Joseph Epstein’s essay collections are among the most tattered books in my library, worn out as they are from reading and rereading. His new collection, Essays in Biography, arrived recently and is already a mess of dog-ears and pencil marks.
Epstein has a cult following as a sharp-tongued literary critic and stylist. He produced hundreds of essays during and after his 22 years as editor of American Scholar and his long stretch as professor in the creative writing program at Northwestern University, neither of which should be held against him. There may be something of the academic mandarin about Joseph Epstein but he can still jab from the shoulder.
For years, I have been going back to Epstein’s essays to soak up his blend of the erudite and the casual, sometimes delivered in caustic terms. I keep thinking that I might learn how it’s done. His favorite subjects are writers and writing, no doubt a reflection of his time as editor and professor, and he has a grand time sharing his views. You feel he has invited you to his table to regale you with lively information and sometimes cranky opinions. You may agree or disagree with him (he doesn’t seem to care) but the attraction for most readers is his love of words and ideas.
Epstein has said he gravitated to the essay form for its tight – but not too tight — parameters. He believes, as he told one interviewer, the success of the essay today may have something to do with the diminishing national attention span. “These days,” he went on, “one sees a novel of four hundred pages, sighs, and says, ‘There goes a week of my reading life.’” His personal contribution to the essay form is the care with which he builds context, which he carries out with far more diligence than other practioners of the genre. He will lay out in detail what a writer is trying to do, draw from his own extensive reading about the subject, then apply his personal standards and sensibilities. The result is an in-depth, sharply rendered profile of the writer or public figure under examination, with his own imprint imposed upon the individual.
Sketch by Michael Johnson
What he looks for in a biographer or subject – as is evident in this collection — is a combination of clarity, structure and charm. He is impatient with poseurs and prevaricators, lazy thinking and sham. Most of all, he demands common sense and good writing. He explained in one of his interviews how he feels about language after a lifetime as a book lover: “I can scarcely any longer drag my eyes along prose that is ill written.” What he seeks, he said in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, is “the stylish, the refined, the understatedly elegant.”
The new compilation, his fourth and largest, reflects his kaleidoscopic range and iconoclastic views on thinkers, novelists, poets and the occasional academic intellectual. Most of the essays are extended book reviews built around new biographies or memoirs. Epstein is refreshingly all-inclusive in his choice of people to dissect – Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and George Santayana, then to the English: Max Beerbohm, George Eliot, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Cyril Connolly and others. He rounds off with popular culture figures, including Charles Van Doren, basketball ace Michael Jordan, George Gershwin, James Wolcott, W.C. Fields and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Finally there are the wild cards – a piece on George Washington and another on historian/philosopher Xenophon. About half the subjects leave him wanting, and when this happens he salts his work with strong opinions.
Epstein is not particularly impressed by writers as people. One observation that brought me up short was a throw-away line in his assessment of Santayana: “So many writers, great-souled saints in their work, turn out to be utter creeps in their lives.” And in an Epsteinian whip-around, he adds that Santayana was “for the most part a case of the reverse.” Yet Epstein admires Santayana for his ability to make the world seem more understandable and to express himself with a “tincture of poetry.” It’s the average writers he objects to. After reading Santayana’s voluminous output, including the eighth volume of his letters, which he was reviewing for this essay, Epstein anoints him “one of the greatest of American writers.”
He enjoys taking Gore Vidal apart, as in his review of Vidal’sMatters of Fact and Fiction:
What Vidal has done is find books for review that result in essays which give full vent to his politics. Most of the essays are thus setups – so many milk bottles to be knocked over by Vidal’s spitballs. Vidal on West Point is the usual philippic about the military-industrial complex. Vidal on a book about ITT is the standard stuff about the evils of multinational corporations… In short, no surprises, though quite a few disappointments.
“The chief ploy in a Vidal essay,” he concludes,
is to point out that the emperor has no clothes, then to go a step further and remove the poor man’s skin. The spectacle can be amusing, assuming, of course, that it is not one’s own carcass that is being stripped.
Epstein is funny, yes, but he can also be grim. He does not hesitate to warn of the coming end of high culture. “Even to bookish people,” he writes in his piece on T.S. Eliot, “poetry is of negligible interest and literary criticism chiefly a means to pursue tenure.” Then he adds his personal death knell: “Literary culture itself, if the sad truth be known, seems to be slowly if decisively shutting down.”
Part of Epstein’s appeal is his willingness to say precisely what he thinks, even about friends and ex-friends. He does not shrink even from knifing the iconic men who made such publications as The New Yorker: I was delighted to discover in these essays someone whose reservations are the same as mine. For example, E.B. White’s writing “seems thin, overly delicate, self-approving, sensitive.” Epstein had written in a previous essay that White’s specialty was “the declarative sentence: subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object, in that order… back to back, on and on.” Rereading James Thurber, he finds him “only faintly amusing”; Joseph Mitchell’s work seems “closer to history, or historical curiosity, than to literature.”
A.J. Liebling, gets a mixed review. Although productive and worthy in his younger days, when he had an eye for the offbeat and for regional or foreign characters, he faded later in life, Epstein writes. Anyone not from New York or France was a yokel. “The older he got, the lower his subjects became, the more rococo grew his prose. As a stylist, he belonged to the category of deliberate overwriters for comic effect” – men such as Mencken, Westbrook Pegler and Murray Kempton.
I took a special interest in the Liebling essay because for 50 years I have carried one of his paragraphs around in my head that made me laugh out loud then and still does. Liebling was writing in The New Yorker about Nigerian boxer Dick Tiger, with whom he spent a day gathering color for a profile. He took Tiger to a New York diner and observed the waitress bantering with the boxer. She asked him what they eat in Nigeria. “Hooman beings,” Tiger joked, sending the waitress scurrying back to the kitchen in horror.
Epstein’s most debatable essay in this collection is his examination of Saul Bellow, his long-time friend, confidant and racquetball partner in Chicago. Bellow’s personal shortcomings and his record on the printed page are just too tempting for Epstein to ignore. On the personal side, Epstein says he found Bellow to be a “veritable porcupine of Jewish touchiness” and a terrible husband for each of his five wives. He suffered from something called Irish Alzheimer’s – “he remembered, that is, chiefly his grudges.” On the professional side, Epstein’s views seem particularly intemperate. Most readers, including this one, love Bellow’s wild storytelling and his mastery of the language. Yet Epstein casts the great Nobelist, prolific best-seller and giant of American letters as a writer “who could not construct persuasive plots.” He was no storyteller, either, Epstein avers, and his endings didn’t work. “ … he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane.”
He was rough on Adlai Stevenson, too, a man whose style seemed sometimes to lack any clear message and was “hopelessly utopian.” Epstein went on:
He preached sanity; he preached reason his very person seemed to exert a pull toward decency in public affairs. Yet there is little evidence in any of his speeches or writing that he had a very precise idea of how American society was, or ought to be, organized His understanding of the American political process was less than perfect …
But Epstein’s most acid jibes are reserved for memoirist and magazine writer James Wolcott who, he charges, has been guilty of “heavy injections of false energy and sloppy phrasing,” among other things. Wolcott started out as a rock music critic, not a promising context for fine writing, and he acquired bad habits, Epstein notes. “Such prose is beyond editing. It requires Drano.” A novelist friend of mine, fed up with Epstein’s negativity, labels him a “take-down artist.” Another critic grants him a backhanded compliment as a writer who has “mastered euphony.” To me, this is like complimenting a concert pianist on his nice trill.
To be sure, Epstein embraces some of the exceptional talents of the past century or so in this collection. T.S. Eliot receives the most supportive profile. While predicting the end of literary culture, Epstein dreads the thought of such an outcome. He credits Eliot at his best with representing such a prized culture and says that should its demise come to pass and prove definitive “the loss is of a seriousness beyond reckoning.” He has this to say about Eliot’s finest work:
Eliot’s best poems still work their magic, his powers of manipulating language to reveal unspeakable truths still resonate and register. His perfect-pitch phrasings stay in the mind the way litanies learned in childhood do.
And speaking as one essayist to another, Epstein praises Eliot for writing “with a range and an amplitude of interest not seen in literary criticism since Matthew Arnold in the previous century or Samuel Johnson nearly two centuries earlier. This breadth, in which he spoke not for literature alone but for the larger social context in which literature was created , made Eliot seem, somehow, grander, more significant than such estimable American critics as Wilson and Trilling.”
In his voracious reading, he finds other heroes and heroines, and grants them pride of place in his personal ranking. These include some surprises: Ralph Elllison, Isaac Rosenfeld, the poet John Frederick Nims, Max Beerbohm and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. To do justice to the great English novelist George Eliot, he quotes Henry James:
Of all the great Victorians, perhaps none was more complex, unpredictable, and finally astonishing than Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. When the 26-year-old Henry James visited her in 1869, he wrote to his father that ‘she is magnificently ugly – deliciously ugly.’ He added that ‘in this vast ugliness (which James describes) resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her.’
The depth of his intellect is on display in many of these essays. Writing of Isaiah Berlin, he observes:
Berlin’s own mind tended toward the historical, the exceptional case, the idea or cluster of ideas operating within a given time. He was not a pure thinker, but a reactive one who did better rubbing up against the ideas of others.
What drives this man to write pretty much non-stop in his mid-70s (his 24th book, Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, written with Frederic Raphael, is due out in February) is something that many writers will recognize. “I set out, usually, on a mission of self-discovery,” he told The Atlantica few years ago, “to find out what I really think about a subject. I don’t have fixed opinions or views when I start to write; it’s writing that forces them out of me.” “Simply to give pleasure at a fairly high intellectual level makes my day.”
The staff at Axios Press does have one charge to answer – failing to ask Epstein to write an introduction to this collection. He is always interesting in writing or speaking about his methods. In his previous collection of essays, Partial Payments, he explains where he is coming from:
I find that I have to put nearly everything in my writing, especially my somewhat complicated feelings, arguments and general assessments of writers who, when read at all closely, are never less than complicated themselves.
Before sitting down to compose, he says, he tries to read everything authors have written and much that has been written about them in an effort to discover what they are attempting to achieve in their novels, essays or poems. He conveys it all without wasted words in these well-crafted essays.
Is there more to come from Joseph Epstein? Driven as he is to guard the printed word, and to guide us to the best of it, I can’t imagine he will stop for a rest until he has to.