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Arguably Rides Again

The best essayist on active duty today.

By From the June 2014 issue

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A Literary Education and Other Essays 
By Joseph Epstein 

(Axios Press, 636 pages, $24)  

Word has gotten around. Most who appreciate the form agree that Joseph Epstein turns out the best essays—of the literary or familiar kind—of any writer on active duty today. It would be false modesty if Epstein should deny this. So he jokes in the introduction to this latest essay collection that he has so often heard or read, “Arguably Epstein is the best essayist writing in English,” that to cash in on the acclaim he’s considering changing his name to Arguably Epstein. (His friends, he says, may call him Arguably.)

But let’s dispense with arguably, a hedge so popular in faculty lounges and other rarified and indirect precincts. For me the argument is long over. I first stumbled across the Epstein byline in the early 1980s on a Saturday morning in the Arlington, Virginia, public library. I was looking for something to temporarily take my mind off of politics and Capitol Hill, where I then worked for a conservative Florida congressman. I can’t remember which periodical it appeared in, but Epstein’s essay, “This Sporting Life,”—a compelling defense of the time spent watching competitive sports and the delight they can provide—so charmed me with its wit, whimsy, and insight that I decided on the spot to be ever on the lookout for the Epstein byline. Countless Epstein essays, short stories, articles, and about twenty books later, this decision still looks good. 

Readers would surely err in allowing the slightly stuffy-sounding term “essay,” the reputation of which has been sullied by honored bores like Emerson, to warn them off of the lively, penetrating, and amusing writer Epstein has been for decades. Epstein turns a form, whose practitioners have too often been leaden, into gold. His work, including these previously published essays, has appeared in such publications as Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, Hudson Review, and the Weekly Standard, where Epstein is a contributing editor. Happily, his work has of late also appeared in The American Spectator.

This latest collection is a mix of pieces published since 2012’s Essays in Biography, as well as older essays that have not appeared in a previous collection. Epstein is a generalist in the finest sense. Neither a wonk nor a casuist, his beat is nothing less that the complex and endlessly fascinating Vanity Fair that we call life. Epstein is a clear, deliberate thinker and graceful writer who won’t be rushed. He is intellectual slow-food. He knows his way around an idea, an anecdote, a philosophical question. He creates intimacy, interest, and not a little assent, without being the least polemical or didactic. And he can be very funny. 

Epstein doesn’t concern himself with the daily grind of partisan politics, and he certainly doesn’t retail any current party line, though he is clearly of the conservative state of mind. He can be downright withering at plumbing the vacuity of the leftish cultural phantasms that have held such a grip on the academy, the media, entertainment, the arts, the education industry, and much of the clergy since the 1960s. In essays with titles such as “The Academic Zoo,” “Lower Education,” and “The Death of the Liberal Arts,” Epstein surveys the ruin of today’s politicized and dumbed-down university. (Epstein was in the belly of that beast for nearly thirty years, teaching writing and literature at Northwestern University.) In “What To Do About the Arts” and “Who Killed Poetry?” he performs the same service for contemporary art, which is now nearly indistinguishable from politics.    

From the title essay, where Epstein lays out his literary approach to understanding the world, we learn: “One of the inadequately recognized functions of literature is to show how reality always eludes too firmly drawn ideas…The world today is perhaps more concept- and idea-ridden than at any other time in history. One of the reasons for anger at the theory-ridden English departments of our day is that they sold out the richness of literature for a small number of crude ideas—gender, race, class, and the rest of it—and hence gave up their cultural birthright for a pot of message.” Just so.     

In parsing life’s big questions and small pleasures, frequently in the same paragraph, Epstein nicely assigns politics its proper place. An important place, but not a dominant one. He took the same trip many TAS readers, including me, took from vaguely liberal in college years and immediately thereafter, to more conservative in the grownup years. In “A Virtucrat Remembers,” Chicago boy Epstein, who for a short time after Army days held a minor executive position in the anti-poverty industry in Arkansas, recalls that “as illusions most often do, mine decayed and fell away, rather like baby teeth.” In due course, Epstein became anti-left, in fact anti any Big Ideas that claim to organize our lives.

In lighter fare, Epstein gives charming portraits of his home town in “Coming of Age in Chicago” and “Toddlin’ Town.” He treats us to a more upbeat view of a much-slandered decade in “My 1950s.” He takes on the subject of advancing years (Epstein, like me, has left 70 in the rear-view mirror) in “Old Age and Other Laughs.” There are indeed some laughs in this one—I particularly liked the one about life being “a ride from goo-goo to ga-ga.” But he can also be frank about the later decades: “The first time one cannot make love twice in one night, I have heard it said, is disappointing; the second time one cannot make love once in two nights can be the cause for despair. Viagra and other aids have helped solve this problem, but pharmacology has yet to come up with a pill to make one physically appealing.”

Showing off the breadth of his interest, we get the Epstein slant on stand-up comics, the decline of Jewish delicatessens, and our current obsessive child-rearing practices. There’s a tribute to his friend, the late Hilton Kramer, who with music critic Sam Lipman founded the New Criterion.

Those who’ve reviewed Epstein’s work over the years, even those who don’t fancy the unkind way he treats the pieties of the political and cultural left, have been obliged to praise his humor, his erudition, his vast learning, and his elegance. If there is a charge and specification against him that has lingered it has been that of grumpiness. This is puzzling. Why should a careful observer of some years be gigged for grumpiness? There is much silliness and fraud about the contemporary landscape—much to be grumpy about. And shouldn’t truth be a defense? Some sacred cows deserve to have their udders stepped on. Saul Bellow and John Updike are overrated as novelists. Susan Sontag was an intellectual humbug, and Gore Vidal was foolish, arrogant, snobbish, and in love with himself.

If there’s such a thing as elegant grumpiness, Epstein has it. A fine example of this is his deconstruction of Walter Cronkite, a dull-normal newsreader who, against all available evidence, managed to convince much of the American public, and every journalism prize-giver in the Western world, that he was a seer. In fact, he was not very bright, couldn’t analyze his way out of a wet paper bag, and was a pompous, humorless bore into the bargain. Someone had to say it, accusations of grumpiness be damned.

Epstein’s writing, like most French desserts, is very rich stuff. So readers are advised to take in only an essay or two at a time. It probably wouldn’t do any actual physical harm to bolt the entire 636 pages of A Literary Education in a day or two. But why take a chance? 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.