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,
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.