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More News From Mr. Epstein’s Neighborhood

ISSUE:  Spring 1988
Once More around the Block: Familiar Essays. By Joseph Epstein. Norton. $16.95.

Mr. Epstein likes to think of the pieces he publishes first in American Scholar (a journal he edits) and then between hard covers as “familiar essays,” and that, of course, is his privilege. But this is a case where one buys one’s subtitle at a certain cost. After all, the very term “familiar essay” has a dusty ring about it, one that would harken us back to the days of Montaigne or Hazlitt. On this side of the Atlantic only captives of English 101 and antiquarians curl up with discourses on friendship.

What is astounding, then, is that readers who are neither college freshmen nor fuddy-duddies find themselves interested in what interests Epstein. After all, this is his third collection of familiar essays; by now we have become accustomed to the face that squints out at us from his paragraphs. Or have we? I raise this question because there are at least two Joseph Epsteins—the one who flashes his neoconservative badge when he goes on ideological raids for Commentary, and the one who would rather be read than Right in the pages of American Scholar.

In short, we can imagine having lunch with the second Epstein: no doubt he would order a hearty meal (no tofu with a side of alfalfa sprouts for him); he wouldn’t wring our hearts with soggy tales of his midlife crisis or the darter snail’s plight; he would probably pick a three-star restaurant and throw some good conversation about the Goncourts into the bargain. In a world that too easily divides itself between the angry and the anxious, Epstein is, of all things, satisfied. At the age of forty, he tells us, he “stopped complaining”:

This will seem rather less uplifting than it at first may sound when I go on to say that I was greatly aided in this resolve by having the ground for complaint swept out from under me by having almost everything in life I had ever hoped for . . . among the assets I tote up as my own: a wife I adore, work that keeps me perpetually interested, good health, and (thus far along) supreme good luck. I also like where I live.

Far be it from me to wish Mr. Epstein marital discord, the loss of his job, poor health, or a siege of bad luck, but I must confess that I read his lines with a certain amount of embarrassment. What essays, I keep wondering, can come from a voice that fairly crows about its smugness? Or, put another way, how will he differ—except by way of highbrow allusions—from those who figure that in a dog-eat-dog world, it is better to be a top, rather than a bottom, dog?

The answer, of course, is that the two Epsteins have more in common than the author of the 16 essays collected in Once More Around the Block would have us believe. Granted, he knows enough about the Chicago Cubs to yack it up with the Great Unwashed; he cheerfully admits that he has never gotten round to finishing Lord Jim; he can even recall “the stew of American life,” when he went through basic training with Missouri farmers, Appalachian miners, an American Indian auto mechanic, a black car salesman from Detroit, a Jewish lawyer from Chicago, and a fundamentalist high-school teacher from Kansas. But for all his efforts to be a Good, Egalitarian Guy, Epstein tends to look at American culture by sighting down his nose. He enjoys nothing so much as pulling down liberal pretentiousness or in sniffing out examples of the trendy, the frivolous, the mush-headed.

Sometimes it is a matter of language, pure and simple: “Mention to me that when you were young your parents were very “supportive,” tell me that before “finalizing” your plans you would like my “input,” remark that the job in which you are “presently” employed provides you with a “nurturing environment”—say all or any of these things and you will not, I hope, see a muscle in my face move.” Epstein is, in the words of the essay’s title, “Your Basic Language Snob.” But he can also cut you dead if there are oxymorons on your bumper.

The other day, in a parking lot where I live, I noted a rather dingy Saab automobile, with an antenna for a telephone on its roof, an Oberlin College decaí on its back window, and bumper stickers reading “National Computer Camp” and “I Support Greenpeace.” Now there is a vehicle with a lot of class—and, symbolic of our time, a lot of class confusions.

Epstein keeps a keen eye out for such cultural confusions; indeed, they are the stuff of which his familiar essays are made. He can, for example, work himself up into a good verbal mad when he considers (a) how inflation has raised the ante where recommendations, book jacket blurbs, and literary prizes are concerned, (b) our current mania for book lists that will turn us instantly into educated men and women, and (c) how bookstores have turned both efficient and boring. At bottom, Epstein keeps insisting, most people live lives of noisy desperation—and this includes, perhaps above all, those who went ga-ga in the late sixties. How else to explain this portrait/caricature of the hippy that, even in his twenties, Epstein “confesses” he was not:

I was not yet thirty, and hence technically trustworthy, but exceedingly ill-prepared to join the kiddie corps. I had a family and a well-paying job; I had, for crying out loud, a mortgage. Wearing my hair in the style of George Eliot or pulled back in a ponytail like Debbie Reynolds did not seem to be, as people said at the time, “my thing.” I prefer to think that I had too much irony—and, I hope, iron—in my makeup to smoke pot with either a straight or a laughing face. I rather liked to wear a necktie; had I wished to wear bell-bottoms, I should have joined the Navy. Allen Ginsberg was not my idea of a serious writer, nor Timothy Leary of a clear thinker, nor Herbert Marcuse of a profound philosopher. The sixties, when you got right down to it, was not my idea of a nice time.

Epstein makes much—perhaps a bit too much—of his predilection to see E.T.A. Hoffman, rather than Abbie, as his hero. The point in all this, of course, is to place himself on the side of the angels, which, for Epstein, is also the side of adulthood, responsibility, and seriousness.

But Epstein is also savvy enough to know what a John Simon has yet to discover—namely, that snobbishness must be occasionally leavened with a dash of self-deprecation. So, Epstein breaks into his meditation on turning fifty (“An Older Dude”) to tell us that “I happen to be writing this in a short-sleeve rugby shirt, chino pants, and tasseled loafers. I am an older dude myself”—this, lest we imagine him scrivening away like Bartelby, with cheap three-piece suiting and a quill pen.

Unfortunately, what begins as a rhetorical ploy quickly turns into an affectation. In an essay about eating—one that chews over our current fascination with the decaffeinated, the low fat, the noncholesterol—Epstein begins by telling us that “though I am prepared to admit that Gluttony can be deadly, I am not at all prepared to say it is a sin. As soon as I pop this chocolate-chip cookie in my mouth, I shall attempt to explain what I mean.”

What follows is something like the standard formula for a familiar essay, Epstein-style: there are offhand references (“Was it Cyril Connolly who said that within every fat man a thin man struggles to get out?”) and literary tidbits (“. . . Edith Wharton was a woman with an eye always out for the main course.”); generous helpings of autobiography; and a close that brings us full-circle to the chocolate-chip cookie that was presumably in Epstein’s mouth the whole time:

There is, then, a deep fraudulence at the heart of this essay. While writing it I ate a fruit salad, munched on salt-free crackers, drank the abysmal brew known as diet soda, kept a postcard-size picture of the obese Orson Welles taped to my refrigerator. More shocking to report yet, while writing this essay, I actually lost two pounds. Oh civilization! Oh bloody discontents!

Epstein’s subjects change from essay to essay, but his techniques remain predictably the same. When he wonders, in a piece called “This Sporting Life,” if there is any way to justify the staggering number of hours he spends as sports fan, he sets up his argument this way:

What can be said on behalf of all the time I have put in watching games? Does it come to nothing more than—in the most literal sense of the word—a pastime, or passing time? Have my many hours spent watching games, either before my television or “live” (what a word!) been without any redeeming value? Am I doing nothing more than killing time? Enough questions. Stop stalling. Justify yourself or get off the couch. All right, since I have a few hours on my hands while awaiting a football game from the West Coast, let me try.

I cite these examples—there are others as Mr. Epstein pokes around his neighborhood—because they raise some interesting questions: when does a bit of stylistic razzle-dazzle turn “cute,” then cloying, and finally infuriating? Put another way, at what point do Epstein’s essays begin to take on the dreary condition of thick collections of humor (e.g., The Oxford Book of Light Verse or The Big Book of Jewish Humor):

Reading joke after joke, comic piece after comic piece, is like eating a cookie that is all chocolate chips—it doesn’t take long for one’s teeth to begin aching and one’s lips to purse like those of a bank officer greeting a couple who has missed their last eleven mortgage payments.

Epstein’s idea of a well-turned joke—and this as one who writes both about linguistic purity (“Your Basic Language Snob”) and humor (“What’s So Funny?)—is to quote Jesse Jackson (“Values lead to values.”) and then to crack: “See ya later, obfuscator” or to say of Anais Nin’s penchant for the introspective, “. . .after a page or two I invariably find myself giving her quest a rest.” Evidently it is harder for him to resist playing it cute than it is to pass up a chocolate chip cookie.

It is also hard for Epstein to suffer fools gladly or, for that matter, even at all. Take a subject like “work.” As Epstein would have it, never have so many pulled so hard at the wrong end of the stick. After all, what could an anticapitalist possibly know about work? A book like Studs Terkel’s Working, for example, insists that the world of work is “about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.” Moreover, Terkel’s FM radio talk show has a seemingly endless parade of guests eager to kick corporate America in the slats. Epstein imagines a typical show this way:

It might be an interview with a man who has written a book about, say, IBM having recently acquired the Gerber baby food company, and he has discovered that the plumbing connected to the urinals in the executive washroom at IBM leads directly to the assembly line at the Gerber baby food factory, and . . .”That’s right, Studs, it’s as bad as you think.”

Closer to home, Epstein’s father was a salesman, and not only that, but one who enjoyed his work, and was good at it. Had Arthur Miller known his father, Epstein argues, he might well not have gone on to write the “lumpy and mawkish play about Willy Loman” we know as Death of a Salesman. In “Work and Its Contents”—as in other excursions into literary judgment—Epstein rests his case on assertions he regards as self-evident. The point about work, he tells us, is really quite simple: it is

neither intrinsically dignified nor undignified; it is the people doing the work who give it its character. There are people who can make the creation of poetry or leadership of a large university or corporation seem loathsome, and then there are people who can make the job of porter or waitress seem a good and useful thing.

Why, then, does Professor Michael Walzer take to the pages of Harper’s with an article entitled, of all things, “Dirty Work Should Be Shared.” According to Professor Walzer, in the best of all possible worlds, machines or robots or some such would do the nasty business of hauling out the garbage. But short of that, “we should all do it.” Now, nothing—not even a dangling modifier—gets Epstein’s dander up more quickly than an egalitarian sentiment, especially when it barely disguises its political agenda.

Walzer’s article ends on this note: “Society’s worst jobs should not be the exclusive business of a pariah class, powerless, dishonored, underpaid.” Epstein responds as follows:

When one begins to talk about work in connection with power, honor, and payment, one steps onto a verdant field of quicksand. The world’s work is, after all, only rarely paid for commensurately with its worth . . . I used to hear the argument made fairly regularly that teachers are greatly underpaid, and at some point in this argument someone would inevitably say, “Why even garbage collectors make more!” As someone in favor of better education—a courageous stand for me to take, don’t you think?—this argument always made me a trifle edgy. I thought that garbage collectors deserved more. For one thing, teachers are usually teachers by choice, while garbage collectors collect garbage for want of anything better to do. For another, a good teacher is rather rare, but who knows a bad garbage collector? But if we are going to talk about the underpaid, what about that national treasure, that lonely yet proud figure, on whose shoulders so much of the quality of a country’s culture depends—I speak of course of that splendid and stalwart chap, the essayist.

As I have tried to point out, one reads Epstein’s essays in a variety of ways: on one’s guard, in disbelief, but also (let me admit it) with a certain delight. He can be, and often is, a formidable stylist, especially when his grinding stone and axe are propped in the corner, when his sheet of one-liners is folded up inside his pocket, and when he writes from the deeper regions of his heart. “My Friend Martin” is a moving example of the last item at full-throated strength. I suspect Mr. Epstein’s neighborhood would be a richer, less contentious place had there have been more Martins and less straw people in Once More Around the Block’s pages.


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