Although the form of the familiar essay has suffered loss of prestige and near-death from the combined efforts of high school and university teachers of composition, Joseph Epstein’s The Middle of My Tether is enough to convince an unprejudiced reader that the form is alive and well. The author of Divorced in America (1974), Familiar Territory: Observations on Life (1979), Ambition: Secret Passion (1981), and Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (1981), Epstein is also the editor of American Scholar in which these essays first appeared. As his publisher claims, Epstein shows his readers what is “uncommon about common things.” More important, however, he also does the opposite, revealing the common human factor in such uncommon phenomena as pen fetishes and juggling. All readers will find something of themselves in Epstein’s essays, affirming with him that their individuality is part of a larger whole, something of worth and importance to American society.
It is this almost Whitmanesque embrace that sets Epstein apart from other well-known familiar essayists, even those Epstein sees as his ideals—Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and H. L. Mencken. Because Epstein is so essentially an American artist, his tone and point of view establish a feeling of kinship with the reader. He trustingly reveals his mind and life, his weaknesses, strengths, and hopes, thereby convincing all readers of the paradox of uniqueness and commonness, of humor and profundity that is found in all lives. Each essay is a search for the truth about life and about himself; as Epstein says about his reading, he hopes for “clues that might explain life’s oddities.” Here one finds what the mass media rejects: “useful or curious information” such as the naming of the Jews in the essay “Onomastics, You and Me Is Quits” and the “spectacle of an indiosyncratic and perhaps interesting mind at work.” This latter quality is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging, as one follows Epstein’s meditations on human memory and delights in his unmasking of the pretentious and the hypocritical.
Much of Epstein’s distinctive tone depends upon his generally understated, often ironic wit. Epstein’s humor is never cruel or demeaning; its urbanity is the essence of Horatian satire. For example, when he includes Barbara Walters in his list of “vulgarities,” his strongest indictment explains why: Having been paid to ask vulgar questions for so many years, she still does it “with such cheerfulness, such competence, such amiable insincerity.” In his opening sentences, he sighs almost audibly over the book the reader is about to start, wishing it were “a rather fancier book” complete with “a foreword, a preface, an introduction, a prolegomenon. . . .” He describes an amateur poem as “given over to misgivings recollected in tranquility.” The essays are full of such humor, yet it is difficult to cite out of context. Try, for example, his words on libraries and librarians in “Bookless in Gaza” or the last paragraph of “The Ephemeral Verities,” reflecting on what editors of mass media really want. Check his wonderfully outrageous National Endowment for the Humanities proposal for The Center for Things on the Periphery. His inventive word coinages—as when he refers to Stendhal’s “so ex cathedra-ly” pronouncements on other nations or to “word of face” reviews by audiences exiting from a movie—must be read in context for full appreciation. Such humor gives the reader pleasure as well as reinforcing Epstein’s basic response to life: no bitter sarcasm, few full belly laughs; instead, the necessity of a little humor to see one through. The...
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