A critic’s cranky charm
By Steven Lagerfeld
June 9, 2014
A Literary Education and Other Essays, By Joseph Epstein, Axios, 537 pp., $24
“Writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned,” Joseph Epstein observes in A Literary Education and Other Essays, and it’s a craft that he has learned remarkably well, having proved it over and over again, in two dozen books including this one, his 13th collection of essays.
Epstein has a strong enough sense of mastery—or is it plain old chutzpah?—that he lets us know on page one that he has been compared to Michel de Montaigne and other great essayists, as if to set himself the challenge of reeling us back in. He does the job with self-deprecating charm almost before we’ve turned the page. “As for my own opinion of my quality as an essayist,” Epstein writes, “it is simple enough, and comes down to the feeling that I could have done a lot better.” The sentence has the ring of sincerity, and it will certainly resonate with anyone who has ever taken up the pen.
Epstein, who taught English at Northwestern University for 30 years and was the editor of The American Scholar from 1974 to 1997, is at his best on the subjects of reading and writing. The title essay, subtitled “On Being Well-Versed in Literature” and told through his own experience as student and teacher, is as powerful a case as you’ll find for the literary way of knowing. Epstein is skeptical of ideas and abstractions, of social scientists and trend-mongering journalists. “A literary education,” he writes, “teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases, with nothing more stimulating than those cases that provide exceptions that prove no rule—the unique human personality, in other words.” Tolstoy, Dickens, Willa Cather, and their like are the best instructors, and most lessons are learned far from the classroom. Epstein, whose commonplace book must be the size of a refrigerator, quotes Milan Kundera: “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. The novelist says to the reader: things are not as simple as you think.”
Unlike most essay collections, A Literary Education follows a narrative arc of sorts, beginning with Epstein’s happy Chicago boyhood and education, moving into a middle concerned mostly with the arts and the culture wars of the past several decades, and ending with retrospectives on the craft of writing and some of the writers and magazines of his past. Many of the essays—there are more than three dozen—began life as book reviews, but that’s hardly a handicap, since Epstein is the kind of reviewer who tends to wave genially as he speeds by the author on his way to bigger game or, if he sticks around, to wage an instructive dissection. Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One goes under the knife in the essay quoted at the beginning of this review, and in typical fashion, Epstein offers several pages of engaging writing on writing—persuading me that I will have to read F. L. Lucas’s 1955-vintage Style—before getting down to the matter at hand. As for Fish, suffice it to say that those who presume to instruct others on the craft should avoid errors such as composing sentences that mix three metaphors.
When Epstein marches off to the culture wars, however, nuance and urbanity suddenly go AWOL. There isn’t a lot of room for subtlety when you simply don’t like much of anything that has happened in society, culture, or the arts since about 1965. “Can there have been nothing good about the sixties … ?” he asks. Apparently not, to judge by the long recitation of disasters and derailments that follows. “All kinds of essential responsibilities ceased to be people’s ‘bag,’ and every kind of trivial irresponsibility became known as ‘doing one’s thing,’ ” Epstein complains. What happened to that impassioned defense of the particular, those important exceptions to the rule?
This passage appears in a long and, despite occasional lapses, eloquent essay called “A Virtucrat Remembers,” Epstein’s account of his early life as a devoted man of the left and his subsequent falling away from the faith. His conservative views eventually cost him his job as editor of the Scholar—you can read his account in “I’m History,” his farewell essay in the magazine, not included in this collection. The problem in A Literary Education is not Epstein’s perspective on matters such as the race, class, and gender agenda of the academic left (a perspective I largely share) but the nostalgia that weighs down so much of what he writes on cultural and political topics, robbing him of his usual critical lift.
Even comedy gets the rose-tinted treatment. After taking a trip down memory lane to recall some of the great comics of the past such as Danny Kaye, Bob Newhart, and Sid Caesar—who were hardly above the occasional pratfall and dumb joke—he renders the mournful verdict that we aren’t likely to see such subtlety and sophistication again. In those days, “one didn’t want the comedian to leave the stage, ever. Sad to have to describe this experience in the past tense, but there are, alas, too many reasons to believe that we may never know it again.” Unless we turn on the television.
Some real possibilities for modern comedy pop up in another essay when Epstein zeroes in on the excesses of contemporary childrearing, but he crankily proceeds to measure the present against the standard of his own idyllic upbringing in the late 1940s and early ’50s. In those halcyon days, parents didn’t fuss over the self-esteem of their children, weren’t interested in being their friends, and didn’t fret much about their future career prospects. Everything turned out fine for Epstein—he was an indifferent student but still found his way to the University of Chicago and a career. Why can’t we do the same? Now we can’t even name our children properly: “No more Edward, Robert, David, when you can have Luc, Guthrie, and Colby; no more Jane, Barbara, Lois, when Lindsay, Courtney, and Kelsey are available.”
Well, harrumph. Epstein’s larger criticisms of modern parenthood are mostly on target. (When my eldest daughter was admitted to a prestigious university a few years ago, one of my Tiger Mom neighbors asked in awe, “How did you do it?” as if my daughter herself had played no part in this bit of magic.) But he doesn’t have anything to say about why we have fallen into these traps—about what has changed in American society and the economy that has encouraged these trends—or about what we might do to cope with them more wisely. He sees only that things are not what they were, and he doesn’t like it one bit.
Fortunately, the culture wars are only one of the subjects of A Literary Education. If this were a classroom, the book could be cited as a case study in the hazards and opportunities of the personal essay. It strains against its limits when the subject is large and abstract, but when done with mastery and cool intimacy on a subject closer to the earth—well, you can’t teach that.
Steven Lagerfeld is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former editor of the Wilson Quarterly.