Mar 1st 2013

Essays in Biography by Joseph Epstein

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.


1Joseph Epstein’s essay collections are among the most tattered books in my library, worn out as they are from reading and rereading. His new collection, Essays in Biography, arrived recently and is already a mess of dog-ears and pencil marks.

Epstein has a cult following as a sharp-tongued literary critic and stylist. He produced hundreds of essays during and after his 22 years as editor of American Scholar and his long stretch as professor in the creative writing program at Northwestern University, neither of which should be held against him. There may be something of the academic mandarin about Joseph Epstein but he can still jab from the shoulder.

For years, I have been going back to Epstein’s essays to soak up his blend of the erudite and the casual, sometimes delivered in caustic terms. I keep thinking that I might learn how it’s done. His favorite subjects are writers and writing, no doubt a reflection of his time as editor and professor, and he has a grand time sharing his views. You feel he has invited you to his table to regale you with lively information and sometimes cranky opinions. You may agree or disagree with him (he doesn’t seem to care) but the attraction for most readers is his love of words and ideas.

Epstein has said he gravitated to the essay form for its tight – but not too tight — parameters. He believes, as he told one interviewer, the success of the essay today may have something to do with the diminishing national attention span. “These days,” he went on, “one sees a novel of four hundred pages, sighs, and says, ‘There goes a week of my reading life.’” His personal contribution to the essay form is the care with which he builds context, which he carries out with far more diligence than other practioners of the genre. He will lay out in detail what a writer is trying to do, draw from his own extensive reading about the subject, then apply his personal standards and sensibilities. The result is an in-depth, sharply rendered profile of the writer or public figure under examination, with his own imprint imposed upon the individual.

 

Sketch by Michael Johnson

Sketch by Michael Johnson

What he looks for in a biographer or subject – as is evident in this collection — is a combination of clarity, structure and charm. He is impatient with poseurs and prevaricators, lazy thinking and sham. Most of all, he demands common sense and good writing. He explained in one of his interviews how he feels about language after a lifetime as a book lover: “I can scarcely any longer drag my eyes along prose that is ill written.” What he seeks, he said in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, is “the stylish, the refined, the understatedly elegant.”

The new compilation, his fourth and largest, reflects his kaleidoscopic range and iconoclastic views on thinkers, novelists, poets and the occasional academic intellectual. Most of the essays are extended book reviews built around new biographies or memoirs. Epstein is refreshingly all-inclusive in his choice of people to dissect – Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and George Santayana, then to the English: Max Beerbohm, George Eliot, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Cyril Connolly and others. He rounds off with popular culture figures, including Charles Van Doren, basketball ace Michael Jordan, George Gershwin, James Wolcott, W.C. Fields and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Finally there are the wild cards – a piece on George Washington and another on historian/philosopher Xenophon. About half the subjects leave him wanting, and when this happens he salts his work with strong opinions.

3Epstein is not particularly impressed by writers as people. One observation that brought me up short was a throw-away line in his assessment of Santayana: “So many writers, great-souled saints in their work, turn out to be utter creeps in their lives.” And in an Epsteinian whip-around, he adds that Santayana was “for the most part a case of the reverse.” Yet Epstein admires Santayana for his ability to make the world seem more understandable and to express himself with a “tincture of poetry.” It’s the average writers he objects to. After reading Santayana’s voluminous output, including the eighth volume of his letters, which he was reviewing for this essay, Epstein anoints him “one of the greatest of American writers.”

He enjoys taking Gore Vidal apart, as in his review of Vidal’sMatters of Fact and Fiction:

What Vidal has done is find books for review that result in essays which give full vent to his politics. Most of the essays are thus setups – so many milk bottles to be knocked over by Vidal’s spitballs. Vidal on West Point is the usual philippic about the military-industrial complex. Vidal on a book about ITT is the standard stuff about the evils of multinational corporations… In short, no surprises, though quite a few disappointments.

“The chief ploy in a Vidal essay,” he concludes,

is to point out that the emperor has no clothes, then to go a step further and remove the poor man’s skin. The spectacle can be amusing, assuming, of course, that it is not one’s own carcass that is being stripped.

Epstein is funny, yes, but he can also be grim. He does not hesitate to warn of the coming end of high culture. “Even to bookish people,” he writes in his piece on T.S. Eliot, “poetry is of negligible interest and literary criticism chiefly a means to pursue tenure.” Then he adds his personal death knell: “Literary culture itself, if the sad truth be known, seems to be slowly if decisively shutting down.”

4Part of Epstein’s appeal is his willingness to say precisely what he thinks, even about friends and ex-friends. He does not shrink even from knifing the iconic men who made such publications as The New Yorker: I was delighted to discover in these essays someone whose reservations are the same as mine. For example, E.B. White’s writing “seems thin, overly delicate, self-approving, sensitive.” Epstein had written in a previous essay that White’s specialty was “the declarative sentence: subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object, in that order… back to back, on and on.” Rereading James Thurber, he finds him “only faintly amusing”; Joseph Mitchell’s work seems “closer to history, or historical curiosity, than to literature.”

A.J. Liebling, gets a mixed review. Although productive and worthy in his younger days, when he had an eye for the offbeat and for regional or foreign characters, he faded later in life, Epstein writes. Anyone not from New York or France was a yokel. “The older he got, the lower his subjects became, the more rococo grew his prose. As a stylist, he belonged to the category of deliberate overwriters for comic effect” – men such as Mencken, Westbrook Pegler and Murray Kempton.

I took a special interest in the Liebling essay because for 50 years I have carried one of his paragraphs around in my head that made me laugh out loud then and still does. Liebling was writing in The New Yorker about Nigerian boxer Dick Tiger, with whom he spent a day gathering color for a profile. He took Tiger to a New York diner and observed the waitress bantering with the boxer. She asked him what they eat in Nigeria. “Hooman beings,” Tiger joked, sending the waitress scurrying back to the kitchen in horror.

5Epstein’s most debatable essay in this collection is his examination of Saul Bellow, his long-time friend, confidant and racquetball partner in Chicago. Bellow’s personal shortcomings and his record on the printed page are just too tempting for Epstein to ignore. On the personal side, Epstein says he found Bellow to be a “veritable porcupine of Jewish touchiness” and a terrible husband for each of his five wives. He suffered from something called Irish Alzheimer’s – “he remembered, that is, chiefly his grudges.” On the professional side, Epstein’s views seem particularly intemperate. Most readers, including this one, love Bellow’s wild storytelling and his mastery of the language. Yet Epstein casts the great Nobelist, prolific best-seller and giant of American letters as a writer “who could not construct persuasive plots.” He was no storyteller, either, Epstein avers, and his endings didn’t work. “ … he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane.”

He was rough on Adlai Stevenson, too, a man whose style seemed sometimes to lack any clear message and was “hopelessly utopian.” Epstein went on:

He preached sanity; he preached reason his very person seemed to exert a pull toward decency in public affairs. Yet there is little evidence in any of his speeches or writing that he had a very precise idea of how American society was, or ought to be, organized His understanding of the American political process was less than perfect …

But Epstein’s most acid jibes are reserved for memoirist and magazine writer James Wolcott who, he charges, has been guilty of “heavy injections of false energy and sloppy phrasing,” among other things. Wolcott started out as a rock music critic, not a promising context for fine writing, and he acquired bad habits, Epstein notes. “Such prose is beyond editing. It requires Drano.” A novelist friend of mine, fed up with Epstein’s negativity, labels him a “take-down artist.” Another critic grants him a backhanded compliment as a writer who has “mastered euphony.” To me, this is like complimenting a concert pianist on his nice trill.

6To be sure, Epstein embraces some of the exceptional talents of the past century or so in this collection. T.S. Eliot receives the most supportive profile. While predicting the end of literary culture, Epstein dreads the thought of such an outcome. He credits Eliot at his best with representing such a prized culture and says that should its demise come to pass and prove definitive “the loss is of a seriousness beyond reckoning.” He has this to say about Eliot’s finest work:

Eliot’s best poems still work their magic, his powers of manipulating language to reveal unspeakable truths still resonate and register. His perfect-pitch phrasings stay in the mind the way litanies learned in childhood do.

And speaking as one essayist to another, Epstein praises Eliot for writing “with a range and an amplitude of interest not seen in literary criticism since Matthew Arnold in the previous century or Samuel Johnson nearly two centuries earlier. This breadth, in which he spoke not for literature alone but for the larger social context in which literature was created , made Eliot seem, somehow, grander, more significant than such estimable American critics as Wilson and Trilling.”

In his voracious reading, he finds other heroes and heroines, and grants them pride of place in his personal ranking. These include some surprises: Ralph Elllison, Isaac Rosenfeld, the poet John Frederick Nims, Max Beerbohm and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. To do justice to the great English novelist George Eliot, he quotes Henry James:

Of all the great Victorians, perhaps none was more complex, unpredictable, and finally astonishing than Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. When the 26-year-old Henry James visited her in 1869, he wrote to his father that ‘she is magnificently ugly – deliciously ugly.’ He added that ‘in this vast ugliness (which James describes) resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her.’

The depth of his intellect is on display in many of these essays. Writing of Isaiah Berlin, he observes:

Berlin’s own mind tended toward the historical, the exceptional case, the idea or cluster of ideas operating within a given time. He was not a pure thinker, but a reactive one who did better rubbing up against the ideas of others.

7What drives this man to write pretty much non-stop in his mid-70s (his 24th book, Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, written with Frederic Raphael, is due out in February) is something that many writers will recognize. “I set out, usually, on a mission of self-discovery,” he told The Atlantica few years ago, “to find out what I really think about a subject. I don’t have fixed opinions or views when I start to write; it’s writing that forces them out of me.” “Simply to give pleasure at a fairly high intellectual level makes my day.”

The staff at Axios Press does have one charge to answer – failing to ask Epstein to write an introduction to this collection. He is always interesting in writing or speaking about his methods. In his previous collection of essays, Partial Payments, he explains where he is coming from:

I find that I have to put nearly everything in my writing, especially my somewhat complicated feelings, arguments and general assessments of writers who, when read at all closely, are never less than complicated themselves.

Before sitting down to compose, he says, he tries to read everything authors have written and much that has been written about them in an effort to discover what they are attempting to achieve in their novels, essays or poems. He conveys it all without wasted words in these well-crafted essays.

Is there more to come from Joseph Epstein? Driven as he is to guard the printed word, and to guide us to the best of it, I can’t imagine he will stop for a rest until he has to.





 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 11th 2019
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Feb 7th 2019
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open. A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
Feb 4th 2019
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”      
Jan 29th 2019
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Jan 28th 2019
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost. Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
Jan 25th 2019
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Jan 24th 2019
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
Jan 22nd 2019
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth? A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.
Jan 15th 2019
[Eurozone] trades mainly within itself, re-invests its own savings, and doesn’t rely on large transfers into or out of other regions. So if another financial or commercial shock sends the rest of the world running backwards, the unloved single currency area may defy gravity as stubbornly as it resists reform.
Jan 11th 2019
Nine years ago, Britain generated nearly 75% of its electricity using natural gas and coal. In 2018, this dropped to under 45% – a remarkable transition away from fossil fuels in under a decade.:
Jan 10th 2019
What would have to happen for this to be a tranquil year economically, financially, and politically? Answer: a short list of threats to stability would have to be averted.
Jan 9th 2019
In the past, the US, despite all its own flaws and criminal conflicts, still stood as a force for good. An ideal of American openness and democracy was still worthy of admiration. At the same time, again as in the case of Western Europe, dependence on US military protection has had a less positive affect. It made Japan into a kind of vassal state; whatever the Americans wanted, Japan ends up having to do. This can have an infantilizing effect on politics. In the age of Trump, America is no longer so dependable. This might at least help to concentrate Japanese minds on how to get on in the world without the Americans. But the US has also ceased to be a model of freedom and openness. On the contrary, it has become an example of narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and isolationism. Japanese nationalists need no encouragement to follow this model. If they do so, Trump certainly will not stand in their way. They will echo the worst aspects of contemporary America – and throw away the best of what the US once had to offer.
Jan 8th 2019
Swedish academic Hans Rosling has identified a worrying trend: not only do many people across advanced economies have no idea that the world is becoming a much better place, but they actually even think the opposite. This is no wonder, when the news focuses on reporting catastrophes, terrorist attacks, wars and famines. Who wants to hear about the fact that every day some 200,000 people around the world are lifted above the US$2-a-day poverty line? Or that more than 300,000 people a day get access to electricity and clean water for the first time every day? These stories of people in low-income countries simply doesn’t make for exciting news coverage. But, as Rosling pointed out in his book Factfulness, it’s important to put all the bad news in perspective.
Jan 3rd 2019
If hardline Brexiteers aren’t willing to do what it takes to maintain a frictionless border with the EU in Ireland, they need to acknowledge the likely consequences. Northern Ireland will then want to choose, in a referendum, whether to remain in the UK or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.........Such a step would be allowed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the civil war and included a promise from the UK, Ireland, and the EU to keep regulations aligned across Ireland. Indeed, that deal leaves open the possibility of a reunified Ireland, if majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide, by referendum, that that is what they want. In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a clear margin of 56%-44% to remain in the EU. Though the minority Conservative government is being propped up by the ten MPs representing Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, an even larger majority of Northern Irish voters would probably choose the EU today..........Last June, when asked about business leaders’ fears over Brexit, Johnson infamously declared, “Fuck business.” If he were honest, he would apply the same crude dismissiveness to Northern Ireland and Scotland. At least then it would be clear where the Brexiteers actually stand.
Jan 3rd 2019

Many years ago, I came across an pre-Islamic Arabic poem describing a camel running across the desert. Suddenly, the camel freezes in mid-stride.

Dec 28th 2018
Extract: "..........the eruption of the Yellow Vest protests [in France] was less about the fuel tax than what its introduction represented: the government’s indifference to the plight of the middle class outside France’s largest urban centers. With job and income polarization having increased across all developed economies in recent decades, the unrest in France should serve as a wake-up call to others............To be sure, France, like a number of other European countries, has its share of impediments to growth and employment, such as those rooted in the structure and regulation of labor markets. But any effort to address these issues must be coupled with measures that mitigate and eventually reverse the job and income polarization that has been fueling popular discontent and political instability."
Dec 27th 2018
A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come. The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.
Dec 19th 2018
Over the centuries, Jews have been blamed for all sorts of ills in Christian and Muslim societies, from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century to the financial crashes of modern times. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced by Imperial Russia’s secret police, “exposed” a diabolical Jewish plot to achieve world domination by promoting liberalism – and became a pretext for anti-Semitism in Europe. These narratives endure to this day, only now they are being projected onto a single Jew: George Soros............A disciple of the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros has promoted open societies as the ultimate guarantee of freedom from tyranny and religious or ideological indoctrination.....
Dec 17th 2018
Theresa May has survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership but to quote the prime minister: “Nothing has changed.” The Conservative Party remains just as divided as it was before. While divisions over Europe have been very prominent recently, they have been a thorn in the side of the party leadership for many years now. That said, looking at the situation today it’s hard to imagine how these rival ideologies have managed to coexist within the same party for so long.