An Essayist of the Old School

By Sven BirkertsJuly 14, 2014

A Literary Education and Other Essays by Joseph Epstein

I ONCE HEARD poet Seamus Heaney and his wife, Marie, elaborating a droll array of distinctions between kinds of drinkers at parties. So and so — they looked cautiously around for effect — was a “large undangerous drinker.” That one, wouldn’t you know, was “small but dangerous.” And on it went. I forget the reasoning, but remember the designations, and they came back to me, the latter one especially, as I was reading Joseph Epstein’s most recent compendium, A Literary Education. I am not marking the man out as a drinker — I don’t know his habits or preferences — but the phrase arrived on figurative wings, and I have been trying to figure out just why.

Epstein is an essayist of the old school — learned, productive, and available to many occasions. A man gifted with a wit both cutting and self-deprecating, and an easy command of the many syntactic variations of the periodic sentence, he also has a fearless willingness to assert a view — and this, as any reader of the essay knows, is the drive wheel of the whole business, never mind if that view is widely shared or unpopular. In fact, the interest value of an essay often rises as the writer hews closer to the less popular. This fact ought to guarantee Epstein especially high profit, except that there also exists a law of diminishing returns that kicks in when certain flagellations are administered too routinely — when they become predictable.

Epstein was for many years the editor and keynote contributor — under the nom de plume “Aristides” — to the venerable cultural journal The American Scholar, which took its name from the celebrated essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson (referred to in this collection as “the bloated, vatic, never less than pompous”). He has published, to date, 23 collections of essays and other prose. You would think this would stamp his ticket to Valhalla, but in a literary era in which tradition and posterity have both become contested terms, who can say?

The author begins this book, the 24th, with a winsome bit of self-regard.

I have been compared to great essayists, to Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, and H.L. Mencken. I have been […] called the best essayist writing in English […]

The winsomeness comes in when he adds:

[…] often with the word “arguably” qualifying this praise […]. I have read so often sentences that begin “Arguably Epstein is …” that I have contemplated changing my name from Joseph to Arguably Epstein.

So he swerves to save himself from the charge of self-aggrandizement, but catch the reader before his second cup and all this might come across as self-praise with only the faintest damnation.

However, the tone is set, the persona set forth: here is a writer we can possibly admire even as we roll our eyes. For he will not conceal his opinions — his regard or his more rancorous responses — and he will offer everything up in the shiniest civilized prose. “Civilized” in the sense of measured and refined — I will be quoting him in due course — but also in the sense that reminds us that civilization is not only the transformation of our primary instincts and emotions, but is also at times a finely crafted grate held up in front of them.

The eight parts of A Literary Education gather essays spanning nearly a half-century of Epstein’s literary advocacy. The earliest was published in 1969, and, as the man has published so many collections in the intervening years, we can assume that these are the ones that for one reason or another have not been included before. This is not to say that they are of a lesser caliber. One of the marks of a writer like Epstein is that he has no conspicuously “lesser” caliber. But the arrangement of the sections (“Memoir,” “The Culture,” “Language,” “Magazines,” etc.) suggests that they may not have fit the thematic constraints of the various books. To title this one A Literary Education is to be safely inclusive, and the first essay, which is on the idea of a literary education, concludes by laying out Epstein’s manifestly essayistic take on life:

A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases […]. It provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforces the inestimable value of human liberty — liberty especially of the kind that leaves us free to pursue that reality from which we all live at a great distance and run the risk of dying without having known.

He will get no argument from me. But that he should then openly deplore Emerson remains a mystery.

The second part of the book, in personal terms the richest, is entitled “Memoir” and gives a portrait in overlapping narrations of Epstein’s coming of age in Chicago. Born in 1937, he hit his American-boy stride early, ducking out from his middle-class Jewish home-life to sample from the fringier side of things, getting himself to cathouses as soon as he could drive a car, consorting with fast-track betting types, in every way a proto-Bellow character. (Oddly he barely alludes to Bellow anywhere in these pages …) He admits he was a terrible student, showing no early signs of the refined, almost WASPy bookishness that later marked (and continues to mark) his long career. When he blundered into the University of Chicago, it was, he admits, at the time anyone could get admitted. But once he got there the transformation began.

“In the stumbling way of earnest young men from unbookish homes, I attempted to educate myself,” Epstein explains.

Allen Ginsberg may have claimed to see the best minds of his generation “destroyed by madness / starving hysterical naked” and so forth, but it seemed to me that some of the best minds of the generation before mine had been devoted to literature, and I attempted to follow them.

Where the book-life begins, however, the self-narrative fades. The rest of the collection will show us what the exposure to great books has wrought. This comes not through discussion of individual writers or works — we find plenty of that in the other collections — but in his various reflections on culture and the place of literature.

And this is where the problems — or let me say, speaking as a reviewer, “disagreements” — arise. For Epstein is completely tethered to a core narrative about our culture, and from this everything follows, including the denunciations that start to deaden in their repetitions. That narrative is the familiar conservative plaint: that the 1960s-era counterculture marked a turning point in American life, with its tilting against authority and hierarchies, its across-the-board lowering of standards, its enfranchising a “victim” culture of beseeching isms. Things went to the dogs. In intellectual and academic culture this meant the continuation of political and social upheaval in the guise of “theory.”

Theory and, of course, its concomitant: political correctness. Once hierarchies have been leveled — so the argument runs — the doors are thrown open. On a lecture visit to Denison University, for instance, Epstein notes “an altogether too tidy distribution of English department personnel: two blacks, one feminist, a homosexual, a Jew, and a bedraggled woman who was described to me as being ‘from the sixties,’ as if the decade were a country, like the Ukraine.” I can’t quite tell whether this is an aspersion upon Ukrainians, but I want to caution the writer to avoid indefensible generalizations.

Get him going on any of these linked subjects and he’s hard to stop. He’s like one of those killers in the movies who keep shooting long after it’s clear that the victim is dead. “I do not know what sound lemmings make,” he quips, at one point, invoking Harold Bloom’s denunciation of literary theory, “but you could almost hear the gurgle of delight that this newer criticism — which now began to go under the generic name of ‘theory’ — gave to refugee professors from the land of the sixties.”

He goes on like this throughout the book. Reviewing The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Epstein asserts:

A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism.

Exaggerations of this scale hardly serve the truth. Indeed, they accomplish the opposite: the heat of the underlying animus starts to call into question the essayist’s credibility.

I don’t disagree with all parts of Epstein’s argument. Most of the literature spawned by theory or the theory spawned by literature was a dreary sort of hammering — the counterpoint to his own hammering — but what’s the point of reprising (by reprinting) polarized assertions that were tired decades ago? Though the prose exhibits at times a stylish sort of vituperation, it is not so good as to warrant inclusion on grounds of stylishness alone. Nor are there finally any ideas with shelf life here. Epstein is a reactor, a counter-puncher, not (like Emerson, say) a generator of thought. In place of ideas he has his point of view — and this, if we look at it more closely, resembles a long roster of bones to pick.

“The academics who wish to change the canon and hence the curriculum,” he ventures, “have a political program, however inchoate it may be in the minds of some of them.”

It is an intellectual version of the Whole Earth Catalog — a pallid, boiled-down, warmed-over, unisexual, blandified Woodstockian vision of heaven on earth. Heaven for them, as I see it, hell for the rest of us.

Whence such spleen? I kept wondering. These were the moments that had me recalling Heaney’s “small dangerous drinker.” What the poet was pointing to, I think, was the person who finds his store of negativity inflamed by the permission of alcohol — though I would vary the formulation slightly, substituting “prose” for the sauce.

I complain about Epstein picking at bones and here I am doing the same. I can’t help myself. In his early essay “My 1950s” — the possessive identification of the title says it all — Epstein writes:

The fate of the past — all pasts — is to be regularly twisted into different, sometimes quite grotesque, shapes by people with their own, frequently sentimental, often ideological, reasons for doing so.

Voila! Say what you will about the muddled opacities of “theory,” it did offer, as one of its contributions, the insight that texts are often blind to what they are saying; that they not infrequently undermine their own assertions. It’s as if in setting out to defend his ’50s, Epstein is simultaneously mapping the flaw of his later assessment of the ’60s (which, I admit, I found myself thinking of as “my ’60s”). Insofar as this assessment forms the basis of most of his cultural polemicizing, this is not a negligible thing.

Recall, too, Epstein’s observation about a literary education, that it “teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases […].” What applies to human nature must certainly apply to history. It is nothing if not the impossibly rich meshing of one particular with another. Of course, there are decisive waves of Zeitgeist, eruptions of tendency, all that. But is it not the critic’s — the literary essayist’s — one job to direct attention at distinctions, to separate out the gradations of seeming, to parse the complexity of motivations? We do not believe that human nature went suddenly native in the Vietnam War era. No, it’s more likely that the verities that Epstein claimed as his guiding principles found fewer and fewer adherents — for the simple reason that they did not seem to address the kinds of suspicion, fear, rancor, and uncertainty that were, to adopt James Joyce, general all over the land.

It’s hard to weigh the sentence-level satisfactions offered by a collection like this against its blindnesses and deliberate provocations. We are trading in apples and oranges. Auden, in his well-known elegy for W. B. Yeats, had Time pardoning Kipling for his views, along with those of right-winger Paul Claudel — he pardoned both “for writing well.” I would not pull rank on Time, or Auden, but I would take things down a few pegs, allow instead that while the prose is an instrument skillfully played, the tune feels familiar, trite in its changes, seeming much in need of a jazzed-up cover.


Sven Birkerts is the editor of the journal AGNI.


LARB Contributor

Sven Birkerts co-edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars. His most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf).


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