Essays in Biography: A book review by Bob Morris

Essays in Biography
Joseph Epstein
Axios Press (2012)

The more we learn about others, it seems, the better we understand ourselves…at least sometimes

Frankly, I have struggled with having fewer options in combination with more discretionary time but at least I have been able to reconnect with several dozen “old favorites.” Here is an excellent example.

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I have read most of Joseph Epstein’s 13 collections of essays dating back to Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974) but this is the first I have reviewed and soon A Literary Education and Other Essays 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.”

The word “essay” is literally an attempt, in Epstein’s case an attempt to explore, reveal, and explain whatever nourishes his curiosity about the given subject. I think he comes about as close as anyone can to resembling Michel de Montaigne and, more recently, E.B. White, my other favorite essayists. In the Introduction to his latest collection of essays, A Literary Education, Epstein observes, “An essayist is an amateur in two primary senses of the word. He is, first, distinctly not an expert; and he is, second, a lover. Unlike the critic, or even the novelist or poet, there is nothing professional about the essayist. He comes to the world dazzled by it. The riches it offers him are inexhaustible. Subjects on which he may scribble away are everywhere. The essayist need not be an optimist, but a depressed essayist — and I can provide names of some now at work on request — is badly miscast.”

What we have in Essays in Biography are mini-profiles of 39 men and one woman whose diversity of personality and achievement give at least some indication of the nature and extent of Epstein’s interests. They include (in order of appearance) George Washington, Ralph Ellison, Susan Sontag, Isiah Berlin, Alfred Kinsey, W.C. Fields, George Gershwin, Joe DiMaggio, Michael Jordan, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Xenophon.

Essayists are by nature explorers and can be found roaming throughout all manner of fields of interest. The reader is their companion who tags along eavesdropping on whatever attracts the essayist’s and comments in response to whatever interests them. “One somehow wanders or stumbles into becoming an essayist. But given the most 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.”

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several vendors offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now offer a few brief excerpts that are representative of the thrust and flavor of Epstein’s art:

o On George Washington: “Less talented than other generals, less intelligent than other politicians, not as well educated to begin with, parochial in both his background and interests, a man with a strong sense of amour-propre but no complex vision, either political, religious, or economic, here was this man, George Washington, without whom, everyone who has thought about it agrees, the experiment known as the United States would, like as not, almost certainly have failed…Washington was not a great military mind; he was a good enough though not a saintly man; he was no master politician. In the end, his genius was perhaps the rarest kind of all: a genius for discerning right action so strong that he was utterly incapable of knowingly doing anything wrong. Her was our founding father, and our politics has yet to turn up a better man.” (Pages 7 and 26)

o On A.J. Liebling: “I prefer the assessment of the New Yorker’s cover artist, Saul Steinberg: ‘He was out of the 18th-centuiry world of elegance based on artificiality, and he had prepared a sort of personality for himself.’ In its day, that personality not only charmed but suggested inner depths that, sadly, were not really there. In that sense, Just Enough Liebling, the title of this newest collection, is peculiarly apt. Rather than enticing us to read on, it suggests satiety; we’ve had just enough. About a writer I once admired, even adored, I derive no pleasure in saying this.” (277)

o On W.C. Fields: “Of greater interest is the world view that underlies and provokes the laughter. The chief subject in Fields’s best movies is false respectability. His is a world where dysfunctionality and viciousness rule — where everyone tries to do in everyone else, and meanness and stinginess abound. Many of Fields’s movies also provide an implicit critique of small-town America in the 1920s and 1930s, especially of its narrowness and puritan hypocrisy; they are, in effect, Sinclair Lewis with laughter added.” (432)

o On Malcolm Gladwell: “So much Gladwell writes that is true seems not new, and so much that he writes that is new seems untrue. Preponderantly, what he reports feels more like half- and quarter-truths, because they do not pass the final truth test about human nature: they rarely, that is, honor the complexity of life…In prose, he never lingers over complication, he explains that life is fairly simple; no great mystery about it. Nothing cannot be explained, nothing not changed, nothing not improved. Knowledge is ever on the march. Life need no longer be unfair. Utopia is at hand, ours, with the aid of social science, to seize. If you believe all this, do let me know, because I would like to sell you, at a very reasonable price, three only moderately marked-up books by the most popular out-of-the-box thinker of our day.” (500-501)

I highly recommend all of Joseph Epstein’s books and presume to suggest to those who have not as yet read any of his work, that they begin with this collection or with the aforementioned A Literary Education and Other Essays, both published by Axios Press.

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