Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits
By Joseph Epstein
(Axios, 505 pages, $24)
For readers yearning for a break from the near nonstop insanity 2020 has brought down on us — and who wouldn’t be just now? — boy have I got the book for you. Santa Claus, take note.
The arrival of a new volume by Joseph Epstein, whether a single-subject book or a collection of his essays or short stories, is an event for those who prefer the intelligent, the charming, the amusing over the loud and witless echo chamber of the daily news cycle, where important subjects are mangled or ignored while a bright light is shone on ephemera. (The Queen of Heart’s court was more orderly and more coherent.)
The new volume in question is entitled Gallimaufry. And if you’ll permit me a housekeeping detail, I’ll clear up the obscure-sounding title. Don’t feel bad if you thought Gallimaufry to be a small town in Wales. I did, too. On looking it up I find that gallimaufry means “a jumbled mix of things.” And scanning the table of contents, readers will see that this Gallimaufry is a fine mix indeed, containing short pieces on the nature and pleasures of the bookish life, the satisfying complexity of baseball, the uselessness and log-rolling of literary prizes, the crushing effects of political correctness, our current infantile university campus life, a delightful tribute to the delightful P.G. Wodehouse, a deconstruction of the attractive humbug who was Susan Sontag, and an appreciation of Jewish humor, among other bits.
Regular readers of this space know I consider Epstein to be the finest essayist and columnist on active duty today. And I’m not alone in this judgment. Even those put off by Epstein’s occasional grumpy and conservative crotchets concede his wide learning, his humor, and his ability to tease amusement, and insight, from even the quotidian staples of life. (Not to worry, Epstein’s prevailing tone is not grumpiness, though Lord knows an occasional grump is justified, there being so much to be grumpy about these days.) William F. Buckley Jr., in a 2002 review of Epstein’s Snobbery, called Epstein “perhaps the wittiest writer alive.” And the late WFB Jr. certainly knew from witty.
Epstein is a generalist in the finest sense. In his many collections, still available and worth the reading time, readers are likely to find a thoughtful essay on Joseph Conrad or Marcel Proust followed by a take on Michael Jordan, a putdown of Philip Roth followed by an affectionate Memory Lane treatment of his hometown, Chicago. The wide range of things that detain Epstein’s lively mind and writing time are explained in “Short Attention Span,” an amusing piece in Gallimaufry, where we learn that as prolific a writer as Epstein is, he will never produce a novel or a long, scholarly tome on one subject. He also will never be a casuist, as he’s too taken with the mysteries and complexities of life, not to mention its absurdities, to allow any Big Idea that organizes everything to capture him. He admits to flitting from subject to subject like a literary butterfly. Readers benefit from the spread.
A subject that rarely engages Epstein is politics, or at least the day-to-day partisan kind that soak up so much of our daily attention. The rare times when he does take up politics he usually strikes closer to what matters than those who call themselves political writers. But he does not shy from our devolved cultural politics. A fine example is his recent take on the intolerance of those who bang on most about tolerance. This one was in the Wall Street Journal, where his work frequently first appears. Readers will also encounter the Epstein byline in Commentary, National Review, The Claremont Review of Books, First Things, The New Criterion, et al. And here’s a link to a piece by Epstein on American novelist Willa Cather, which appeared in The American Spectator.
In the introduction to Gallimaufry, Epstein describes himself as “only political enough to protect myself from the politics of others.” A very sound approach, but one that requires a great deal more effort just now thanks to a rampant political Left that is more aggressive than it has been in either Epstein’s life or mine (both go back a long way, so we’ve earned our crotchets) and threatens to politicize every aspect of our lives. “In the current day,” Epstein laments, “what might be called ‘the general interest’ is being swamped by politics.” True enough, and to our great detriment.
Having spent most of his life in and around his birthplace of Chicago, Epstein came by his jaundiced view of politics and politicians honestly. Here elected officials, along with their hired courtiers, are quite reasonably assumed to be villains and rascals until they can prove otherwise, something rarely accomplished in the Second City.
Buying and reading Gallimaufry, or anything from Epstein’s backlist of published books, can demonstrate there is still a bit of humor, coherence, and honesty in a world that seems to be determined to go mad. His work is a kind of literary palate cleansing. So go ahead. Treat yourself.