I have read most of Joseph Epstein’s collections of essays dating back to Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974) but Essays in Biography was the first I have reviewed and A Literary Education will be the second. With regard to his background, here is a brief bio provided by Amazon: “Joseph Epstein is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, as well as the short story collections The Goldin Boys and Fabulous Small Jews, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines.” This is the 13th collection of Epstein’s essays, with the earliest, “A Stillness at Little Rock,” published in the New Leader Magazine in 1959.
The title of my review refers to what Epstein discusses in his introductory essay, “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature.” He concludes this essay with an observation by Bertolt Brecht: “First grub, then ethics.” As for Epstein, “A bad idea, I would say. A better idea is, ‘First reality, then ideas.’ This in any case is what my own education has taught me.” Also, he suggests, the material in this volume “is not united by the biographical or any other theme but instead covers the range of my interests and preoccupations as an essayist over a writing career that spans more then fifty years: education, language, the arts, magazines, intellectuals, the culture.”
There are thirteen essays, with the earliest dating back to 1969. In it, “Coming of Age in Chicago,” he shares a number of experiences with which I could immediately identify. I am a year older than he and also grew up in Chicago. He speaks for me and countless others when observing, “When I look back on it now, it all seems a bit like bad Damon Runyan, but it was very rich stuff at the time. The entire set-up was one I felt wonderfully comfortable in.”
These are among the dozens of subjects or themes that he discusses with rigor and eloquence:
o What it means to be “well-versed in literature”
o Fraternity life at the University of Illinois
0 The defining characteristics of the 1950s
o The power of permanent opposition
o How and why Chicago was a “toddlin’ town”
o Radical changes in society in the 1960s and 1970s
o What cosmetic surgery “is really all about”
o Whose country ’tis of thee?
o Why boredom is not easily defined but can be described
o What to do about the arts…especially poetry
o Culture and capitalism
o The “academic zoo” in which theory rules
o Will the liberal arts ever arise from the dead?
o The feud between prescriptives and descriptives in linguistics
o The New Leader paradigm and what it reveals
Whenever I read one of Joseph Epstein’s collections of essays, I am again reminded of Whitman’s statement in “Song of Myself” when asking, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Here is someone who can channel Myron Cohen, Montaigne, Garrison Kielor, and E.B. White…in the same essay and sometimes in the same paragraph. His mind resembles a Swiss Army knife.