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Lives in Full

Essays in Biography
By Joseph Epstein
(Axios Press,
603 pages, $24)

The joys of reading Joseph Epstein are many. This is well known to his happy band of regular readers, in which club I’ve been a paid-up member since at least the early eighties.

Whether in one of his collections of personal essays (A Line Out For a Walk, Once More Around the Block, In a Cardboard Belt), in one of his book-length treatments (Friendship, Snobbery, Gossip), or in his three short story collections, readers consistently find wit, whimsy, and learning at the most accessible and enjoyable level.

Epstein moves easily between the small pleasures of life and its big questions, often in the same paragraph. Imagine the smartest guy in town who can also write well, and you have Joseph Epstein. He has mastered the difficult art of being serious without being solemn, of delivering insights in pain-free form. Readers finish an Epstein book having enjoyed themselves while learning worthwhile things about our world. 

All of Epstein’s talents are on view in Biography, his 23rd book. Some of these essays, many of which are longish book reviews, first appeared in such as: Commentary, the Hudson Review, the New Criterion, Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, where Epstein is a contributing editor.

Epstein’s breadth can be glimpsed by looking at the range of individuals he parses in Essays in Biography. It takes a versatile, omni-interested, and well-stocked mind to discourse to our advantage on: Henry James, Alfred Kinsey, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Jordan, Adlai Stevenson, Saul Bellow, W.C. Fields, George Gershwin, Joe DiMaggio, T.S. Eliot, George Washington, and 29 others in this very large book.

Below are some samples of the Epstein style and treatment. First, urging the benefit of the doubt for one of baseball’s best:

Joe DiMaggio was what is nowadays called an icon. (Once understood to mean a small religious painting, the word ‘icon’ has been called into service in recent years to accommodate the national language inflation, which finds mere “superstar” insufficient.) One of the best reasons not to be an icon is that it brings out iconoclasts, often in the disguise of biographers.

Epstein peels the bark off of left-wing cover girl and dubious essayist Susan Sontag:

When the Twin Towers were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people murdered, Sontag, in the New Yorker, wrote that the attack was “on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions” — and so America, in other words, had it coming. Intellectuals have devised many stupid ideas, and Susan Sontag seems, at one time or another, to have believed them all.

Epstein whoops up English essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm by reminding readers of one of Beerbohm’s most amusing and penetrating quotes:

His economy of formulation touched on genius. Asked by the playwright S.N. Behrman what he thought of Freudianism, he replied: “A tense and 
 peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” Ten perfectly aimed words, 
and — poof — a large and highly fallacious school of thought crumbles to dust.

Epstein’s insight into both George Santayana, and many in the writing dodge:

So many writers, great-souled saints in their work, turn out to be utter creeps in their lives. As the publication of his letters show, Santayana, 
who never claimed saintliness and who often seems cold-blooded in his opinions, is for the most part a case of the reverse: a man more generous 
than his advertised opinions.

On Michael Jordan:

Later in his career he developed one of the game’s great jump shots, 
which he released high in the air and fading away — a thing of beauty and a joy, if not forever, then till the next time he did it.

On the self-centered Gore Vidal (before he passed):

If his standing in the view of the world is not so high as he might 
like, in his own view it is very high indeed. Self-love in him does not go unrequited.

Epstein’s beat, in all his work, is the Vanity Fair we call life. He’s the amused observer, though hardly the detached ironist. He has no political agenda, at least none that he flogs in his writing, which mostly ignores the daily drudge of partisan politics. But he is deeply distrustful of Big Ideas. If, as I believe to be the case, conservatism is a state of mind rather than a set of specific programs, then Epstein is one of ours. He deals with the world as it is, and usually gives the back of his (literary) hand to those who would control us to improve us. He demonstrates this in his summing up of Santayana:

The Santayana one finally admires is the writer who cuts through the nonsense to get straight at the truth of things, the Santayana who is a free-thinker 
 and skeptic. This is the Santayana who remarks that “reformers do not like one another,” and that “humanitarians have an intense hatred of mankind as it is,”
which is of course why they are always so hard at work trying to change it.

Joseph Epstein goes straight for the truth of things, in the most agreeable and readable way. Which is why I lift up Essays in Biography, and all of Epstein’s work, most of which is still in print, to TAS readers.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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