So, in desultory style, I bought another of Epstein’s familiar essays (which he defines as a “line out for a walk”), and then before the summer was out I had read seven books of familiar essays and four books of literary criticism, and I was ready for any and all that he was writing or editing. So, I bought his The Norton Book of Personal Essays. Done with his (true) books, I mustered the courage to write him a note of appreciation and began to tell my friends to read him. My dad found him wonderful, and that matters because he is my dad and because he is a retired English teacher who likes authors who can make a page an anticipation of blessings. What Joseph Epstein does is make every page a delight to read, regardless of the topic – and he writes about everything. He does so with ?lan, with wit, and a touch of gentle cynicism as his tarragon.
Another of his spices is a persistent nagging about style, vocabulary, and general writerly comportment. He calls it in one of his magnificent (and very early) essays, “The State of the Lingo.” Nice Chicago-like bluster in that title. He says, “a bad word seems to send for relatives soon after its arrival.” Were he to read this essay, he’d probably be shaking his head at me for thinking I avoid bad words and their relatives, but I make it my aim to learn from noble writers like Epstein. There are others, and I include those who talk about writing intelligently – like William Safire, John Simon, William Zinsser, E.B. White (with his teacher Will Strunk), Eric Partridge, Jacques Barzun, and the Cyclopean H.W. Fowler, whose recent biography, The Warden of English (by Jenny McMorris), reveals how he could enter every English home while remaining in his desolate, Gallic island home on Guernsey. Someone had learned from him well enough to say of him, after his death, that he was “a Christian in all but actual faith.” Bad theology, perhaps, but a great use of language and a stinging barb in several directions – and Fowler had plenty of barbs himself.
He also had plenty of wishes, and he wrote a book about them. Originally called Si mihi (Latin for “If I had …”), the book was re-published (the hyphen looks better when writing of a Fowler who despised “Yankeefication”) as If Wishes Were Horses where he lays down his wishes about frankness, imagination, opinions, charity, ideas, religion, a sense of beauty, manners, philosophy, cats and wishes themselves. The Morning Post called his morsel of thoughts a “true autobiography of a second-rate soul”. For all their punctiliousness about manners and especially the swashbuckling demeanor of Americans, the English can deliver the fatal punch. His may be a second-rate soul, but his grammar and thoughts are first-rate even for the snobbish Morning Post. Who else has spoken of the “efficacy of finesse & bluff”, or “three-quarters of my leisure (which is synonymous with my time)”, or “It is, after all, the uncertainties of life that make it worth living”, or the (rather gloomy) “human progress strikes me as practical, & immortality as moonshine””? (I place my commas and period and question mark after the quotation marks because I like the English way, thanks in part to Fowler. The American choice of the double quotation marks [""] is as overdone as Texas, but Texas has the oil and guns and we need to keep the latter there without losing the former, so I conform.)
Some who write on writing are not full of moonshine, but some are – like Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard, who have done some nice writing but who are not yet up to snuff when it comes to telling us how to write. If I want to know what ought not to be written, I pay more attention to the likes of William Safire or Bill Walsh – who ought to know as Copy Desk Chief for the Washington Post – and whose title is worth the price of the book, Lapsing into a Comma. I confess to title seduction; I succumbed to Peter Bowler’s snob-inviting The Superior Person’s Book of Words and I occasionally dip into an entry or two on high-hat words. If you use “alliaceous” after an Italian dinner and your hearer knows you mean “tasting of garlic,” you will be surprised and perhaps disappointed that you did not get a leg up. Since Bowler’s book is arranged in an abecedarian order, I skip ahead to a later entry: “Time,” you say, “is a nepenthe,” and you mean that your sorrow will eventually dissipate over time – if you say this – you will have passed Bowler’s test. Snobs are fond of what Anne Fadiman has described in her delightful “The Joy of Sesquipedalians” (in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader) – words of uncommon length, like making a point by using “ithyphallic” or darkening the climate with “kakodemon”. Anne Fadiman is not a common reader and I don’t use words like this, except in play and essays, but I favor writers who know their meanings.
Does that make me a snob? Not according to Joseph Epstein’s Snobbery: The American Version, even if he does quote a fair sampling of the English, who do know first-hand something about snobbery. Epstein: “The essence of snobbery, I should say, is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.” We are all snobs now and again, but my love of language, of style, of vocabulary, and of the person who puts on paper a sentence that combines insight in a way that sparkles is not snobbery. But it does lead me to writers and thinkers that many simply don’t read, and we are back to the shelves of Barnes & Noble where the common American does not stand.