The personal or familiar essay is a distinguished if homely form, going back to Michel de Montaigne, whose essais (tests or trials) were occasions for him to indulge his curiosity and try out his judgment on the everyday features of his sixteenth century landscape. His now-famous question—“Que sais je?”—propelled him, as it has scores of other practitioners since, into endlessly fascinating reflections on himself and his world. “What do I think of that?” “Am I amused or distressed, moved or baffled by that?” “How do I make sense of that?” The “I” in such questions is as much the subject of scrutiny as the world of “thats” out there. The interior contours of the essayist’s mind and sensibility, in other words, are as prominent as the exterior features of the culture, perhaps even more so.
As the essayist tries out his or her views, complains or celebrates, remembers or fantasizes, speculates or pontificates, readers feel like confidants entrusted with the writer’s private store of opinions. The writer shares views and, along the way, confesses to vanity, pettiness, partiality, uncertainty—and readers reward this honesty with something close to absolution.
Still, readers need to encounter more than a genially frank presence if the familiar essay is to work. They need a new awareness, an insight about something already known but not thoroughly investigated, or a confirmation that their view of the world is not hopelessly idiosyncratic. No doubt one of the reasons readers respond generously to the essayist’s self-exposure and quirks of personality is that it reaffirms common humanity. One recognizes one’s own face in the mirror the essayist holds up to his or her own.
Epstein is no newcomer to the familiar essay. Editor of The American Scholar, professor of English at Northwestern University, literary reviewer, and sometime critic, he has written more than eighty familiar essays collected in four earlier volumes: Familiar Territory (1979), The Middle of My Tether (1983), Once More Around the Block (1990), and A Line Out for a Walk (1991). Many of the essays first appeared in The American Scholar, where, under the nom de plume Aristides, Epstein opens each quarterly issue with a set of leisurely reflections on fad diets, say, or book collecting or euphemisms or snobbery or the etiquette of power at professional conventions. To regular readers these essays have built up a fairly clear portrait of the man: Jewish, midwestern, urban and urbane, divorced and happily remarried, a traditionalist and Anglophile with clear and occasionally fussy tastes and with a merciless ear for solecisms and linguistic infelicities, an early riser, a nonjogger, a BMW owner, a onetime smoker, a clever and inveterate punster who is uneasy about feminism and dead set against rock music but who admits to an abiding love for shined shoes, good haircuts, seventy-dollar Charvet bow ties, and the novels of Henry James. Even without his likeness on the dust jacket, readers begin to get the picture.
Perhaps even more than Epstein’s overt self-characterizations (“the least likely man in America to appear in a ponytail” or “one of the country’s leading solipsists”), the tone of voice itself gives clear hints about the man behind the essays. Certainly Epstein has mastered the time-honored tone of the familiar essayist: conversational, self- deprecating, confessional (indeed, “I must confess” and “Truth to tell” are among his favorite sentence openers). Yet his writing voice is marked by something else: a recurrent smugness. For all the acuity of vision, the cleverness of language, the clear command of the form, Epstein is a pretty self-satisfied commentator on his life and times, a complacent “fella,” as he would likely put it (he loves the common touch, especially when it is embedded in some very uncommon, Jamesian syntax).
This juxtaposition of tones, the calculated descent from the literary to the vernacular, is a regular feature of his prose. He revels in phrases such as “au bloomin’ contraire”: the cockney interrupting the French to produce a tangy offhandedness. In the same way, Epstein will frequently dredge up a cliché only to alter one word in the expected phrase (“You live and yearn” or “In for a penny, in for a pounding”). It is a strategy reminiscent of the deliciously artificial plays of Oscar Wilde, another writer more than half in love with his own cleverly mannered voice.
Epstein has a penchant, too, for the periodic sentence, the drama derived from parceling out only bits and pieces of the base clause, interrupted by parentheses, small digressions, smaller clauses—a practice that requires readers, if they want to reach closure, to stay riveted to the voice leading them through this syntactic maze. He takes a clear pleasure in controlling the reader and directing attention to the subtle linguistic play that, one senses, is Epstein’s real concern. “See how witty I am? See how...
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