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Epstein’s Kaleidoscope

By (February 1, 2013) 29 Comments

Essays in Biography

By Joseph Epstein
Axios Press, 2012

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’s Matters 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 Atlantic a 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.

Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International Herald-Tribune, American Spectator, thecolumnists.com, the Washington Times and a couple of specialized classical music outlets.


  • I have read Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography and this review is the best explanation I have read on Epstein’s methods, his strengths, the essays that startle with his acumen and those that startle with, to quote Michael Johnson here, his “jabs from the shoulder” and “acid jibes”. Epstein is irresistible even when one most wants to resist him as in the essay on Bellow: The inside look at Bellow’s U. of Chicago “friendships”, his ex-wives and the suggestion for a novel written in collaboration by Bellow’s first four wives (I loved imagining that!), and Epstein’s own “friendship,” if one can call it that, with the author are superb examples. Where I part way with Epstein on Bellow is his assertion that he can’t write a plot or an ending. Bellow’s work is character-driven at its core: _Seize the Day_ that Epstein excoriates is a masterful work about a son’s inability to do what his father wants: Tommy must fail for all the complexities, some Freudian, that unravel in this relationship and culminate in the way Bellow ends the book. And as to Bellow’s inability to write an ending, the close of _Ravelstein_ is transcendent in its beauty. Here I pause to praise both the reviewer and Epstein. One can see how Epstein never fails to engage the reader even when the reader strongly disagrees with him. Kudos to Joseph Epstein and kudos to Michael Johnson for this superb review. I hope Epstein reads it and comments.

  • Richard Cheeseman says:

    I know nothing about Epstein, so this was interesting. I wonder if he’s right about literary culture “decisively shutting down”.

    If TS Eliot is his touchstone he’s probably right, but then Eliot has always been “difficult” for most readers (me included) because of the range and obscurity (to most) of his references.

    Interesting that he praises Matthew Arnold. He (Arnold) predicted the decline of high (mainly literary) culture in his essay Culture and Anarchy (1869). However, he was wrong – in part because the definition of it changed radically over the subsequent 50 years. I wonder what Arnold would have made of Eliot?

    There is an echo of Arnold’s definition of high culture – “the best that has been thought and written” – in your final sentence. Was that intentional?

  • Mike Zim says:

    Some of my favorite parts in these essays:
    -Kazin’s allergy to contentment
    -W.C. Fields’ two main characters, the high-toned, grouchy con man, and the greatly put-upon husband, or “sucker”
    -Erich Heller: a good listener, which is rare for a professor (among professors, there is no listening–only waiting)
    -On his friend Matt, whom he met in a retirement home: Matt played on through blindness and old age, felt life closing in on him, and kept his poise, humor, and high spirits.

  • Henry Cohen says:

    Contrary to what the author writes in the second paragraph, Epstein does not have a “cult following.” The author used a cliché instead of thinking about what he was writing.

  • Frank Gado says:

    The Epstein essay I am longing to read is the one in which he justifies his naming Dreiser the greatest American novelist. Does anyone her know whether he has written it and, if so, where it appears?

    I imagine that reading such an essay would be like reading praise of Cheez Doodles written by Escoffier.

  • Al_de_Baran says:

    *Yawns* It seems that most of Epstein’s political targets are on the liberal side of the spectrum–a sure sign of of a disinterested and fair-mindedness essayist. And frankly, if he saves this greatest kudos for that dismal, emotionally constipated poetaster, T.S. Eliot, then his critical sense is far sorrier than that of anyone he criticizes here.

  • My thoughts on Epstein (dealing with a piece Mr. Johnson’s article never so much as refers to) can be found here:


  • Common sense says:

    Ultimately Epstein’s writing is mere journalism and opinion-mongering, and like almost all journalism, it will not last.

    Like many journalist-critics who disdain the academic discussions that they cannot understand, Epstein’s ultimate limitation is a limitation of the intellect: an inability to think theoretically.

  • Ted Fontenot says:

    Just the views quoted on E. B. White and James Thurber chill the urge for any more. He seems neither deep nor wide.

  • jim munves says:

    Epstein is hard on Liebling; but then he is hard on all Liebling’s New Yorker colleagues. Liebling wrote about lower and less worthy subjects as time went on? What about the Duke of Louisiana, a comic masterpiece about Senator long as well as a refreshing view of American politics? and The Honest Rainmaker. And has anyone come even close to nailing the flaws of American journalism since the demise of his Wayward Press? Could be Epstein was stung by Liebling’s great piece on Chicago,”The Second City.”

  • Ramesh Raghuvanshi says:

    Most literary criticism became blackmailing. Publishers purchasing literary critics and obliged them with money.Most criticism appeared today is not critical but praise book.Some writers buildup syndicate and they play the game of you scratch my back,I will ride on yours.When everything marketable books also commercial items,sale is important quality go on in hell.Now readers must developed their own critical mind and not blindly follow what critics says

  • “Most literary criticism became blackmailing.” Now what on earth does that mean? There are a wide variety of literary critics. Some have acolytes, some don’t. All are carefully scrutinized by the serious-minded.

  • Matthew says:

    Dear Mr. Johnson,

    In my review of Epstein’s collection for The Millions, I did not say that he had merely “mastered euphony.” Here, in context, is the phrase you quoted:

    “The most common criticism of Epstein I know is made more or less along these lines. He is, some would argue, a great prose stylist but not a very deep thinker, a septuagenarian poseur who has admittedly mastered euphony but whose prose leaves one feeling a bit cold. I have never found this to be the case.”

    It’s one thing to look at what fellow critics have said when you review a book five months after it has been published; it’s quite another to skim, copy, paste, and misrepresent.

    May I add something else? Distant Intimacy is not being published in February but in May.

  • Gil says:

    Epstein attacks Gore Vidal because the latter justifiably called him to account when he published an infamous essay in Harper’s magazine wishing homosexuals off the face of the Earth. As Vidal correctly pointed out, given the dark history of the 20th Century and our common humanity, no Jew should wish genocide on anyone. Epstein, of course, had no adequate response for this purblind essay – but what it revealed about him was his middle-American dullness and conformity to received opinion, his total acceptance of the ordinary prejudices of his class and background, his trying in vain to pose as an homme de lettres. What’s really tragic about this article is that in the US, Epstein could be confused for the real thing: someone who actually had something interesting to say about literature.

  • Phil Balla says:

    I love A. J. Liebling — all, and especially the latter stuff at which Epstein sniffs.

    I love the essays of Gore Vidal, and don’t mind that he was human enough to take consistent political positions, of which Epstein is incapable.

    I love much of E. B. White, who often had more grace of style than Epstein can see, and more backbone than Epstein can imagine.

    If lit crit is “shutting down,” Epstein owes some rationalizing his own long stint teaching in MFA-land, whose minions serve primarily as cheap and exploited labor to support all the mandatory comp classes corporate academe floats, a fact that men with backbone could see (men like Liebling on the press, Vidal on the empire, White on the publising industry) and which Epstein, taking the corporate money, could see no more than any of his genteel peers still doing same.

  • Flogiston says:

    Joseph Epstein is a failed novelist and fiction writer no one will interested in those forms will ever pay attention to, a narcissistic WASP manqué with a chip the size of Mount Rainier on his shoulder, a vindictive little homophobe who will never live down his spasm of hatefulness, and a writhing little tumulus of spite and resentment that will be forgotten in not a few years, cult or no cult. He’s already faded into the ether at Northwestern, and it’s only a matter of time before this extends to the wider world.

  • charles m says:

    What a well written review. A pleasure to read.

  • Tom Goff says:

    Like Mr. Epstein, I too admire John Frederick Nims, a poet of much classicist knowledge, insight, whimsy (not for nothing did his wife call him Nimsy), and sheer poetical invention.

  • Patrick Griffin says:

    A big fat Greek kudos to Professor Epstein on another wonderful essay collection, which I shall purchase without delay. His assessment of Eliot’s poetry is spot-on, “pitch-perfect phrasings” is itself a pitch-perfect opinion. The utter, beautiful musicality of it is impossible to ingnore or forget. For those especially interested, I highly recommend the I-Pad app on “The Wasteland,” with an exquisite reading by Alec Guiness, a perfectly dreadful one by Vigo Mortensen (which sounds as if it were recited in a Qualude induced haze), and a replication of the first draft, complete with Pound’s edits. Small details delight, such as “Sighs short and infrequent were expired” having been changed to “exhaled.” That was an artful edit, whoever may have done it.

    Epstein’s particular strength and distinction as a reviewer is his provision of the biographical details of his writer-subjects. They are relevant. The art cannot be considered apart from the artist. Surely, a saint may produce drivel, and a sinner jewels, but a saint is so to be preferred. And by doing so, Epstein brings a moral dimension to his reviews that is every bit as valuable as the aesthetic, and perhaps even more valuable to a society that is suffering as much moral as artistic decay.

  • John Check says:

    Mr. Gado,

    Joseph Epstein’s essay on Dreiser, “The Awkward Genius of Theodore Dreiser,” can be found in *Partial Payments*.

  • Randy Scott says:


    Your post is one of the dumbest things I have ever read. How can Epstein simultaneously never live down something and be forgotten at the same time?

  • Epstein’s literary career, such as it is, will be forgotten. His genocidal wish will be rememebered.

  • Thank you Mr. Johnson for such a wonderful and insightful article. My thoughts:Writers that produce literary masterpieces generally tend to be selfish individuals, devoted primarily to their writing and little else. They rarely place their families first, and are a slave to their art. This is not to say there aren’t exceptions, but it seems that such a driven and focused personality is the necessary price to pay for producing great literature.

  • MR says:

    The way you miss the play in “amusing, assuming, of course … carcass” makes me wonder how much you’ve really learned from Epstein. As does the comma in “A.J. Liebing, gets a mixed review.”

  • sam enderby says:

    I wish I could buy a drink for Gil, Flogistan, & Mr. Ehrenstein for reminding us once again of the war-wishing thinking of such as Joe Epstein.

  • Jay says:

    I am late to this discussion, but I am amazed that anyone would take Epstein seriously as a writer. He has neither any depth nor much style. I admit that he is a master of the cliche, but that only adds to the general banality of his writing.

    Given his penchant for biography, I wonder why someone hasn’t subjected him to biographical criticism. For a long time I have wondered about the source of the vicious homophobia that came to the fore in his infamous essay “Homo/Hetero.” The essay reveals a great deal about his sexual insecurities, which are also on exhibit in his numerous marriages and what can only be characterized as a Napoleon-complex, the bluster of a small man. He is a notably effete person in real life–the kind of man most people probably assume is homosexual until he underlines his heterosexual bona fides by referring to his wives and children and homophobic sneers.

    He is a fascinating psychological exhibit, but, alas, not a good writer.

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