February 14, 2008
Books: Epstein has a Yankee brio and a Yiddish wit
"In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage" (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) and "Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays" (Mariner Books, 2007), both by Joseph Epstein.
"Come to me in some grievous difficulty: I will talk to you like a father, even like a lawyer. I'll be hanged if I haven't a certain mellow wisdom." So wrote Max Beerbohm, humorist, essayist, dispenser of mellow wisdom extraordinaire. Beerbohm was an exquisite writer -- subtle, playful, touching. He was, as George Bernard Shaw said, "the incomparable Max."
May I nonetheless compare someone to the incomparable Max? For we have in our midst an essayist with a slightly more down-home American tang (Max was essentially, quintessentially, British). Joseph Epstein combines that Yankee brio with a Yiddish wit and an elegant erudition that recalls Beerbohm. He is funny, he is wise and you ought to be reading him.
Epstein is the most consistently interesting, provocative, opinionated, disputatious and elegant essayist writing. I first picked up a book of his essays, called "A Line Out For a Walk," in high school. The title was taken from artist Paul Klee who said that in his work he simply took a line out for a walk. Epstein does the same. He writes "personal essays," which can be about writers he loves (or very entertainingly detests), about talking to yourself (keeping a journal), trivial irritations of life ("I also have a strong aversion to all botanical metaphors ... I don't much fancy 'nurturing' anybody"), his friends, Chicago, aging, all things English, the pecaddilos of politicians and on and on. The range of Epstein's observations and deflations is suggested by the titles of some of his books apart from the essay and short story collections: "Friendship," "Snobbery," "Divorced in America," "Envy," "Ambition." He has also written books on De Tocqueville and edited various collections of essays. This is a man who has looked at life.
We read essays for the voice and for a bit of life guidance. The essayist can thunder from a great height, like Samuel Johnson, or quip wryly out of the side of his mouth. Some essayists are portentous, but others are just like us -- only a little smarter, a little better read, a little more learned, a little sharper in turn of phrase. Jews, the Yiddish expression has it, are like other people, only more so. Epstein is like everyman, only more so. His sharpness is genuine, earned, not inflationary. He does not pose, but he does not shrink from conclusions.
On academics: "Universities attract people who are good at school. Being good at school takes a real enough but very small talent." On turning 70: "Along with footsteps, I hear clocks." On naps: "I have always slept reasonably well during lectures." On faces: "So while I tend to believe, with Orwell, that everyone has the face he deserves, I gaze into the mirror and cannot tell whether justice has been done."
As with most bookish people, Epstein is a quoter. His essays are almost pastiches -- his insight, backed by a surprising, poignant quotation. The new "Yale Book of Quotations" wisely corralled him to write the introduction. He has either a preternaturally retentive memory or the best filing system this side of the Library of Congress. Not a page goes by without the turbo charge of a retold wisecrack, rumination, observation, aphorism, or foolish comment to be skewered by our host.
Along the way, Epstein drops facts into the mix. A quick perusal of the essays contained in "In a Cardboard Belt!" will teach you the identity of the first official poet laureate of England (John Dryden -- he even includes his salary), the way Keats' study of science influenced his poetry and why Emerson's diary contains no jokes. Do you find Harold Bloom to be an incorrigible blowhard? If so, you will smile, and laugh, through every page of "bloomin' Genius." And who can resist a sympathetic but searching meditation titled "Why I Am Not a Lawyer"? (With a typically eclectic mix of quotations, including this beauty from Jonathan Rosen's novel "Eve's Apple": "Law school was a word I kept lodged at the back of my mouth, like a cyanide tablet just in case.") Epstein ends as follows: "It's a much easier job to be an investigator or critic of morality, which is what a writer does, than a lawyer, someone called upon to practice morality, relentlessly and at the highest level, day after day after day."
That last comment, with its absence of cant, is what really endears us to an essayist. A novelist need not tell the truth, since the novelist can hide behind the character. But the essayist speaks in his own voice. If he dissembles, he is hiding himself. Honesty and independence are vital, but, in the end, we love those essayists who are themselves lovable.
Though I suspect Epstein would bristle at the encomium, he is very lovable. He is not always affable; he has the formal distance of the man of letters of a previous generation. His students, he tells us sternly, would never imagine addressing him as "Joe." For years the editor of The American Scholar, he kept the specter of multiculturalism from its portals. No, he is not cuddly, or correct. He is someone who cherishes good writing, clear thinking, private virtues and complexity. He is provoking, wide-ranging and damn funny. If it weren't for Max, I'd say he is incomparable.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Journal.