Ask someone for the title or author of a favorite book, and most could give you an answer.
Ask the same question about a favorite poem or poet, and some might come up with a reply. Even a 5-year-old might recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Ask about a favorite essayist, and the responses would likely be on the slim side.
Those who have read and admired such writers might mention past luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson, E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell, or the recently deceased Joan Didion. Others might bring up contemporary authors such as Theodore Dalrymple, Marilynne Robinson, Victor Davis Hanson, or names from a battalion of pundits that can be found online.
Many essays, particularly those published for consumption on our screens or in our daily papers, such as the one you are reading, are ephemeral: read today and unremembered tomorrow. Some are obliterated because of the topic and the timing, such as a piece on Afghanistan or even on Omicron. Written in haste because of some deadline or time-sensitive issue, other articles may give us some beneficial information but lack the style to stick with us.
Not so, however, for essayist Joseph Epstein.
Born in 1937 in Chicago, Joseph Epstein has spent more than half a century writing essays, books of nonfiction, and short stories. Though indifferent to literature during his early education, Epstein fell under the spell of books and writers at the University of Chicago. Later, he became a lecturer at Northwestern University, where for almost 30 years he taught literature and composition. From 1975 to 1997, he was also the editor of The American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa magazine.
In 2003, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded him its medal for his contributions to the art of the essay. The NEH citation notes that Epstein “has taken on subjects that range from the joys of owning a cat to the art of napping to thoughts on aging and the changing times.”
Not everyone is an Epstein fan. Visit his books on Amazon, and you’ll find that some reviewers mark him down as acerbic, snarky, or pretentious. For example, his latest collection, “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits,” received many high-end compliments, but was also slammed with a few one-star reviews and comments such as “Absolute drivel … Barely worth use as kindling” and “Self-important, sexist and droll.”
One of these negative reviewers writes under the tag of “kiddo,” no doubt referencing Epstein’s December 2020 Wall Street Journal essay titled “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not If You Need an M.D.” Here, Epstein poked fun at first lady Jill Biden for referring to herself as Dr. Biden on account of her Ph.D. in education, and in the same article he addressed her once as “kiddo.” The essay caused a storm of controversy for a few weeks and resulted in his being labeled by some culture warriors as a misogynist. Given the lack of any details about “Gallimaufry” in the Amazon attacks on Epstein, we can likely conclude that these reviews were not delivered by readers of his essays but by people still angered by his piece on Jill Biden.
And then there are those of us who shout our admiration for Epstein’s essays from the rooftops of literature.
Where to Begin?
On my shelves are six different collections of Epstein’s essays. I’ve read several more, plus his full-length books on snobbery and friendship. The essays may be divided into two broad categories: literary and familiar. In the latter group, the author covers topics ranging from baseball to clothing styles, from written portraits of old friends to his schooling days.
For those who have never encountered Epstein, I’d recommend starting with “Wind Sprints,” his collection of shorter essays, most of which appeared in The Weekly Standard magazine. In “Wind Sprints” we find pieces, generally 800 to 1,000 words apiece, on such topics as multitasking, a requiem for his postman, comic books and newspaper cartoons, and trying to sleep in old age.
These short essays allow readers to enjoy a few minutes daily visiting the book, reading a couple of articles, and then putting “Wind Sprints” aside for later perusal and pleasures. It’s also a “dipper” book, meaning that readers can jump in and out of the chapters wherever they feel inclined.
And like Epstein’s other works, we find other treasures here besides the topics: the author’s eye for detail, his erudition, the rich prose style, humor, and wisdom.
In “No Opinion,” a 2003 article in “Wind Sprints” particularly apt for our own time when opinions often trample truth, Epstein displays his broad cultural knowledge by weaving into his prose mentions of philosopher Michael Oakeshott, novelists V.S. Naipaul and Thomas Pynchon, the Modern Language Association and the Women’s National Basketball Association, his beloved friend and literary man Edward Shils, French poet Paul Valéry, and Republican politics. (I’ve left out a few other references to save space.)
The combination of so many ingredients in under three pages makes for a rich and nutritious prose soup.
Here’s a sample of that dish. In the opening paragraph, Epstein relates an incident in which Oakeshott comments on what he thought of England’s place in the European Union: “I don’t see that I am required to have an opinion on that.” Epstein then writes:
“I found that response very helpful, for more and more things crop up on which I, too, feel having an opinion is unnecessary. Especially has this become so in the realm of popular culture. On the movie “The Matrix” and its sequel, for example, I have no need to weigh in with a penetrating, or even banal, insight. This is a subject best left to those pop-culture punditi who specialize in being ten minutes ahead of the With-It Express.”
That paragraph with its wordplay and its confession of the self is vintage Epstein and also commonplace, meaning that his prose sparkles throughout his paragraphs.
In “Will You Still Feed Me?” found in “Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays,” we find a meditation by a 60-year-old Epstein on aging. He mentions buying an ascot in Italy—“brilliant blue, niftily splashed with red, and flecked with gold”—and wonders at what age he might appropriately wear this scarf. He concludes:
“Yes, at seventy, if I get there—I have just touched wood—I shall be ascotted and ready to roll. You will see me coming. You won’t be able to miss me. I shall be this old dandy, Italian silk at his throat, looking a bit distracted, because he is still thinking of the future while living in the past—and wondering where all the time has gone.”
Those of us who have reached our three score and ten often find ourselves wondering the same thing.
In his collections of essays devoted to literature and the writing life, Epstein also shines. Though I’ve only read one novel and a short story by Henry James, for example, Epstein’s analysis of this writer made me wish I had paid James greater attention.
In “Gallimaufry,” he casts light on all sorts of writers, many of whom I’ve never read. Stefan Zweig, Isaiah Berlin, Diderot, and others: I know the names, but not their work. His review of the works of Vasily Grossman, who wrote of Stalinist Russia and World War II, made me want to grab that man’s books and settle into the nearest sofa, though my stack of volumes shouting to be read at this point will likely prevent that meeting anytime in the near future.
In this same collection are reviews of writers who are known to me, authors like Evelyn Waugh, Nelson Algren, P.G. Wodehouse, and Tom Wolfe. Epstein’s praise and criticism of these novelists strike me as judicious and on target. In this passage, for instance, he first quotes Wodehouse and then adds an approving comment: “‘I’m all for strewing a little happiness as I go by,’ Wodehouse once wrote to William Townsend, and he did so with ample measure.”
We see his wisdom as a connoisseur of literature in his discussion of Waugh’s religious faith. Epstein, a self-described “village agnostic,” defends Waugh’s Catholicism and astutely observes: “This drama of faith, Waugh’s ultimate object, went directly against the grain of a secular age, but in taking it up in his novels Evelyn Waugh, the brilliant humorist, became a major writer.”
Love and Work
In his Introduction to his 2014 collection, “A Literary Education,” Joseph Epstein writes: “An essayist is an amateur, in two primary senses of the word. He is, first, distinctly not an expert, and he is, second, a lover. Unlike the critic, or even the novelist or poet, there is nothing professional about the essayist. He comes to the world dazzled by it. The riches it offers him are inexhaustible. Subjects on which he may scribble away are everywhere.”
Over his long lifetime of writing, Epstein has shared those riches with the rest of us. The subjects on which he has scribbled away have brought devoted readers delight and deep thoughts, and an unceasing admiration for the pleasures given us by his prose.
At the end of “A Literary Education,” Epstein composed a remembrance of Hilton Kramer, an art critic, one of the founders of The New Criterion magazine, and a writer who frequently took to task postmodernism and political correctness. In the final sentence of this piece, Epstein wrote of his friend, “He is irreplaceable.”
So are you, Mr. Epstein. So are you.