Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Joseph Epstein, my teacher

Joseph Epstein’s latest book, Essays in Biography, is being praised hither and yon, although the review over at the Millions, referring to the extraordinary author of twenty book-length essays and collections of essays as “Uncle Joe,” an overly familiar name first hung on him five years ago by the young novelist Joshua Cohen, rankled me. Maybe I was only jealous. If anyone who is not his nephew is entitled to call Joseph Epstein “Uncle Joe,” it is I. Or at least I once was.

As a matter of fact, the waiter at a bagel shop in Evanston mistook me for Epstein’s nephew when we lunched together there one pointless overcast day in Evanston. Epstein and I are the same height (on the shady side of five and a half feet), the same physical type (as my mother used to reassure me when I was a boy, dynamite comes in small packages), with the same lines on our faces and spectacles on our noses. At the time I was a PhD student in English at Northwestern University. Although I had gone to Evanston expressly to study under Gerald Graff, I was intrigued to learn that Epstein taught at Northwestern too. The intrigue only deepened when I discovered that Epstein and Graff had been friends for years—they attended Senn High together, then the University of Chicago together, then had written for the New Yorker together—before falling out with each other over a case of academic freedom. Naturally, then, I asked Epstein and Graff to direct my PhD dissertation together.

It was an arrangement that only two prickly hard-headed Jewish intellectuals could endure. (The third member of the committee, the poet and critic Paul Breslin, would sometimes try, gently and awkwardly, to broker a peace agreement between Graff and Epstein, but after a while he chose the better part of valor.) The dissertation got written because I knew what I wanted to do with it, and even though I admired Epstein and Graff equally, if for different reasons, I ignored their advice and instructions when they were at odds with my ambitions for the project. When it was finally published as The Elephants Teach, I thanked them together: “The most profound influence” on my book, I wrote in the Preface,

has been that of my mentors Joseph Epstein and Gerald Graff. As dissimilar as they are in so many ways, they are remarkably alike in intellectual integrity, independence, courage, and strength. This book is an effort to live up to their example,although neither was pleased that I had lumped them together. Personal history was one thing—they could not deny they had shared that—but intellectual virtue? As I recently relearned to my sorrow, the question of what will affront Jewish intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals) surpasseth human understanding.

My words in the Preface were not, however, mere flattery. If I had to describe my own style, I could do worse than to say that it is an uneasy collusion of Graff’s curt argumentativeness with Epstein’s elegant and eclectic learning. (Not that I am capable of Epstein’s elegance. The closest I can come is something like his eclecticism.) Just look at his essay in Commentary last year on boredom. The references (in order) include Albert Speer, Lorenz Hart, Truman Capote (on James Baldwin), Pascal, David Foster Wallace, Ivan Goncharov, the actor George Sanders, Dostoyevsky, Joseph Brodsky, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Morris Raphael Cohen, Byron, Santayana, Hermann Broch, Alberto Moravia, Robert Nisbet, Mae West, Barbara Pym, the neurologist Arthur D. Craig, William Harvey, Mozart, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Just to read off the names is to recognize the distinctive outlines of a Joseph Epstein essay.

No other American has sought so assiduously and so well to write essays in the tradition of Montaigne. The comparison is not a shrug accompanied by “You know?” Few of his reviewers have noticed that skepticism is as native to Epstein’s essays as to Montaigne’s. Perhaps because the deconstructionist denial of truth—the very possibility of it—has replaced the eyebrow-raising doubt of commonly accepted and advertised truths, a great reinventor of Montaigne’s skepticism like Epstein is not difficult to overlook (and leave to the literary types). The fact remains, however, that in his studied avoidance of any definitive answer once for all, in adopting an essayistic method of thought from which all middle terms have been eliminated, where predicate nudges aside predicate for harmonious serial consideration rather than clanging logical conclusion, Epstein is every inch the postmodern Montaignean skeptic. That he is not widely praised as such is our age’s fault, not his.

Epstein once told me how he started writing essays. Although he is routinely described as “America’s greatest living man of letters,” he has a much humbler conception of his literary role. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he told me, he was cowed by great literature; he could not imagine himself writing it. But when he read the intellectual magazines of the late ’fifties, Commentary and the New Republic and the Reporter in this country, Encounter and the Spectator and the New Statesman in Britain, he found in them a kind of writing he could do. He did not set out to write like Montaigne, but like Malcolm Muggeridge and Irving Kristol. And though he has become an accomplished story writer, Epstein came late to fiction, not publishing his first collection until he was fifty-four. For myself, I still prefer the essays. Perhaps the greatest crime in American literary history was his ouster as editor of the American Scholar in 1997—feminists lost their minds when he spoke of “dykes on bikes”—because then Epstein was deprived of an outlet for his familiar essays, which he had published at the beginning of every issue under the pen name Aristides (after the Athenian statesman, I believe, not the Christian apologist). Not surprisingly, too, the magazine went downhill fast after his removal.

In person, Epstein is an arresting combination of high culture (a modulated voice in the middle range, neat dress, careful speech) with the attitudes, the exuberant laugh, and sometimes even the chopping gestures of an unpretentious Jewish businessman. (His father was a successful salesman, and later owned and ran a small factory.) He likes to juggle, for instance, and is not shy about showing off his juggling ability. The first time he juggled for me, keeping four clubs in the air without hitch, I was dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say. I still don’t. The effect on me would be much the same if my nine-year-old son looked up from his video game and started quoting, with exact pronunciation, a Shakespearean soliloquy. That’s the thing about Epstein, though—in person and on the page. He is never predictable.

I owe him my start. It has been a quarter of a century since he contacted Wlady Pleszczynski at the American Spectator and put in a good word for me. (My first magazine piece was a skeptical report on the MLA.) Epstein and I had our own falling out several years ago—we are both Jewish intellectuals, after all, with all the usual hypersensitivities—but he dropped me a line after he saw a review of mine somewhere or other, we exchanged news and gossip, and have remained in touch, off and on, ever since. According to Jewish tradition, you must never say a bad word in public about your old teacher. In my case, the prohibition is unnecessary. I have only good words to say about Joseph Epstein, perhaps because he has done more for me than I can ever repay. He will always be my teacher.

14 comments:

Levi Stahl said...

I was fortunate enough to get to take a class with Epstein at Northwestern nearly twenty years ago. He was everything you've described--his courtliness, calm, and kindness in particular stood out from the demonstrative mayhem of college life.

He had the thankless task of trying to teach 21-year-olds how to write familiar essays, and while others in the class wrote some good pieces, I was terrible at it, perfectly capable with sentences but hopeless with subjects. I still, however, remember with pride the comment he left on the first piece of writing I did for him, "I am pleased to find that you write so well." It would have been satisfying to have lived up, within that class, to that early assessment, but alas . . .

The greatest thing he did for me was to introduce me to William Maxwell. He had been one of the readers of my senior thesis in fiction, a novella about a small-town drowning, and he stopped by the shop where I worked a few weeks later to ask if I'd read Maxwell. I hadn't, and when I did I began to suspect that he had been, while too kind to say it outright, wondering whether I'd essentially copied from Maxwell: not to want to seem to be claiming too much for my own writing, but when I read Maxwell it was as if I were being introduced, anew, to what I had been trying to do with my own prose. It felt uncannily like being at home. I haven't stopped reading Maxwell since and will be forever grateful.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This was wonderful to read. Epstein was my teacher, too, but just through his writing. I discovered The Hudson Review and Epstein, which led me to Commentary and The American Scholar just in time to see Epstein get the boot.

Not that I am capable of Epstein’s elegance

Who else is? Montaigne can't touch his elegance.

Andrew Fox said...

David, this was a splendid tribute to a man who left an indelible mark on your life. Thank you for pointing me to the essay on boredom, which I just read (while at my boring day job) and enjoyed immensely... so much so that I'm not compelled to pick out a book of your teacher's essays. Is there one in particular you would recommend?

Andrew Fox said...

Oops -- in my earlier note, the second to last sentence should read, "... so much so that I'm now compelled to pick out a book of your teacher's essays." I'm still interested in a recommendation, if you have one to give!

R.T. said...
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George Thomas said...

Thanks for this piece. There can't ever be enough tributes to Joseph Epstein.
As for recommending a book of his essays, I couldn't choose one above the others; read the first one you find and you'll want to read others. His short stories are also excellent. The man's entire oeuvre is a treasure house.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

R.T., I recommend to you Joseph Epstein's 2002 book Snobbery, particularly Chapter 15, "Intellectual Snobbery, or The (Million or So) Happy Few." I believe you will find an answer to your question there.

D. G. Myers said...

If I had to start reading Epstein from scratch, I'd skip the divorce book (which is dated, but still interesting if you are recently divorced) and start with Familiar Territory. Everything he writes is distinctive and distinguished, but his familiar essays are Epstein’s best.

R.T. said...
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Andrew Fox said...

David and Amateur Reader, thanks so much for the suggestions! I now have a couple of new volumes to add to my reading list. By the way, just as an aside, I recently decided, in my encroaching middle age, to go back and read many of the classics of the canon that I somehow avoided reading while in high school and college. I've been pleasantly surprised to find that CRIME AND PUNISHMENT reads just as well for a before-bedtime treat as any crime thriller written by Jim Thompson -- way better, in fact! This Dostoyevski guy might have a bright future in commercial fiction... he just needs some embossed, high-gloss covers with lurid pictures of women and guns to give his novels a bit more shelf appeal...

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Andrew, you might want to skip to the 1987 essay collection Once around the Block which contains the sane and helpful "Joseph Epstein's Lifetime Reading Plan."

Andrew Fox said...

Ah, that sounds perfect! I'll put it on the list. Reading Dostoyevski's big books for the first time at the age of 48, I'm concerned that the forboding reputations of many of the classic works are keeping them out of the hands of many of today's readers. I fear many would-be readers (and I've been among these) think they require an academic guide, a professor in a formal setting, to hold their hands throughout their reading journeys into the older, enduring books; otherwise, they will end up lost and confused. But it isn't so! I think most readers, given a bit of patience and stick-to-it-ness, can not only get through a book such as CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but enjoy it, as well!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Mr. Epstein chose the pseudonym 'Aristides' after the name of the horse who was the winner of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.

Tim from Seattle

mike zim said...

Just finished In a Cardboard Belt, a wise & entertaining work. Will be dipping into it again and again.