(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When Michel de Montaigne, the first author treated in this collection of previously published pieces, wrote about himself, he was, as Epstein notes, writing about others as well. Despite Montaigne’s claim that his essays were too personal to interest others, Montaigne served as a kind of Everyman figure, whose self-discoveries evoke sympathetic resonances in his readers. The reverse might be said of Epstein, who, when he discusses others, often is talking about himself. For example, Epstein coined the word “quotatious” to describe Montaigne’s tendency to cite other writers. Epstein, too, is quotatious, offering generous samplings of the writers (and their critics) whom he discusses. He notes that V. S. Pritchett’s strength lies in short works rather than in the novel, that Pritchett is more the literary essayist than the critic, and that appreciation underlies Pritchett’s assessments. All these observations are equally true of Epstein. He admires the aphoristic quality in the work of Montaigne and François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld; in his discussion of the latter, Epstein demonstrates his own skill at this type of writing, calling La Rochefoucauld the “maximum maximist,” observing that maxims are “condensed essays,” and claiming with more wit than truth that “cheerfulness in literature . . . does not travel well.”

Such self-reference does not detract from Epstein’s essays. Quite the contrary: Epstein is at his best when he is writing about people with whom he can identify. Montaigne, Pritchett, and La Rochefoucauld fit this description, and Epstein’s essay on John Dos Passos, focusing on theU.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1930; 1919, 1932; The Big Money, 1936), illuminates both his subject and himself.

The piece about U.S.A. originally appeared in The New Yorker in conjunction with the Library of America reissue of Dos Passos’ masterpiece. Epstein here credits the trilogy with awakening his interest in politics and in writing. Epstein even envisioned writing a biography of Dos Passos, a project aborted by the death of the subject. Older now, Epstein no longer shares the enthusiasm felt by his younger self for U.S.A., regarding the book as a period piece. Perhaps Epstein’s current assessment results from his conservative political outlook, a position that Dos Passos also adopted later in life. The excitement that the nineteen-year-old Epstein first felt on reading the trilogy is in fact one shared by others at that age. If U.S.A. is of an age, that age is not a period in American history but rather in the life of the reader. Moreover, Dos Passos’ combination of fact and fiction anticipated the approach of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Although Epstein’s criticism of the work seems overly harsh, he illustrates the power of a book to shape a life. As Epstein observes, “Some books, if you come to them at just the right time, form you the way a crucial experience does.”

Epstein’s attempts at literary rehabilitation invariably command attention. He praises Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt (1911), a novel that H. L. Mencken also liked. Dreiser’s verbal infelicities are legion and legend, yet his books remain more powerful than those endowed with a more felicitous style. Epstein facetiously suggests that much of the appeal of Jennie Gerhardt lies in its lack of ideas, yet he acknowledges that throughout his fiction Dreiser offered a philosophy of life. The novelist understood that people repeatedly deceive themselves in a perpetually unsuccessful effort to find happiness, that failure is the worst social disease because it is regarded as contagious, and that wealth confers distinction even among artists. Balancing this dark vision is Dreiser’s belief that goodness endures. At once good and believable, Jennie Gerhardt understands that the world is mysterious, and although she cannot penetrate its secrets, she adheres to a moral code that wins the reader’s admiration.

Epstein champions Philip Larkin against detractors distressed by revelations in the poet’s posthumously published letters and Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993). These volumes reveal that Larkin could be, depending on one’s point of view, wickedly shocking, indiscreet, insensitive, or racist. According to Epstein, Larkin’s...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)