A Literary Education and Other Essays. By Joseph Epstein. Axios, 2014. 537p. HB, $24.
During my years as a newspaper books editor, I periodically made regional literary pilgrimages close to my Mobile, Alabama, home. These visits became feature stories about places rich in literary history, such as Savannah, Georgia, Oxford, Mississippi, and New Orleans. But much like poet Henry David Thoreau, who remarked how he had “travelled a good deal in Concord,” I also explored a few little-known local sites. One of my mini-jaunts was a night spent in the Thomas Byrne Memorial Library on Mobile’s Spring Hill College campus.
Founded by the Jesuits in 1830, Spring Hill College was the first Catholic college in the Southeast. Its library (alas, since moved) was housed in a marvelous 1930 edifice that was a scaled-down version of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia statehouse. Grand Palladian windows surrounded the cavernous reading room, and the books, many dating from the nineteenth century, were snugly housed in a six-level shelf system at one end. These stacks were a delicious haven for any book lover. Little yellow bulbs illuminated the aisles, and the air was suffused with the smell of old paper and leather. A narrow staircase enclosed in wire mesh ran through the center, with an electric dumbwaiter alongside.
To be locked in alone with tens of thousands of books and no obligation other than to follow my own whims was an unforgettable experience. During the course of the evening, I plucked beautifully bound first editions by John Ruskin, Henry Adams, Henry James, and Edith Wharton and lovingly admired their gorgeously illustrated, foxed pages. Well into the wee hours, I stumbled downstairs and stretched out on an overstuffed leather couch, with several copies of the American Scholar to speed me into dreamland. And it was there that I discovered Joseph Epstein, or Aristides, as was his pen name in those days in that publication.
I have since reflected on what a perfect environment that was for an introduction to Epstein, perhaps one of our best contemporary essayists. Leaving aside that it was a Catholic institution and Epstein is Jewish, everything else resonated—the building’s distinguished architectural pedigree, the reverential respect with which older books were retained and made accessible, and the august reading room with everything arranged around the sacred act of reading. To read Epstein is to know that such things matter—tradition, books, culture. To say that I have been a fan ever since would be an understatement.
It is therefore with great pleasure that I note Epstein’s latest book, A Literary Education and Other Essays. Included are thirty-eight pieces reprinted from a variety of publications such as Commentary, the New Criterion, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. As one would guess from such sources, Epstein is culturally conservative, but happily not a scold. His prose is fluid, funny, and always worth attending. The earliest selection dates from 1969, but most of the rest are from the early twenty-first century. They are divided into thematic chapters on memoir, culture, the arts, education, language, magazines, and intellectuals. Within these categories, the selections span an interesting array of subjects—old age, stand-up comics, contemporary poetry, intellectual freedom, the New Yorker, the liberal arts, Walter Cronkite. Like most essay collections, this one is best appreciated in measured doses, a few pieces at a sitting. Marathon readers will find that the selections generally hang together well, though there is some repetition of anecdote and phrase.
Of especial interest are Epstein’s eyebrow-raising revelations about his personal past. Though recently castigated for a Wall Street Journal piece in which he mourned the demise of the “WASPocracy” in American life (not included in this collection), Epstein led a youth that was about as far from that world as can be imagined. He grew up comfortably enough in a “predominantly Jewish, wholly middle-class atmosphere.” His father was a salesman, and both parents practiced an attitude of bemused detachment toward his daily affairs. When he once told his mother, “a highly intelligent woman of even temperament,” that he was bored, her response was, “Really? May I suggest that you knock your head against the wall. It’ll take your mind off your boredom.” He was a bit of a hellion as an adolescent, riding around Chicago with his pals, visiting brothels. His first prostitute was Leona, “truly striking, biracial,” and a heroin addict. “The lush air of corruption surrounding women like Leona was always at least as enticing as the sex,” he reveals, “which in fact tended to be quick and, to put it mildly, perfunctory.”
In one of the earliest essays in the book, “Memoirs of a Fraternity Man” (1971), originally published in Commentary, Epstein revisits his collegiate self at the University of Illinois. His attire then was classic preppie: “a brown Harris tweed jacket, a maroon cashmere sweater, a careful rep tie over a white button-down oxford cloth shirt, Cambridge gray trousers with a small buckle in the back, and plain-toed cordovan shoes.” His socks were black “and rode high up on the calf.” If this is what readers familiar with his later career trajectory would expect, Epstein insists in another essay that his education at Illinois and later at the University of Chicago was “slapdash, wildly uneven, and chiefly autodidactical.” But, he assures the reader, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The most a university can really be expected to do, he says, “is point its students in the right direction: let them know what the intellectual possibilities are and give them a taste of the best that has been thought and written in the past.”
Many of these pieces turn on the academy and the life of the mind. Epstein’s impatience with such things as student evaluations (“useless intrusions into university teaching by the political tumult of the 1960s”), political correctness, and declining standards will no doubt have old-school types cheering. Unfortunately, some of these selections are too narrowly focused to hold much interest for those outside the ivory tower. One such essay in particular, “A Case of Academic Freedom” (1986), is a cri de coeur against a specific instance of political correctness at Northwestern University, where Epstein taught English for decades, but it is lengthy, arcane, and dated to boot. Happily, it’s the exception rather than the rule here.
On the page, Epstein aspires to be one of the “laughing skeptics” and mostly succeeds. He is mistrustful of “large ideas, and especially idea systems,” but his touch is light, and he dishes out the bons mots without meanness or acerbity. One may not always agree with his judgments, but they are rendered with art and wit. For example, his definition of a “middlebrow” is “anyone who takes either Woody Allen or Spike Lee seriously as an artist.” Contemporary poetry is “slightly political, heavily preening, and not distinguished enough in language or subtlety of thought to be memorable.” He likes Henry James (though his enthusiasm for The Princess Casamassima strikes me, a student of James myself, as somewhat unusual), Willa Cather, and Ralph Ellison. Held in low regard, “second- or third-rate writers,” are Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, and Adrienne Rich.
In his essay “What to Do about the Arts?” (1995), originally published in Commentary, Epstein relates the story of how, after Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, he was contacted by a British journalist for an opinion about the now-late poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. The man was surprised when Epstein said that he had no opinion about Angelou because he didn’t read her and knew no one who did. When the reporter asked how that could be, Epstein explained that “there were a number of authors who were not actually for reading but only for teaching, of whom Angelou, who herself teaches, lectures for vast fees, and probably has more honorary degrees than James Joyce had outstanding debts, is decidedly one.” By Epstein’s lights, Angelou’s stature was the result of too many modern university courses that favored contemporary writers working in themes of “race, class, and gender” over the DWEMs (dead white European males). As a result, he argues, cultural judgment is now “skewed,” and “fewer and fewer people are able to make the important distinctions which high art itself requires for its proper appreciation.” This is Epstein in full arbiter elegantiae mode. For those who might bristle, it should be noted that Epstein at least stimulates debate, thus fulfilling his charge as an engaged contemporary essayist.
Even when dismissive, as in the foregoing instance, Epstein avoids the pepper shaker. He doesn’t have a big mouth and isn’t overly impressed with himself: “A world filled with people like me would be intolerable.” He’s forceful, yes, but humorous and just self-deprecatory enough to remain grounded and winning. At seventy-seven, he grumbles that everything sure seemed better in the old days—the seriousness of politicians, music, poetry, painting, academic standards—but is quick to quote George Santayana’s remark that one of the reasons the old complain about the world is because they cannot “imagine a world being any good at all in which they will not be around to participate.” You’ve got to admire a man who can admit that. Welcome to the world of Joseph Epstein.