Here is my review of Joseph Epstein, In a Cardboard Belt!, which the subtitle calls Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Epstein is my favorite essayist and I commend this book to you as vintage Epstein.
This piece was published yesterday online at Books and Culture as “Our Montaigne,” and I here record my gratitude to John Wilson, the fine editor, for permission to post that piece on this blog today.
The last thing I did before I found my way to bed for two weeks was place Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! on Daniel de Roulet’s hope-filled book Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World. Most nights, as I shuffled through the dark to our bedroom, I also wondered for some odd reason how I’d vary the title of Epstein’s book in light of de Roulet’s. I’ve landed upon this for the title for any collection of Epstein’s essays but especially this new one: The Undiscovered Plot in (What Might Be, Who Knows?) a Plotted World.
I’m routinely stunned when I ask fellow academics if they read Epstein and they reply with “Who is he?” My answer, always and forever, “America’s finest essayist.” I was once in that crowd of “Who is Joseph Epstein?” readers until my colleague, Sonia Bodi, whose recommendations I have always followed, said to me, “I’ve found a book for you. It’s by Joseph Epstein. Narcissus Leaves the Pool.” I bought it, read it, and became a convert. That was 1999. In the year 2000 I read ten of Epstein’s books and have never had a better year reading. Still, his writing isn’t known as well as it deserves to be. As he puts it and which makes me feel good: “I am ready to settle for being known as a good writer by thoughtful people” (xiv). Why does he settle for such non-fame? Perhaps because he reads differently: “Do many people still read – as I do – looking for secrets, for hitherto hidden secrets that will open too-long-locked doors?” (136)
In a Cardboard Belt! collects Epstein’s essays – always filled with wit and gossip and put-downs and no final answers to serious questions – from the last few years. Some are familiar essays (a division of personal essays in the tradition of Michel Montaigne, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt and which Epstein defines as a “line out for a walk”), some literary, and some about the intellectual life. But the sensational section of In a Cardboard Belt! is what he calls “Savage.” Here one finds Epstein’s ironic wit overrun by animus against such notables as Mortimer Adler and Harold Bloom as well as George Steiner and Edmund Wilson but also the dubious, politically-correct award for being chosen the poet laureate for the United States. Epstein has this to say of Bloom’s claim that he never revises his prose — and “nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim” (264) and that his “books sell without being actually read” (269). Indeed, Mr. Epstein, that’s savage.
Epstein turned The American Scholar into what it was (note the past tense), namely, a collection of the finest essays in the land, many personal and familiar. As reported in the last essay, the 92nd, he wrote for The American Scholar and rounding off In a Cardboard Belt!, Epstein was pushed off the dock by the politically correct clamor in the Phi Beta Kappa society which owns the journal. They handed the leadership over to another fine essayist, Annie Fadiman, whose leadership also seemed not to have cut the right figure and whose swan song of essays is now gathered into a bundle in her At Large and At Small. When the new editor took over, he converted the journal into what is now yet another political commentary and I closed my checkbook on the journal. I do what I can to find Epstein’s pieces in magazines like Commentary, New Criterion, Hudson Review and Nexus.
What got Epstein into trouble were his approach, his panache, his élan, his hubris, if not his content – in short, his genius and the reason I like his essays. “Life is not, after all,” he observes with a penchant for speaking his unpopular mind, “a Barbra Streisand song. People who need people, I have discovered, are not usually the luckiest people of all” (178). He didn’t even need The American Scholar people. Sometimes he received letters from angry feminists who didn’t think he published enough feminists. “I generally answered such letters by remarking that I thought myself without prejudice in this matter, that I was interested only in getting the best possible copy into the magazine, and that I would run good writing produced by a hermaphroditic zebra” (402). Letters like that in the hands of the wrong person can get an editor into the trouble that gave Epstein more time on his hands for writing sentences like that.
Epstein is famously quotatious and the quotations emerge from his forty-two commonplace books wherein he has recorded lines from his readings of intellectuals like John Rushkin, Max Beerbohm, George Santayana, W.H. Auden, and Edward Shils – in other words, not your ordinary Joes. “Few things,” he observes in his characteristic manner, “are more pleasing than to find what one thinks one’s idiosyncratic views corroborated by someone whose mind one much admires” (48). Because his grasp of these much-admired authors is so commanding, Epstein comes off for what he is – a self-advertised snob who writes for intellectuals who have a taste for sensibility. But an intellectual for him is not the professor-scholar who has learned more and more about less and less, today’s monograph-writing and –reading academic, but the aesthetic intellectual who enjoys an intelligent conversation with other intelligent people about subjects of common interest. But his preference is for the intellectual, like la Rochefoucauld, who doesn’t dig in his (or her) defenses too deeply.
Few are the writers who weigh in so often about weighty subjects without putting his weight down. He comes off as a philosopher, theologian and thinker with no known creed. In other words, he isn’t simply a stylist with irony but a man of irony itself. In his thrashing away at Adler, for whom he worked on the staff of Encyclopedia Britannica, Epstein reveals his penchant for a lack of finding bedrock philosophical truths as he observes the impact of Adler’s teachings about Plato on Adler’s seminar pupils: “After years of reading Plato, they seem no closer to escaping the cave than the rest of us” (251). “I find myself,” he states in his opening essay on turning seventy, “more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet” (xiv). He continues, “I suffer, then, some of the fear of religion without any of the enjoyment of the hope it brings” (xiv). And, “You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my case, You live and you yearn seems closer to it” (xiv). When his father died, Epstein found that his father had written 2700 pages of his own style of wisdom. “Although he had no more luck in this than the rest of us, there was something gallant about the attempt” (9) of a senior citizen not finding a publisher but grinding away anyway (italics mine).
In his essay on why he is not a lawyer, he closes with this: “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” (95). When he cleaned out his apartment of the thousands of books he had collected, he discusses the authors and books he chose to keep. “I kept a few Schopenhauer items, including The World as Will and Representation; his unrelenting darkness for some reasons charms me” (103). “I have three different Bibles in the apartment – a work, the Bible, I’ve not yet read all the way through and tell myself I must before I am hit with a most unpleasant quiz administered at certain pearly gates” (106).
What Epstein says of John Keats can be said of Epstein’s aesthetic urge: “It’s a virus, allow me to add, for which medicine has not discovered a cure” (229). It’s contagious.