generosity, and above all kindness; in possessions, by comfort, elegance, utility and solidity; in art by beauty, harmony, and originality, in culture, by a discriminating tolerance for tastes at odds with one's own.” (This tolerance does not extend to Death of a Salesman.) “The other way—taking pleasure in cutting oneself away from the mass by the criterion of ostensible good taste, and putting down others by the standard of what one takes to be one's own exquisite taste is, of course, the way of the snob.”

Snobs should read this book. Also, anti-snobs. Also those who wonder whether they are more like twentieth-century man, or, actually—deep down—more like Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Christ.

Digby Anderson (review date 2 September 2002)

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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 interests and lifestyles of one's family, friends, and community is called class hatred.

Much of what is denounced as snobbery today is simply a thoroughly commendable attachment to elitism, to high standards, and a concomitant rejection or ridicule of low standards together with an equally commendable refined and precise distinction of the social manners that go with them. What Snobbery would surely do then would be to take modern illustrations of “snobbery” and show them to be no such thing. That is not what Joseph Epstein does. Now, there is no reason why Epstein should write the book that ought to be written about “snobbery”—except that what he has written in its stead is neither right nor amusing.

Some of what he thinks is snobbery is not. Thus he quotes V. S. Naipaul: “The melancholy thing about the world is that it is full of stupid and common people, and the world is run for the benefit of the stupid and the common.” This is not mere snobbery; in fact, I don't think it's snobbish at all. Naipaul regrets it as a melancholy fact; he doesn't revel in it or use it to advance himself. And what he asserts is no more than the commendable elitism mentioned above, a care for quality. Epstein is wrong about it. He is also wrong to declare that Evelyn Waugh was a snob; wrong in the sense that there is much more to say about Waugh and that these other things—his wit, his social perceptiveness, his genius for characters—were inextricably tied up with what Epstein calls snobbery. He tells a story about Alfred Knopf's brother, who knew Knopf's fondness for good wine, served him an expensive bottle, failed to get a reaction, asked him what he thought of it, and received the reply, “How can I tell, drinking it out of these glasses?” He is wrong to call this snobbery. It is very clever and funny. It is a neat, gentle, social put-down and it contains quite as much of the truth as befits a dinner conversation (glasses do matter). He cites, as an instance of food snobbery, guests' later describing the serving of iceberg lettuce at a dinner as equivalent to a serious grammatical mistake. It is, of course, much more serious than that. Iceberg lettuce has no pleasant taste and is full of water. Olive oil will not stick to it. To serve it to one's guests is tasteless and downright inhospitable.

Epstein is wrong too about alleged instances of snobbery that belong to a social milieu he doesn't understand. He cites more than one instance of aristocrats' not noticing servants and behaving as if they were not there. But if one's life is full of servants, that is indeed the only way to behave to them, at least most of the time. Anything else would turn daily life into a performance before an audience and leave no privacy at all.

It might be better if I, an Englishman, did not comment on many of Epstein's alleged instances of snobbery in American life: He covers the WASP culture, Ivy League colleges, the Social Register, the academy, and politics. But he has a whole chapter on food and gets that mostly wrong too. He favors old-fashioned, plain, decent American cooking and sneers at sea urchins and andouillette sausage. The French who know about such things prize andouillettes. Both they and the Japanese prize sea urchins. They are quite right to do so. Why should affluent Americans have to refuse them in favor of a baked potato and iceberg lettuce? And it is not snobbish to talk of a restaurant's serving “a fairly reliable risotto.” Risotto takes some 20 minutes to cook and cannot be kept hot. Imagine trying to cook it for dozens of customers arriving at different times, or finishing their preceding course at unexpected times. That's why most restaurant risottos are unreliable and the best are only “fairly reliable.”

Some of his contempt for silly food behavior is justified. But in most of these cases the behavior is silly, ignorant, tasteless, or merely fashionable as much as snobbish. Sometimes he does describe genuine snobbery as, for instance, in a chapter on name dropping. But here there is a different problem. Genuine snobbery is not good behavior. But it is not excitingly bad. It is dull. So the anecdotes about it are dull too. Snobbery is often described as cruel and Epstein seems to accept this too. But it is not very cruel. What a feeble society we have become when we consider the odd snobbish remark a noteworthy act of cruelty. These remarks are made to and about adults. These adults can and do get their own back by making equally “cruel” remarks either to the snob or behind his back. And that is why snobbery is so harmless even when it is about races and sexes. Both sides can play.

As, indeed, can Epstein: He says that the French, apart from odd individuals, have “no record of bravery.” The great Duke of Wellington, who was a past master at what now passes for snobbery, would never have said such a preposterous thing and would not have defeated Napoleon, his brave marshals, and his courageous troops if he had thought it. Epstein claims as a “solid, sordid fact” that “every Frenchman is fundamentally in business for himself.” That's not true, and—even more important—it's not funny or well-phrased. What a missed opportunity Snobbery is.

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

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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. Thackeray's mid-19th-century satire The Book of Snobs, Epstein makes his study a catalog of examples of behaviors he identifies as snobbish, using deadpan humor and self-deprecation of the sort readers of his many essays over the years will find quite appealing. The author identifies two types of snobs: “those whose snobbery consists of looking down on others and those whose snobbery consists of looking up to, and being ready to abase themselves before, their supposed betters.” In the realms he knows best—publishing, intellectualism and politics—Epstein provides many concrete examples of snobbery.

Most of the instances of snobbism given in the book, however, are actually better seen as examples of status-seeking, rather than snobbery per se. Epstein powerfully documents contemporary Americans' search for just the right colleges, restaurants, wristwatches, clothes, automobiles, political opinions and so on, and this material amply illustrates a basic national lack of seriousness. Buying nice things, however, can simply be evidence of good taste, discrimination and stewardship of one's blessings, as Epstein acknowledges. It is the motive behind the purchase that counts.

In addition, even when fulfilling snobbish desires, the acquisition of the finer things is just a small part of snobbism. It hurts oneself mainly, and one's spouse and children, by wasting time, money and energy. The larger and more directly damaging matter is in all the slights, snubs, sarcasm, putdowns, fawning, flattery, hypocrisy, dissembling and outright lies through which people continually attempt to establish and confirm their social status. The war for status creates its own moral calculus, a twisted ethic in which material goods and sensual pleasures are the most easily understandable totems.

Epstein does not pursue these moral implications very far, preferring instead to look for explanations based on social arrangements. He posits snobbery as a distinctively American phenomenon, and democracy as a major instigator of it. In a democratic society like America, he argues, there are many ways of rising, but “such is the spirit behind democracy that no one really believes that, apart from innate talent, anyone is intrinsically better than anyone else.” Thus, he observes, American snobbishness tends to be a matter of looking down one's nose at one's countrymen.

It is true, as Epstein observes, that the word snob does not appear to have arisen until the mid-19th century, when democracy was already firmly established in America. In making his case, however, Epstein claims rather too much, I think, for democracy as snobbery producer. He states that there are no snobs in Shakespeare, thereby ignoring Henry V's heart-breaking (though necessary) rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part II, and many other such instances and characters in the Bard's works. Likewise, Epstein claims that there are no snobs in the Holy Bible, ignoring Israel's continual rejection of its prophets, Jesus' blistering denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees, the shameless jockeying for position by Peter and the other Apostles and countless other such cases.

As these examples suggest, snobbery is a perpetual element of the human condition, although democracy is a definite enabler of it. Snobbery is the outward expression of a perturbation of the soul. It arises from the sense that one is better—inside, in one's essence—than other people are willing to acknowledge. Such status-envy is evident in the story of the very first human beings, Adam and Eve, and in that of their tempter. The snob, as Epstein notes, “cannot seem to understand that only natural distinction and genuine good-heartedness are what truly matter. Snobs cannot see through the artificialities of social rank nor through the world's silly habit of offering prestige to many people who are utterly unworthy of it.”

Epstein does not pursue this fruitful line of inquiry any further, preferring instead to condemn his own “harsh, essentially snobbish judgments.” Dismayed at his inability to divest himself fully of snobbism, he asks:

When shown by an acquaintance a wretched new painting for which he has paid $6,000, why do I think, ‘One of a man's first obligations is not to be duped, and you, friend, haven't met it’? Why, when I learn of a colleague who is teaching Jack Kerouac, do I think about inciting his students to begin a malpractice suit against him? Why, when I read a young director of commercials say, in a newspaper interview, that the three words that describe him best are ‘creative, compassionate and considerate,’ do I feel the need to add that he seems to have left out ‘smug’?

The answer, of course, is not that Epstein is a snob but that he has a very keen sense of morality. The actions he describes here are asinine and should be condemned, gently but firmly, lest their perpetrators continue in their folly and others emulate them. There is no need whatsoever to feel guilty about such thoughts; quite the contrary. There is a huge difference between snobbery and moral discrimination. Snobbery is about superficial things, and the snob delights in exploiting them for his own pleasure. Moral judgments are about important things, matters that reveal the state of a person's soul, and when delivered in a loving manner and taken seriously by the recipient, they benefit both the individual thus judged and the rest of society.

Lee Congdon (review date October 2002)

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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 familiar essays. As editor of the American Scholar from 1975 to 1997, he delighted and, without ever being preachy, instructed readers by calling their attention to unexpected meanings in such everyday experiences as reading, napping, awaiting the mail, listening to music, following sports, or selecting a pen.

In his most recent, and perhaps finest, collection of familiar essays, Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999), he wrote of aging, small irritations, talent (as opposed to genius), but also of the heart bypass surgery he was obliged to undergo. That surgery, he said, “has been a major event in my otherwise fairly quiet life, one that has changed me, decidedly, decisively, definitively.” More than ever, he told an interviewer, “the idea that life is going to be over conditions almost everything I do.” It is not that he has suddenly become serious-he has always been a deeply, though unoppressively, serious writer. But one detects more searching self-examination, almost as though he were preparing himself for an oral confession.

THE SPREAD OF SNOBBERY

One of the essays that Epstein included in Once More Around the Block (1987) begins with these words: “I don't mean to make anyone tense or otherwise edgy, but perhaps it is best you know at the outset that in me you are dealing with your basic language snob.” That is a wonderful Epsteinian sentence. I found myself—while we are on the subject of confession—nodding in agreement, smiling condescendingly at the thought of those pitiable folk who use nonwords such as supportive, parenting, and the ever-popular lifestyle, those who begin sentences with hopefully. I happen to know better, and that makes me superior to those whom CNN newsreaders would probably call the “verbally challenged”—or does it?

That is the question that Epstein asks us to consider in Snobbery: The American Version. Clearly he has looked into his own heart, the postoperative heart of which he wrote in Narcissus: “In more ways than one, my heart has been touched and I am not, and shall never again be, quite the same person.” He has not been entirely pleased by what he discovered about that vital organ—namely, that it was pumping snobbery into his arteries. Snobbery, he has come to think, is no trivial matter nor something amusing, like a New Yorker cartoon. It is a base and cruel effort to lord it over others, a mark of ill breeding—the very indictment it brings against those considered to be inferior. “Everything,” he observes, “is ill bred that does not seem to have behind it kindness, generosity, and a good heart. …”

I emphasize the last words because Epstein wants to remind us that the heart is the seat of those elements of character by which a man is measured. He knows that the condition of one's heart is more important than the level of one's culture. “The snob's error,” he writes further on, “is to put good taste before a good heart.” And near the end of the book: “[The snob] cannot seem to understand that only natural distinction and genuine good-heartedness are what truly matter.” This is a man on whom heart surgery was not lost.

Epstein's own snobberies are almost all intellectual and cultural. As we have seen, he has admitted—even boasted—that he is a language snob. He confesses, too, that when once he attended a “pop concert” given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he felt smugly superior to those in the audience who seemed not to appreciate the difference between (Henry) Mancini and Mozart. These are the besetting sins of a certain type of intellectual (you are to picture me with my head bowed). But there are other opportunities available to snobs of different shades. In fact, Epstein argues that since the decline of “the Waspocracy”—the white, Anglo Saxon social elite—snobbery has become ubiquitous. Severed from its connection with social class, it is free to attach itself to almost anything. We live in a democratized republic, and so, to borrow from Mao Zedong, let a hundred snobberies blossom.

THE MANY FACES OF SNOBBERY

I have already mentioned—and indulged in—name-dropping and job snobbery, but how about higher education snobbery? Why do those who can afford to do so want so much to send their children to an Ivy League school or, perhaps even better, to Stanford? It cannot be because they think such schools offer an incomparable education; the days when Harvard meant William James, George Santayana, or Alfred North Whitehead are long past. No, that for which they are willing to part with staggering sums of money is prestige and the advantages prestige offers, one of them the license to say that one's son or daughter, one's flesh and blood, is at Stanford. “Where,” they usually cannot resist inquiring of their friends, “is yours?”

But school snobbery need not await high school graduation. There are many Americans, particularly in the Boston and New York areas, who cannot sleep at night until they receive word that their child has been admitted to the right preschool, the prerequisite for admission to the right elementary school, and on up the line. For those who must send their children to public schools, snobbish openings are fewer. The important thing is to see to it that one's child, one's hope, is selected for the “talented and gifted” program, and in that way demonstrates the quality of his genes. I recall being congratulated because my daughter, then in the fourth or fifth grade, was—together with 60 percent(!) of her class—among the gifted. I made no friend when I replied that I doubted that any of the children were gifted; Mozart and John Stuart Mill were gifted, I said, the rest of us do the best we can.

Very bold of me. But wasn't the remark an example of what Epstein calls “reverse snobbery,” the chief mechanism of which “is to find out which way snobs are headed and then turn oneself in the opposite direction”? Very likely, I fear, because I would prefer not to be thought part of the herd. Fashionable ideas, in my view, are almost always to be rejected (in our time, fortunately, this is invariably the proper attitude to adopt). Fashion in clothes I ignore (you have only to ask my wife). In general I try not to be “with it.” Epstein seems to share this ambition, but he sees that snobbery is adaptable—if it fails to corrupt us one way, it finds another.

Of course the snob also practices the art of what Epstein calls “with-it-ry” Every year the Washingtonian publishes lists of the famous who are currently “in” or “out.” The editors know that the snob must never fall behind when it comes to knowing “in” people and “in” things such as restaurants, wristwatches, stocks, places to vacation, and places to retire. Lecturing, as he does, at a fairly prestigious midwestern university, Epstein knows about the ultimate in withit-ry, the contention, insisted upon by au courant academics, that there is no such thing as a core identity or personality. Personality, like everything else, is open to endless possibility; one should therefore choose the most up-to-date design. As Epstein observes, however, “Integrity requires coherence of personality, which precludes constant change of one's personality to keep up with the spirit of the moment.”

Epstein is particularly good on “the snob in politics,” the person who never misses a politically correct beat, who listens to and believes everything he hears on National Public Radio, who “cares,” always “deeply,” about the homeless, the poor, minorities, women, and, of course, the environment. Such a person, you understand, rarely does anything; the sacrifice of time and self required to perform small, unpublicized acts of kindness at, say, hospitals and nursing homes are not for him. “Concern” earnestly expressed is enough to demonstrate that he is a “caring” person and hence morally superior. Moral superiority may be purchased at an even lower price by making a credible, or even a plausible, claim to victimhood. Any challenge to the pronouncements of a government-certified victim condemns the issuer to that Siberia reserved for the mean, the insensitive, and the heartless.

Siberia—or the outer darkness—will also do nicely for those who consume animal flesh, according to aggressive vegetarians (Hitler comes to mind), even when they speak not a word of condemnation. It is all in their self-assured attitude. As Epstein puts it, “It's the feeling that somehow he or she is living at a more advanced stage of culture, is more highly evolved than a mere carnivore such as oneself.” He is death on food and wine snobbery—“a promiscuous little wine but ultimately responsible,” he has been known to say to dinner guests as he uncorks a bottle—though here he seems to me too quick to throw Julia Child out with the bathwater. I remember the old “ideal, nonregional meals” he describes—shrimp cocktail, iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, steak, baked potato, vegetable (definitely not al dente), pie or ice cream; but I would rather not.

Epstein is also, perhaps, overly defensive about North America when its culture, in the broad sense of its way of life, comes under fire from Europeans or Europhiles. When confronted with such criticism he finds himself “wanting to defend American culture to the last animal-fat-saturated fastfood french fry.” An understandable reaction, particularly when one meets with an ever-so-superior European. It is natural to speak up for one's own, especially if those whom one loves seem, even if indirectly, to be victimized by the collateral critical damage. Still, on its merits, the critics have a pretty good case, as Epstein himself acknowledged in an essay entitled “Anglophilia, American Style.” There he spoke of the superiority of British humor (Dudley Moore and the other comic geniuses of Beyond the Fringe), literature, education (Oxbridge), and intellectual life. At Britannica, he sided with editor-in-chief Sir William Haley, a distinguished Englishman who lost a struggle with “people who wanted a different, less literary, less elegant EB than he.”

AGAPE

Epstein, in fact, never suggests that all cultures are equal or that all judgments of taste are simply matters of equally valid opinion. Nor does he ever fail to defend rigorous standards. Unlike too many, he never mistakes elitism for snobbery. The distinction,” he writes, “is that the elitist desires the best; the snob wants other people to think he has, or is associated with, the best. Delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant.” That is well said by a man who has devoted his working life to the writer's craft. The grateful product of an old-fashioned home, he was not born with a cultural spoon in his mouth. Dedication, sacrifice, hard work, and a talent—one is tempted to say a gift—have made him the writer's writer that he is.

As a result, Epstein has the greatest respect for those who have achieved something worthwhile by, as one used to say, applying themselves. The directions he gives to those who wish to enter “the snob-free zone” add up to a credo: “Care only about one's work, judge people only by their skill at their own work, and permit nothing else outside one's work to signify in any serious way. View the rest of the world as a more or less amusing carnival at which one happens to have earned—through, of course, one's work—a good seat. Judge all things by their intrinsic quality, and consider status a waste of time.”

For Epstein then, there is nothing wrong, and everything right, about the making of distinctions. The main purpose of education, one might argue, is precisely to help students develop the ability to make ever more refined discriminations—epistemological, moral, and aesthetic. Anyone with a little schooling should be able to distinguish between, say, Dostoevsky and Philip Roth. But it requires a more finely educated judgment to rank Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Snobbery is, as Epstein insists, an attitude: one of contempt for others and of soul—corrupting self-importance. It is the kind of attitude that Dostoevsky repudiated after spending four years at hard labor with men with whom he would not otherwise have had dealings. Something, the Russian later recalled, “changed our outlook, our convictions, and our hearts.” That something “was the direct contact with the people, the brotherly merger with them in a common misfortune, the realization that [we had] become even as they, that we had been made equal to them, and even to their lowest stratum.” Love, Christian love, for even the lowly—especially the lowly—began to fill his heart and to lay the foundation for an unparalleled literary achievement.

In the final chapter of his book, Epstein recalls an epiphany, a revelatory moment of unalloyed love for others that W. H. Auden, himself a professed Christian, once experienced:

What Auden apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, or Christian love feast, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings without invidious distinction of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one's fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself.

This is the kind of love that Epstein believes we should learn. It is the kind that does not die because of human imperfection, the kind that goes hand in hand with a love of life as it is, with all its pain, disappointment, and suffering. “For me,” Epstein wrote in the introduction to Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985), “love of life—no simple Rotarian optimism but love of life in all its vast complexity—is the ultimate test of a writer's worth.” Snobbery provides convincing evidence that he himself has passed that test.

Andrew Stark (review date 25 October 2002)

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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 snobbish truth is, I prefer not to think of myself as part of this crowd. I think myself … superior. …” Each of these snobs, as Epstein says, yearns for “the pleasure that [comes from] being among his betters” while escaping “contamination from those below”. All, in other words, aim to violate the Golden Rule.

One of the book's delights is that Epstein goes beyond this moral thesis, offering sharp insights (“most people would be less offended to have it said of them that they have bad judgment than that they have bad taste”) and artful observations (in America, there are now “possibly more virgin olive oils than actual virgins”). However, the question whether snobbery violates the Golden Rule is not just an American one. Indeed, Epstein quotes Swift, Balzac, Wilde and Proust every bit as much as James, Wharton, Dreiser and Fitzgerald; his snobs' gallery reaches across the Atlantic to include the likes of Lady Diana Cooper, Joshua Reynolds, Baron de Rothschild and Betty Kenward.

But is it true that the snob always moves ever upward by snubbing his inferiors while angling to commingle with his superiors? Consider the character Mr Yorke from Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, who “is very friendly … to all … beneath him” while remaining “haughty as Beelzebub to whomsoever the world deemed … his superior”. Even though Mr Yorke is a terrible snob, he behaves in a manner precisely opposed to that which Epstein criticizes. Mr Yorke reveals the back story, the reverse current, always at play in the snob's calculus. Yes, as Epstein says, the snob frequently advances socially by “putting ground between himself and those whom he takes for his inferiors, with whom he never wants to be confused”. But Mr Yorke also knows that being in the company of one's inferiors creates numerous opportunities for advantageous comparison. He knows, as Thackeray knew, that we can often fulfil our snobbish yearnings only by seeking “company where we shall be the first”; and that we cannot “be first unless we select our inferiors for our associates”. As for his superiors, Mr Yorke is well aware that, by associating with them, he could advance socially. But he also knows that being in their company would create enormous opportunities for disadvantageous comparison, for “rebuffs”, as Thackeray put it, “and delay and humiliation”.

In the end, Mr Yorke calculates that the favourable comparison he derives from being first in the company of his inferiors is worth the attendant déclassé association, and that the classy association he might derive from hobnobbing with his superiors is simply not worth the invidious comparisons that would accompany it. Shirley upbraids Mr Yorke for violating the Golden Rule: “And what right have you, Sir,” she asks, “to speak comfortably to your inferiors” while remaining “haughty [to] those above you?” He is far from alone. Jane Austen's Emma attends a party at the home of her inferiors, the Coles, because she expects to be “repaid in the splendour of popularity” all “that she might be supposed to have lost on the side of dignified seclusion”. Jane Fairfax, by contrast, reckons that the lustre of associating with her superiors will not repay her attendant “mortifications”; she would, Jane worries, “only … suffer from the comparison”.

Other hybrid strategies are available to the snob, which actually allow him to comply with the Golden Rule. Like Epstein's snob, he might be desperate to associate with his superiors; and yet, like Mr Yorke, quite eager to associate with his inferiors too. A character in the 1862 British novel A Dull Stone House, for example, is only too honoured to lie “down to be trampled by anyone who stood a few steps higher. …” But the same character savours opportunities to dig a heel into “those who stood below”. The treatment such a type accepts from his superiors exactly mirrors the treatment he accords his inferiors. Mr Dombey turns this type upside down. Looking upward, he reckons—as does Mr Yorke—that suffering invidious comparisons in the company of his superiors is not worth the sheen of their association. Looking downward, he calculates—as would Epstein's snob—that enjoying favourable comparisons in the company of his inferiors is not worth the taint of their association. At one point, Dombey's employee Carker announces that he is abandoning all signs of deference. “To a man in your position from a man in mine,” Carker says, “there is no show of subservience” that can adequately reflect the “extremity of the distance between [us]. I frankly tell you, Sir, that I give it up altogether.”

This is fine by Dombey because, although he has to physically associate with Carker, he wants there to be no social association, nothing to suggest that they even occupy points on the same social scale. Dombey's mentality resembles that of the House of Lords which, centuries ago, refused to sit in judgment on non-peers because, as Georg Simmel observed, “even an authority relationship to persons other than of its own rank [could be] interpreted as degradation.” Dombey may well bristle at the idea of having to defer to his superiors, and so spurn their association. But if he is content to have his inferiors refrain from deferring to him, in order to avoid any hint of association, he scarcely violates the Golden Rule.

But Epstein has another go at identifying what is wrong with snobbery as he understands it. “Ideally”, he writes, “that society would seem best ordered in which prestige most closely approximates merit.” In such a society, snobbery would melt into a genuine and redeeming “delight in excellence”. Unfortunately, real society falls far short of that ideal. What is wrong with the snob, then, is that he necessarily seeks “prestige and status in and for themselves”, since the “persons, places and pleasures” that he pursues rarely possess “intrinsic and therefore genuine merit”.

This begs the question of whether we would want to live in a world in which the scale of social prestige recapitulated the scale of intellectual and moral merit. If we wouldn't, then snobbery, unattractive as it is, may well bespeak a desirable civil order. Indeed, Epstein himself briefly acknowledges that “perhaps it is better that the distance between prestige and merit never close completely, that the two never become congruent”. Otherwise, people “who were born ungifted [or] unbeautiful … would have no opportunity to share in prestige”.

But beyond this egalitarian concern, conservatives since Burke have also harboured reservations about a system in which social rank mirrors moral-intellectual merit. Such an ordering could prove threatening to civil peace. It is much easier to be governed by someone who claims to be your superior only in social rank, and not in moral-intellectual merit as well. In such circumstances, Henry Taylor wrote in The Statesman, we can “bid the man of great intellectual gifts to be content with the superiority he has from nature, and leave other superiorities to those worse provided.” As for those whose intellectual gifts are not quite so great, they are also pacified in a world in which the realms of rank and merit differ. Learning that he stood nineteenth in his Harvard class, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that while he would have preferred being first, he was still proud that “only one gentleman stands ahead of me”. A world in which rank and merit remain incongruent endears itself to conservatives, allowing as it does for enough multiple sources of pride that civil order remains unperturbed.

An incongruence between social rank and intellectual-moral merit—of the sort that, on Epstein's account, makes snobbery obnoxious—should also be congenial to liberals. For one thing, incongruence protects the liberal's cherished principle of mental privacy. It rules out the possibility, as Judith Martin once put it, for social status to be necessarily “interpreted as a revelation of the moral philosophy of the individual actor, who is left there standing naked in his mores”. But the sundering of social rank and moral-intellectual merit not only protects personal mental privacy; it also promotes the liberal value of public open-mindedness. One person is more likely to concede that another has won a struggle on intellectual or moral merit if, in so doing, he won't also lose social stature. As long as social rank isn't at stake in assessments of intellectual or moral merit, J. S. Mill observed, then an individual is less likely to insist on and “cling to his errors” or connect “with the adoption of truth, the idea of defeat”.

The very thing that, according to Epstein, is wrong with snobbery—the snob's desperate yearning to climb a hierarchy of social rank unconnected to the hierarchy of merit—remains inextricably linked with what's right with society as a whole, on egalitarian, conservative and liberal grounds.

Many years ago I, too, learned a lesson about snobbery in the company of Walter Cronkite. Arriving late for dinner after delivering the evening news, Cronkite went around the table to which he had been assigned—which by chance happened to be mine as well—asking each of us our names but never giving his in return. It seemed a bit snobbish, so I asked him about it. Cronkite's response was something along the lines of “If I introduce myself to people, I'm insulting their intelligence.” He explained that on past occasions when he did say “I'm Walter Cronkite”, he often got the blushing and even indignant response “I know that”. Cronkite felt that for him to have stooped socially—to have put himself on the same social plane as the rest of us by saying his name—would have demeaned us intellectually. So to avoid this, he was compelled to emphasize the distance between us socially. The minute ways in which society structures personal encounters, instilling them with Catch-22s, can evidently force someone with no snobbish intent into snobbish behaviour.

In the end, then, Joseph Epstein's book is too hard on snobbery. The issue is not simply that what is maddening about the snob—he pursues rank without a care about merit—might be tied up with all that is decent about a society. It is that, as Cronkite's dilemma shows, society often maddeningly constructs encounters so that a decent person, though he may well have preferred otherwise, has no choice but to be a snob.

George Thomas (review date January-February 2003)

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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 home, they described themselves as working “from home”, not at home, where their computers were, presumably to avoid being confused with women who take in ironing.

Epstein's usual book is a collection of personal essays on various topics. This one is a collection on various aspects of one topic [Snobbery]. It is a subject he has touched on before, but the repetitions do not detract from it.

Defining snobbery is difficult, and Epstein spends several pages looking at various aspects of it before deciding, “The essence of snobbery, I should say, is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.” Others might argue that many snobs can be satisfied only by appearing superior—status in the eyes of the world, not merely in their own mind, is what they seek. Some people also derive satisfaction more from simply making others feel inferior.

His field of survey is also rather narrow. His main theme is the decline of the old forms of rank—where the American “WASP aristocracy” was the example for all snobs—and the examination of what has replaced it. So his subjects are mostly what one might call the upper middle class. He is not unaware of the existence of snobbery among most, or all, other sections of society; it is just that in a book of moderate length he had to draw the line somewhere, and he apologises in advance “if your favourite snobbery is missing” from his survey.

Epstein looks at snobbery from all three sides: as victim, perpetrator and observer. Why, he wonders, is he snobbish? He doesn't think he got it from his parents, who as far as he can tell were not snobbish at all. Is it from being Jewish, which has inevitably made him a victim of snobbery, and hence keenly aware of it? Probably not, because, as he observes, there are people of all backgrounds, Jewish included, who are completely free of snobbery.

“An intelligent person of a certain age ought to be able to fight free of all forms of snobbery, if only to keep his or her mind clear for larger thoughts,” he writes, but it is not easy to suppress at least a certain pride when you see so many examples of foolishness around constantly. The observer of snobbery can hardly avoid feeling a little superior to the self-deluded poseurs he observes.

Among the changes Epstein observes is in the status of various forms of work. Doctors and lawyers have gradually lost status to people in those jobs that yield the greatest financial return for the least apparent effort. The arts and sports are particularly prestigious. Although they may actually require immense effort, it doesn't show in public; they seem merely to draw on one's spontaneous talent.

In recent decades the self-absorbed people attracted to the arts by this apparent ease have actually managed to change the nature of the arts themselves so that they really don't require much effort. Andy Warhol, whom Epstein discusses, was the first master of this. His only genuine talent was his extraordinary ability to convince large numbers of people that whatever he did was chic. Mick Jagger has successfully done a Warhol for forty years. In popular music in that period talent has become all but irrelevant; image and fashion have supplanted substance, and as a consequence snobbery, to which the young are especially susceptible, has supplanted judgment. Snobbery had earlier mined jazz; serious music, on the other hand, appears to be emerging from its most snobbish, sterile decades.

The higher forms of artistic endeavour are also riddled with snobbery. Epstein's exemplar here is the career of Susan Sontag, whose success he regards as depending entirely upon the snobbery of Europhile American intellectuals. Pauline Kael, the famous New Yorker movie critic, is another of the New York intellectual set whose writings are explicable simply as the bleatings of a snob.

The role of snobbery in the visual arts would require several volumes on its own. Once again though, snobbery largely explains the course of the visual arts over at least the past forty years (and art forgery would not exist without art snobbery). When it comes to political decisions about spending on the arts, it takes a courageous politician to defy the arts establishment. Politicians are terrified by the prospect of the massed contempt of a pack of vociferous snobs; and so we get the sorts of public architecture and sculpture we get. The derisive public outcry that led to the banishment of the hideous yellow sculpture Vault from Melbourne's City Square in the 1980s is notable for being a rare victory over the arts snobs. Another was the extensive celebration of the music of J. S. Bach that took up so much of the Melbourne Festival in 2000; but that was only a temporary victory, and the subsequent appointment of Robyn Archer as festival director ensured it would not recur.

Snobbery goes a long way toward explaining political correctness. Epstein has a telling anecdote about a political disagreement he had with a left-leaning physician. After a time their argument had reached a stalemate, and the physician said, “Oh, you may be fight, but all I know is that I care deeply about people.” Tom Lehrer observed something similar in his song “The Folk Song Army”, about the self-righteousness of the early-1960s folk singers:

We are the folk song army,
Every one of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war and injustice,
Un like the rest of you squares.

The folk-song movement may have introduced acceptable explicit snobbery into popular culture. Pete Seeger's “Little Boxes” must be one of the snobbiest songs ever written, and Bob Dylan, beginning with “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, made a career out of expressing self-righteous contempt for ordinary people.

Still, the defenders of substance and quality in the arts have themselves sometimes been to blame for the reaction against them. T. S. Eliot's famous declaration that poetry in our age had to be difficult, and his refusal to allow his poetry “to appear in paperback books intended for the mass market” went a long way towards undoing the positive influence of his writing.

There has been considerable response to Epstein's book in America, including a greater attention to examples of snobbery. For example, some research has shown that wine snobs are just that—not always experts at all. When fifty-seven of them were given the same wine twice, a week apart, and told once that it was a fine wine and on the other occasion that it was an ordinary one, they gave twice as many favourable comments to the “good” one and twice as many unfavourable comments to the “ordinary” one. In other research some experienced wine drinkers in a blind test were unable to tell a red from a white. A new book, High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher, examines the large part snobbery has played in the surge in sales of four-wheel-drives.

David Brooks has recently argued that the trend towards enhancing self-esteem might make snobbery redundant—we will soon all be happily drifting about on our own little clouds of self-esteem, unconcerned about comparing ourselves with others. On the other hand, for those postmodernists who deny (or pretend to) that we can discern reality, only image matters, in which case snobbery must be the main criterion for any sort of judgment.

An Australian book about snobbery would be quite different from Epstein's. For one thing, there was never a WASP aristocracy here with the sort of influence or wealth of America's. Second, snobbery here is probably less class-based; car snobbery, for example, has long been available to everyone in Australia. Third, Australians have a fairly limited idea of snobbery, mostly derived, I suspect, from English television. Who could write such a book? Alex Buzo appears to be one of the few Australians who understands the subject at all, as his Dictionary of the Almost Obvious shows; I nominate him, and suggest Bunging On Side as his title.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 2003)

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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 pieces are thinly developed, or trail away inconclusively (e.g., “Coming In with Their Hands Up,” “Freddy Duchamp in Action,” “Saturday Afternoon at the Zoo with Dad”). And several are gems, notably a fine tale about a self-effacing bachelor's wary approach to late-life love and marriage (“Don Juan Zimmerman”); an explicit homage to Bellow's Herzog in the figure of a failed poet whose habit of sending unsigned crank messages to strangers condemns him to solipsism and loneliness (“Postcards”); and the lovely “A Loss for Words,” about an aged widow in the early stages of Alzheimer's who forms an emotionally sustaining “doubles-team” with a crippled former tennis player.

A mixed second collection (after The Goldin Boys, 1991), but, on the whole, Epstein's most successful foray into fiction yet.

Marshall Fishwick (review date June 2004)

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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, Schopenhauer thought that envy was a by-product of man's basic bitterness. We feel unhappy because we can't stand the sight of people who think that they are happy. Kant viewed envy as a great waste of mental energy. And we get Epstein's own autobiographical experiences with envy. No one is immune.

Whole industries, such as the advertising industry, can be viewed as vast and intricate envy-producing machines. Playing up all the deluxe and special—in clothes, cars, jewelry, and all the rest of it—suggests that one's desires are easily within reach. They aren't, of course, but even if they were, your envy would not be allowed to sleep. Further advertising would see that. Just take out your credit card and buy, buy, buy! Your neighbor across the street does it. Is she trying to put you down?

As you read on, you realize that the book is shamefully entertaining. It's strangely comforting to be reassured that you are just like many others in being such a petty SOB.

When ills befall us, we ask, “Why me?” For the envious person seeing someone get ahead, the question is “Why?” I can testify that academia is a field heavily laden with the landmines of envy. “Why not me?” Why was I left out?” The envious tend to be injustice collectors, and they never rest.

At the center of envy is the act of coveting. Why does my neighbor, my friend, even my brother, have something I don't have? The envious feel a fundamental unfairness. Why should someone have a better job or house or future than I have? Obviously he or she should not. Hello, envy.

The book, not encumbered by long-learned references or footnotes, delights in humor and whimsy. A number of cartoons from the New Yorker help out. In one of them, Mr. Lima Bean, trudging off shoulder-bent to work with his briefcase, sees in his imagination Mr. Peanut, shouting with joy in his top hat and swinging his gold-topped cane.

In another, while on vacation, a wife sees her husband scowling at wealthy friends in their sail boats. “Do I detect a new resentment?” she asks.

There are fourteen chapters with such intriguing titles as “Is Beauty Friendless?,” “Under Capitalism Man Envies Man: Under Socialism, Vice Versa,” “Resentment by Any Other Name,” and “Is Envying Human Nature?”

But my favorite (and here I betray both my envy and my age) is entitled “The Young, God Damn Them.” Epstein notes that of all the things in the world that judge envy, the one near universal is youth. The most important cards of life, the years, are stacked in their favor. The moving finger writes, and we grow old.

The young don't envy youth. They envy wealth, position, fame, and power. They usually have health, energy, ambition, and very little idea that life has a finish line. The poet Dick Allen summed it up in a couplet:

The pretty young bring to the coarsely old
Rechaffe dishes, but the sauce is cold.

The young, damn them, still have a shot at it all, while one's own gunpower has been spent at delectable animals, pheasants long disappeared into the brush, that may never really have been there anyway.

Why is youth wasted on the young, as, of course, it is? We have the physical gifts when we don't know how to husband them, and we know how only when these gifts have departed. Epstein calls this the comedy of all comedies. God, we must sadly but finally conclude, loves a joke.

Here, Epstein echoes the thought of the nineteenth-century English wit John Gay, who wrote My Own Epitaph:

Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once; but now I know it.

Joseph Epstein has written a well-wrought book that might make you envious but also grateful. His material comes from living in the world and looking around, from gazing into his own heart, which never, alas, is entirely envy free.

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 June 2003)

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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 survivor who has never asked much of life, meets in an old-age home a bitter man who can't surmount his dark view of human nature. Mostly settled in Chicago, these 17 characters are no heroes, only reflective personalities—little people with big opinions—who have made their share of sacrifices. Like his emotionally candid, low-key protagonists, Epstein is intrinsically honest. Gratifying and genuine, this collection examines all sorts of responses to the encroachment of old age on human dignity.

Doris L. Eder (essay date 2005)

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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 kept him free of the many literary circles and “isms” of New York City. From the late sixties through the early seventies, Epstein was a senior editor on the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1974 he joined the English department of Northwestern University as a visiting lecturer in literature and writing. The following year he was appointed editor of The American Scholar, the quarterly magazine published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a post he retained for twenty-two years. Written under the penname “Aristides,” many of the more than ninety essays Epstein wrote for The American Scholar have been collected in a half-dozen critical volumes subtitled Familiar Essays.

CRITIC, ESSAYIST, LITERARY REVIEWER

Except for a brief excursion into fiction writing, Epstein has made his living and reputation as essayist, reviewer, and critic, though he has declared himself insufficiently learned for the last title. He has published some eighteen volumes and is also a regular contributor to Commentary, Harper's, Hudson Review, The New Criterion, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited and wrote the introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays (1997), in which he has interesting things to say about writing essays. He revels in this freest of literary forms.

What kind of a critic is Joseph Epstein? Serious in intent and witty in execution, he believes criticism to be as important as Matthew Arnold did. Indeed, he is fond of citing Arnold to the effect that “first-rate criticism has a permanent value greater than that of any but first-rate works of poetry and art.”2 Like Arnold, Epstein views criticism as a barometer of culture. He knows it is insufficient to describe or explain works; a critic is also obliged to evaluate them. Empowered by a lifetime's knowledge, the harvest of broad and deep reading, Epstein likes to set a single book against the background of its writer's entire oeuvre. Here is a critic who is demanding, who holds high standards, yet who is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny; as Mark Winchell remarks, Epstein is “the least stuffy” of critics.3 Hewing to common sense, even Epstein's severest, most censorious comments are leavened by wit.

Criticism depends on taste, and Epstein's taste favors classic simplicity, lucidity, straightforwardness, and plainspokenness. He eschews hyperbole, cliché, and academic obfuscation, while finding them rife nowadays. Sharing George Orwell's dislike of slovenly, prefabricated language, Epstein warns the reader: “Question all language that says more than it means, that leaves the ground but doesn't really fly.”4Here is a contemporary critic keen on purifying “the dialect of the tribe,” for he knows that sloppy language betrays lack of thought and that civilizations may perish for want of accurate communication. As a critic, Epstein does not view life or literature through any particular lens. Rather, the yardstick he applies in evaluating a work is how much in love with and how true to life that author's work shows him or her to be. Viewed as a neoclassical critic, he does not adopt a Marxist, Freudian, or any other kind of modernist or postmodernist perspective. Epstein dislikes such casts of mind for being reductionist—“like a Chinese laundry of the mind, boiling out life's stains and flattening life's interesting wrinkles.”5 He mistrusts modernism for its insistence on difficulty, even hermeticism, and postmodernism for its relativism and irresponsibility. Deconstruction Epstein deplores as “that scrambling of ideals and morals, that blurring of meaning about fundamental matters, which has been so notable a feature of contemporary life in recent decades.”6

Among the novelists who figure in Epstein's pantheon are Flaubert, Proust, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and V. S. Naipaul. Among poets, he reveres Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin. Pre-eminent among the critics he admires are Matthew Arnold, Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken, F. R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling; among contemporary critics, he thinks well of Helen Vendler. Epstein's tastes are catholic, and it would be difficult to discern any common denominator among these writers except that all were, or are, devotees of their craft.

STYLE

Once one has become familiar with Epstein's style, one recognizes it instantly. It is a flexible, spoken style that seems eminently reasonable. It is remarkable for its directness. As Chicago Tribune reviewer John Gross observed, Mencken was one of Epstein's models and, like Mencken, this critic has “fashioned a style that successfully combines elegance … with street-smart colloquial directness.”7 Epstein's style is ebullient; though neither highfalutin nor mellifluous, it is full of quips, puns, deft metaphors, apt allusions and quotations, and felicities of phrase. Perhaps the highest praise one can bestow on it is to say that it resembles the style of Epstein's other great exemplar, Montaigne. Both essayists take themselves as their starting point, no less than human nature as their subject, and have evolved sinuous, subtle styles suited to following where human nature leads. Montaigne declared of his subject, man, that he is “ondoyant et divers8, and Epstein's style strikes one as equally changeable and various- dolphinlike in its agility.

An example or two must suffice. Epstein chooses as his title for a review of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings: “Mailer Hits Bottom.” Rounding out an appreciation of Philip Larkin's prosaic verse, he turns Archibald McLeish on his head, remarking that, for Larkin, “a poem must not merely be but mean.”9 And in an interesting essay written for Commentary entitled “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein regretfully concludes that poetry has become an academic exercise written by poet-profs for other poet-profs, as a result of which it has lost touch with both a real audience or live subject matter. Contemplating the denizens of hundred of universities offering creative writing (specifically poetry writing) courses, Epstein describes the resulting poetic clerisy thus: “Many of these men and women go from being students in one writing program to being teachers in another—without … their feet, metrical or anatomical, having touched the floor.”10

FORAYS INTO FICTION

Epstein has made only two excursions into fiction and disclaims any ambition to write a novel. His two collections of short stories, The Goldin Boys (1991) and Fabulous Small Jews (2003), focus on eccentric characters, many of them Jews who inhabit the Jewish enclave on Chicago's North Side. The title story, “The Goldin Boys,” is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald in its portrayal, from a cool, detached, slightly oblique perspective, of what at first blush appears to be a splendid and enviable family—handsome, prosperous, talented, and athletic—but which, on closer acquaintance, is revealed to be criminal, crippled, and corrupt. Of Fabulous Small Jews (the title derives from a Karl Shapiro poem), Epstein says he examines the predicament of those, like himself, caught in a sort of time warp or cultural shift. Epstein reads and writes fiction to explore the mysteries of human personality, and observes he sometimes finds this is probed most satisfactorily in subsidiary rather than major characters.11

NONFICTION—SCOPE OF EPSTEIN'S ESSAYS

Joseph Epstein's first published work was Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974), a tripartite study of divorce written out of its author's own experience on the breakup of his first marriage. The first part of this book handles marriage in today's society and the forces that threaten to undermine it as an institution; the second examines legal aspects of divorce, and the third, the effects of divorce on family members. (The author views his own divorce as a personal failure.)

In 1980 Epstein published the first of his “vice” books—Ambition: The Secret Passion (1980)—which charts changing American attitudes to ambition. Formerly upheld as a virtue, ambition is now regarded by many Americans as a vice. Epstein includes portraits of such exemplars of ambition as Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford. This book met with mixed reviews, several critics remarking on its rambling, circuitous structure. Thus, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (reviewing for The New York Times) compared it to a “three-ring circus, with criticism, anecdote, and biography doing their turns simultaneously.”12 More recently Epstein has written another “vice” book, published in Oxford University Press's series on the seven deadly sins: Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins (2003). This is a slight, somewhat superficial work, not in the same league as the author's Snobbery: The American Version (2002), which is a very thorough anatomy of how snobbery operates in the United States today. It is a book worthy of comparison with Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide through the American Status System (1992).

Epstein wrote the introduction to and edited Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (1981), a collection of reminiscences by students of master teachers in diverse fields of knowledge. It appears to have been more inspired in conception than execution, several reviewers taking the contributors (rather than the editor) to task for not really showing such pedagogic luminaries as Ruth Benedict, Nadia Boulanger, C. S. Lewis, and J. Robert Oppenheimer in action, offering instead impressive resumes of former mentors.

The essential body of Epstein's work, what he will be judged by, however, is contained in a half-dozen volumes that collect essays from The American Scholar and other periodicals, plus three or four more volumes containing reflections on the literary life. Epstein's literary studies include Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985); Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989), Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life (1993), and Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1997).

Collections assembled from Aristides' “Life and Letters” column include: Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979); The Middle of My Tether (1983); Once More around the Block (1987); With My Trousers Rolled (1995); and Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999). All, except the first of these, are subtitled “Familiar Essays,” each containing over a dozen essays exhibiting Epstein's versatility and witty, ingratiating style.

Familiar Territory tackles an array of homely American topics and customs. In his review of it, Benjamin DeMott noted Epstein's “gift for apposite quotation and allusion,” as well as for finding ingenious “new uses for old epithets.”13The Middle of My Tether embraces essays ranging in topic from movies to letter-writing to the lure of Manhattan to tricks that memory plays in old age and the uncertainty of the future. There are several autobiographical pieces but, as Bruce Cook asserted in the Detroit News, Epstein is never “self-servingly confessional”; he is characteristically self-deprecating.14 In Once More around the Block, the author reflects on work, workaholics who live to work and those who merely work to live; on lecturing and reading in “Joseph Epstein's Lifetime Reading Plan”; he also meditates on linguistic snobbery and gluttony, inter alia. The lines referred to in A Line out for a Walk are topics the writer takes for an airing, much as he might his pets. With My Trousers Rolled (the title refers to Eliot's aging Prufrock) consists largely of graceful reflections on aging.

No less sprightly but more impressive than these general essay collections are Epstein's literary essays. The title Plausible Prejudices is indebted to Mencken's remark that “criticism is prejudice made plausible.” This volume, divided into four parts, contains twenty-six essays. The first part addresses the current literary scene and is followed by a section on contemporary and former novelists, concluding with a section on the state of the language. An essay on literary biography—a subject in which Epstein is passionately interested—amazes the reader with its range and the pointedness of its observations. Epstein considers, among others, Boswell on Johnson; Edel on James; Ellmann on Joyce; Holroyd on Lytton Strachey; Hamilton on Lowell; Karl on Conrad, and M. Seymour-Smith on Graves, while harking back to classic biographers such as Aristoxenus of Tarentum, Plutarch, and Suetonius. In another essay (“The Literary Life Today”), Epstein laments that the United States no longer has a literary center. Instead, literature has become a product of the academy, not even of any particular university or system, academe constituting “a center without a center.” 15 In “Reviewing and Being Reviewed,” Epstein observes that book reviewing in the United States has always been a mediocre and underpaid activity, but says it is important and should be conscientiously carried out, for on it the fate of books depends. The duty of the reviewer is not just to describe books but to evaluate them, distinguishing what is worth reading from trash. In the current dismal state of publishing, the average trade book can expect a shelf life of only nine months! “A few well-placed stupid reviews can go a long way toward killing an excellent book, even causing its early banishment from bookstores, preventing it from reincarnation in a paperback edition, snuffing out its existence … quickly and efficiently,” Epstein observes.16

Partial Payments won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize in 1989. Like Epstein's others, this volume is addressed to the general literate reader. It contains essays on nineteenth-and twentieth-century authors including Chekhov, James, Santayana, Borges, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym, and Tom Wolfe. Here are fine examples of Epstein's ability to set a single work against the context of its author's entire output, and also—in the case of the Forster essay—of an unusual talent for penetrating to the very heart or motive spring of an author's work. Pertinent Players offers insightful, nuanced portraits of R. L. Stevenson, James, Mencken, Orwell, and others. The reviewer for the National Review remarked of it, “How invigorating to find an essayist able to examine personalities without rendering diagnoses, one focused on the utter, irreducible individuality of each mind and spirit and their relation to the writer's work.”17 In Life Sentences, Epstein handles major and minor writers—among them Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, and V. S. Pritchett.

Summarizing Epstein's view of American literature since World War II, he regrets the dearth of major figures, noting with dismay the present scene's embarras de pauvreté, its plenitude of trash. He also deplores baneful political influences on literature, the stifling effects of political correctness, and the dead hand of the academy, all of which sap the novel's vitality, undermining its grounding in life.

Poetry Epstein sees as flourishing in an academic vacuum. Again, there are no major practitioners and the art is now a happy hunting ground for an elite only. The general public is not educated to read or appreciate poetry, so for most people it has become marginal. Despite what Epstein views as plenty of prizes, fellowships, and subsidies, as well as outlets for poets in little magazines and small publishing houses, poetry now occupies a peripheral position, sickly and isolated. Epstein finds contemporary poems often formulaic—“slightly political, heavily preening, and not distinguished enough by subtlety of thought to be memorable.”18

As for criticism, there is little that is first-rate and much that is unreadable these days. In general, Epstein finds it overdone, “out of proportion.” Once again, the academy and politics are to blame. Epstein thinks it a critic's duty to correct taste; he takes his role as “literary sheriff” seriously. He is in no sense spiteful and is as willing to appreciate or revalue as to deflate or condemn. Nevertheless, Epstein's criticism can be caustic because so deft and sure. Consider this comment on the biographer P. N. Furbank writing about the life of E. M. Forster: “He is a biographer with no serious interest in Freudian or other doctrinal psychology. He cites no wound, he speaks of no bow; the carpet of his biography has no strong or subtle figure playing through it. It is facts he sets out, one after another, in more than six hundred pages.”19

GNE—GROSS NATIONAL ENNUI

Epstein finds these trashy times. Far from being—as constantly vaunted on prime time news—the most highly evolved civilization of all time, the United States today seems to be weltering and drowning in its own excess, resembling nothing so much as the last days of the Roman Empire. This is a civilization measured by GNP, by quantity rather than quality, bearing all the earmarks of decadence. We are awash in a constant stream of information, mindless “infotainment,” factoids, and trivia. Epstein quotes appreciatively a remark in one of Raymond Chandler's letters: “I must be one of the few living Americans who do not crave to have their minds improved. I know too much already. I would be happier knowing less.”20 While technological means of communication multiply, becoming ever more diverse and efficient, what is actually being communicated seems ever more trivial—as anyone compelled to kibitz on cell-phone conversations will corroborate. The capitalist arts of advertising and marketing have been practiced to such a degree that everything is hype. “Verbal gaseousness,” as Epstein says, is part of the air we breathe. Such an environment undoes language, emptying it of meaning.

In “An Extremely Well-Informed SOB,” Epstein distinguishes between the well-informed, the knowledgeable, the “hip,” and those who may be called cultivated or cultured. The essential differences among them are that the well-informed (news anchors, say), hellbent on keeping up with the latest news, tend to collect current information indiscriminately, like magpies. Such information, Epstein thinks, is time- and space-bound, “physically by the Washington Beltway and chronologically by the last ten years.”21 The knowledgeable, by contrast, possess general knowledge unbounded by time or space. Their minds range freely, absorbing and retaining a great deal of information about past and present, culled from far and near. However, Epstein believes most of what a knowledgeable person absorbs are facts. The “hip” are the avant-garde pursuing inside knowledge about counter- and subcultures, life outside the mainstream. The cultivated or cultured—and Epstein strives to be one of them—“know a great deal but, more important, they know what is significant—they know … what is really worth knowing …. The cultivated person is interested in information that has either been around for a while or will probably be around in the future. He is also likely to possess knowledge that goes … deeper … than that which ordinary, decently educated people have.”22 For all his self-deprecation, Epstein is such a person. Like Montaigne, he writes essays in order to discover what he thinks about things, and has spent a lifetime reading not primarily to accumulate knowledge but to improve the quality of his life.23 Reading Epstein can improve the quality of a reader's life, too. Go read him!

Notes

  1. See “Waiter, There's a Paragraph in My Soup,” in A Line out for a Walk: Familiar Essays (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), pp. 257-76.

  2. “Matthew Arnold and the Resistance,” in Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and their Lives (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989), p. 27.

  3. Mark R. Winchell, Neoconservative Criticism: Norman Podhoretz, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein (Boston: Twayne, 1991), p. 147.

  4. “Joseph Epstein,” Contemporary Authors Online. 2003. Thomson Gale. April 2005 <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.

  5. Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 113.

  6. Partial Payments, p. 387.

  7. John Gross, “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,” in Tribune Books, Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1991, p. 3.

  8. Introduction to Michel de Montaigne in Morris Bishop, ed., A Survey of French Literature: The Middle Ages to 1800 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1955), p. 102.

  9. “Mr. Larkin & Ms. Pym,” Partial Payments, p. 145.

  10. Cited in Winchell's Neoconservative Criticism, the original remark derives from an article entitled “Who Killed Poetry?” in Commentary, 86 (August 1988), pp. 13-19.

  11. Along with other interesting observations, this is to be found in an interview dated Aug. 31, 2003 with Robert Birnbaum on the Website http://identitytheory.com.

  12. “Joseph Epstein,” Contemporary Authors Online. 2003. Thomson Gale. April 2005 <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989), p. 30.

  16. Ibid., p. 48.

  17. Tracy Lee Simmons, National Review, xlv, Oct. 18, 1993, p. 76.

  18. “Who Killed Poetry?”, p. 18.

  19. “One Cheer for E. M. Forster,” Plausible Prejudices, p. 236.

  20. From “An Extremely Well-Informed SOB,” Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), p. 22.

  21. See “Joseph Epstein's Lifetime Reading Plan,” Once More around the Block, p. 33, and Mark Winchell, Neoconservative Criticism, p. 103.

  22. Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 23.

  23. Winchell, Neoconservative Criticism, p. 102.

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