Literary lifetime

This review was originally commissioned by the Economist


Joseph Epstein

A Literary Education and Other Essays. By Joseph Epstein. Axios Press; 537 pages; $24 and £14.16

“I have been praised lavishly, called the best essayist writing in English,” Joseph Epstein notes in his introduction to “A Literary Education and Other Essays”. Such an accolade, however, he writes, is always qualified with “arguably”.  So often he reads sentences beginning with “Arguably Epstein is…” that he jokes of changing his name to “Arguably Epstein”.

“A Literary Education and Other Essays” is Mr Epstein’s thirteenth collection of essays. Most of them originally appeared in intellectual journals and anthologies, ranging from Commentary, the New Criterion, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. The book is divided into eight sections: Literary Education; Memoir; Culture; the Arts; Education; Language; Magazines; and Intellectuals. By structuring his book in this way, it allows Mr Epstein to include essays demonstrating his breadth of interests, with essays on subjects such as boredom, the decline of the Jewish delicatessen, stand-up comics, plastic surgery, child-rearing practices, and old age.

Throughout the collection, Mr Epstein displays a strong sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, particularly in education. He fondly recalls his time at the University of Chicago, and rues educational standards today. In the opening essay, ‘A Literary Education’, he writes: “The dance of education remains locked into the dreary choreography of one step forward, two steps back.” Mr Epstein further articulates this notion in ‘The Academic Zoo’, ‘Lower Education’, and ‘The Death of the Liberal Arts’. Having lectured for nearly thirty years at Northwestern University, higher education is certainly something Mr Epstein is familiar with.

In the essays ‘Coming of Age in Chicago’ and ‘Toddlin’ Town’, Mr Epstein remembers his city of Chicago. He is grateful for growing up there, since “certain kinds of knowledge came quickly.” His essays on Chicago begin with his childhood in a Jewish middle-class suburb, then move onto his teenage years, and then onto his time spent in a fraternity house. He recalls his teenage years with candour, including an account of losing his virginity to a heroin-addicted prostitute at the age of 15. But now, he laments, “The city is no longer mine. The pleasure it offers are those of other generations all younger than my own.”

Mr Epstein’s dislike of the political and cultural left often appears in his essays. Having started out on the left, he recalls in ‘A Virtucrat Remembers’, that during his time working as the director of the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Arkansas, his liberalness began to wane. Eventually he moved to the right.  “Far from wishing to retain a sentimental attachment to the left,” he writes. “I developed a strong antipathy to it – strong enough, at any rate, not to mind thinking of myself as anti-left.” He later reflects on this transformation, concluding: “I haven’t a utopian notion in my head, and I do not expect to have another such notion this side of the grave.”

One of the more amusing features of reading Mr Epstein is his vituperative take-downs. “I feel fully free to criticize anything or anyone from any side or angle,”he writes. And criticise he does. Notable figures Mr Epstein mocks include Allen Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and Maya Angelou, who “probably has more honorary degrees than James Joyce had outstanding debts.”Regarding Norman Mailer, Mr Epstein writes that he “had not even attained the level of unimpressiveness; he was merely ridiculous.”

Mr Epstein’s Montaigne-esque ability to write on a myriad of subjects with humour, insight, and intimacy, all the while pulling no punches – whatever the subject, makes “A Literary Education and Other Essays” not only a pleasure to read, but also bloody good fun.


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