Book Review: ‘A Literary Education and Other Essays’ by Joseph Epstein

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‘One might, at an early age, wish to be a poet or a dramatist or a novelist or even possibly a critic,” Joseph Epstein writes in “A Literary Education,” his 13th collection of essays. “One somehow wanders or stumbles into becoming an essayist. But, given the modest reputation of the essay and the way it has tended to be taught in schools, it is quite amazing that anyone should ever again wish to read essays let alone write them.”


Mr. Epstein has beaten the odds, gaining critical success over the years by pursuing the essay as his principal literary form. For years he introduced issues of the American Scholar, which he edited, with Johnsonian disquisitions on such topics as going to the movies, writing letters, the pleasures of books. These were later collected in “Familiar Territory,” “The Middle of My Tether” and other volumes. His compilations of literary reflections include “Life Sentences” and “Pertinent Players.” He’s written essays for many other publications, and even stand-alone works, such as “Gossip” and “Friendship,” are essentially book-length essays on their subjects.


“A Literary Education” is the second Epstein book from Axios Press, which had offered to bring between covers any essays that hadn’t been published in other collections. Inviting an author to exhume old stuff from his file cabinet presents obvious perils. It sounds very much like a literary fire sale, with outdated oddments unceremoniously being pitched upon the bargain table. But the happy news is that very few selections in “A Literary Education” seem like anthological also-rans.


The oldest piece in the book, “Coming of Age in Chicago,” first appeared in 1969; the newest essay, “You Could Die Laughing,” was minted last year. Perhaps the Chicago essay didn’t make it into Mr. Epstein’s previous collections because of its racy content. It includes an account of a teenage rite of passage in which Mr. Epstein visited a prostitute—the kind of experience that many contemporary writers might weave into an elaborate monologue. Mr. Epstein, by contrast, recalls the encounter with something short of copious detail, and the revelation doesn’t nudge the narrative into a dark night of the soul.

A Literary Education and Other Essays

By Joseph Epstein
(Axios Press, 501 pages, $24)


In a 1997 piece about essay-writing itself, Mr. Epstein argued against the modern-day penchant for unlimited disclosure. “An element of confession resides in the personal essay,” he writes, “but in my view, it ought not to dominate. Confession leads to excessive self-dramatization, and behind most literary work in which self-dramatization plays a key role is the plea, not always entirely out in the open but always hovering in the background, for the sensitivity, soulfulness and sweet virtue of the essayist. The etiquette for confession in the essay, again in my view, ought to be the same as that for confession in religion: be brief, be blunt, be gone.”


Mr. Epstein’s skepticism about prevailing literary and cultural fashions has endeared him to conservatives, although he doesn’t seem very interested in party politics. He tells readers that he feels “quite content to assume that all politicians of both parties are frauds and swine, unless proven otherwise.” Like George Orwell, he sees avoiding cant as a literary imperative. An essayist, Mr. Epstein writes, “ought to be skeptical if not gloomy in outlook. He should distrust large ideas, and especially idea systems. He should view all theories as mistaken until proven true, which over the centuries not all that many have. Life for the essayist is so much richer, so much more various, than any theory or idea can hope to describe. The best essayists, in my reading, are the laughing skeptics.”


The author also shares Orwell’s gift for avoiding the abstract in favor of the concrete, and a consistent pleasure of his prose is the way that he expresses ostensibly ethereal concepts using lively, tangible imagery. Novelists and poets, he writes in the book’s title essay, “if they are true to their craft, are not out to prove anything. If they tell their stories honestly and persuasively, straight and true, somehow all those little frogs of fact might just turn into a handsome prince of a beautiful idea.” You might expect of a piece called “A Literary Education” the kind of dry discourse that could be delivered from the podium of an honors convocation. The essay is exactly the opposite, arguing that real literature must avoid bloodless polemics.


“A Literary Education” includes a smattering of book reviews—among the authors given the Epstein treatment are Susan Jacoby and Douglas Brinkley—along with essays on topics such as the complications of boredom and the challenges of aging. Many of its nearly 40 entries deal in one way or another with the culture wars that Mr. Epstein experienced during his academic career at Northwestern University. Collectively, the essays in “A Literary Education” tend toward a sensibility that Mr. Epstein once ascribed to A.J. Liebling—”worldly-ironic.”


In his droll consideration of modern American poetry, for instance, he observes that it lacks widespread appeal and is kept on life support by foundations, governments and universities, summarizing the situation like this: “And so, as the disc jockeys say, the beat goes on.” Mr. Epstein tends to qualify popular expressions this way, as if gingerly handling aspects of a culture he’d prefer to keep at arm’s length. But “A Literary Education” also hints that in his ripening maturity the author is, improbably, mellowing a bit. “Luckiest among us,” he tells readers, “are those who feel that they’ve had a good run . . . I hope that I do not sound nauseatingly smug when I say that I think of myself as such a lucky person.” His valedictory tone is understandable for a man in his late 70s, and that spirit of summation suggests that maybe it’s time for a ”


Joseph Epstein Reader ” that would assemble the best work from his previous books for old and new fans alike. In the meantime, “A Literary Education” inspires hope that Mr. Epstein’s good run isn’t over just yet.


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