Joseph Epstein is a virtuoso of the essay, and The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (1983) assembled some of the pieces that, under the nom de plume Aristides, he contributes to each issue of the quarterly American Scholar, of which he is also the editor. Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing, Epstein’s fifth book, reprints articles that first appeared in Commentary, The New Criterion, the Times Literary Supplement, and Book World. Commissioned by other editors on particular literary subjects, the pieces in this book do not have quite the character of familiar essay shared by those in the earlier volume. Nevertheless, they are brilliant performances displaying again Epstein’s wit, insight, and passion.
Plausible Prejudices derives its title and its epigraph from a statement by H. L. Mencken: “Criticism is prejudice made plausible.” Mencken is, along with Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, one of three tutelary spirits of the book. With Mencken’s provocative declaration, Epstein serves notice that he has no intention of disavowing the subjectivity of the literary experience. Instead, he savors it, relishing the opportunity for a bravura demonstration of his own sensibility colliding with contemporary literature. If he cannot win his reader over by the force of logic, he will do so through the power of style. He rejects the academic paradigm of literary science and celebrates the irreducible vitality of the individual reading experience.
The essays in the book are organized into four sections. The first, “The Scene,” provides Epstein’s general observations on the current situation in literature and literary studies. Section 2, the emotional focus of his energies, is entitled “Portraits of Novelists” and consists of Epstein’s animadversions on many of the most acclaimed contemporary authors: Robert Stone, John Irving, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Ann Beattie, Gabriel García Márquez, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Renata Adler, and Joan Didion. The third section, “The Older Crowd,” is a reassessment of earlier figures, most of whom Epstein respects more than is currently fashionable: Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Maxwell Perkins, A. J. Liebling, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, and James Gould Cozzens. The final section of Plausible Prejudices, called “Amusements and Disasters (Essays on Language),” is a miscellany on the current state of reading, writing, and the American language. Its culminating entry, “Piece Work: Writing the Essay,” functions both as a coda to the volume and, through appreciations of Joseph Addison, William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and H. L. Mencken, as a testament to Epstein’s own enterprise.
As a reviewer and a critic, Epstein presents himself in the role of literary sheriff, “ready to apprehend delinquent writers.” As “part of a posse to head writers off at the pass,” he claims that he has more than enough work to keep him busy; the current scene is beset with vastly inflated reputations and with critics intent on puffing new books rather than skeptically appraising them. Epstein resists becoming either a publishing-industry press agent or an ivory-tower obscurantist. He strives to be faithful to Van Wyck Brooks’s ideal of being “kind to the dead and hard on the living.”
Living writers do not enjoy Epstein’s high esteem. He maintains that contemporary literary culture is second-rate, its mediocrity exacerbated by a pervasive failure to acknowledge that fact. Epstein, who is a professor of English at Northwestern University, ascribes much of the blame for this dire situation to the fact that universities have become the center of literary life in America. He attributes the thinness and claustral self-consciousness of current American fiction to the fact that it is being written from within the narrow confines of academe and that it is being written primarily in order to be taught. Epstein also indicts the university for the compartmentalization of experience, for an infatuation with abstractions, and for the politicization of literature. Writing for the conservative journals Commentary and The New Criterion, he deplores what he describes as the fondness of authors for leftist clichés.
Not only is there...
(The entire section is 1788 words.)