Thank God for Uncle Joe: On Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography

November 15, 2012 | 6 books mentioned 5 6 min read

coverThe title of Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography is a bit misleading. Most of these pieces are not really essays, at least not in the rarefied Montaignean or Emersonian sense, but rather book reviews, usually of biographies or collections of letters. Being an occasional reviewer of books myself, I mean not to cast aspersions upon what is frequently thankless, almost always ill-paid work. I do not begrudge anyone the chance to slap old verdicts between hard or softcovers and run a kind of Fleet Street victory lap.

In my experience, collections like these make for great reading. Few books have given me more enjoyment than, say, Evelyn Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews or the six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Essays. Besides, 15 minutes with Middlemarch takes the reader from the Brookes’ table to the Brookes’ library; 15 minutes with Donat Gallagher’s Waugh omnibus takes one from a Santa Claus outside the flagship New York City Macy’s to P.G. Wodehouse’s villa in Le Touquet. Not, as attention spans continue to atrophy, an unworthy consideration.

Essays in Biography, Joseph Epstein’s 23rd book, is no exception to this rule. Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review, is an old reviewing hand. This king-sized volume is his fourth (and largest) collection of reviews. An abridged table of contents restricted to subjects whose last names begin with S should give an idea of the present collection’s scope: George Santayana, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Susan Sontag, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Epstein almost always manages to offer both a witty capsule biography and a judicious estimate of his subject’s merits qua novelist, historian, memoirist, or center-fielder. He tends, however, to be less insightful about the actual books he is reviewing than about their subjects en tout, which might explain (without actually justifying) the Axios Press’s decisions to call these 38 pieces “essays.”

coverBound to elicit peals of outrage is the dust jacket’s assertion that Epstein is “the greatest living essayist.” Whether he has earned this accolade is open to question; he certainly does not deserve it on the basis of this collection alone. But Epstein strikes me as being worthier than most. Throughout the five or so decades during which he has been a professional writer, the quality of his output has not decreased, as an hour or two spent with Middle of My Tether (1983) and In a Cardboard Belt! (2007) should make clear. Still: better, I think, to ignore these marketing fudges and just read the book.

Essays in Biography is divided into four not very well thought out sections: “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.” Here we have a textbook example of faulty parallelism: two nationalities, one cultural demarcation, and one catch-all. There are other problems, too. “Americans,” at nearly 300 pages, is three times as long as any of the other sections. Surely Bohemia-born Erich Heller, who sits beside Solzhenitsyn and Xenophon in “And Others,” was at least as British as his fellow naturalized citizens T.S. Eliot and Isaiah Berlin, who appear here as “Englishmen.” An Englishman, by the way, is “A man who is English by descent, birth, or naturalization; (typically) a man born in England or of English parents;” while George Eliot, filed under “Englishmen,” was simply not a man. These pieces ought to have been arranged along more interesting (and logical) thematic lines or else simply appeared in the order in which Epstein wrote them.

Any attempt to sum up a book like Essays in Biography is bound to read like a balance sheet: approvals on the right-hand column, disapprovals on the left. Of the figures considered here, I would say that Epstein “approves” of some 26. Epstein’s affinities are elective and occasionally eclectic, but rarely eyebrow-raising. He admires George Washington, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, and Max Beerbohm; was friends with Irving Kristol, John Gross, and Erich Heller; and does not think highly of Henry Luce, Susan Sontag, or Gore Vidal. Readers who remember that Epstein was voted off the island at The American Scholar for being (in his words) “insufficiently correct politically” will not be surprised to learn that my right-left dichotomy above works politically as well. The “heavy bag” of Irving Howe’s “largely false ideas. . . marred much of his criticism and guaranteed the irrelevance of his politics;” Arthur Schlesinger “turns out to be a man on whom everything was lost;” Sontag “had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her true métier.” The exception to this is his 34-page retrospective on Adlai Stevenson, which originally appeared in Commentary in 1968. Epstein calls the liberal Illinois senator “a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity,” a judgment that this reactionary critic wishes more of his fellows had offered of the late, yeomanly George McGovern.

If Senator Stevenson sees him at his most indulgent, then Saul Bellow, his old racquetball partner, shows Epstein at his most caustic. According to Epstein, Bellow was dishonest, gullible, manipulative, lecherous, and resentful; a betrayer of friends, a holder of grudges, and a chronic changer of his own mind. Moreover:

Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots.

Even to a Bellow passionné much of this will ring true. Still, when this piece appeared in the December 2010 issue of The New Criterion, I remember asking myself why Epstein had bothered. After all, in “My Brother Eli,” a short story that had appeared four years earlier in The Hudson Review, he made more or less the same charges against a thinly-disguised Bellow. (He even directed at “Eli” Sandra Hochman’s claim that the author of The Adventures of Augie March “didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.”) James Atlas’s reasonably sympathetic biography does not leave one with the impression that Bellow was an especially decent human being. But I do not think that Bellow, in whose life Epstein admits he “was never a central figure,” really deserves the animus Epstein directs at him both here and in such far-flung places as his essays on, respectively, the life of Isaac Rosenfield and the correspondence of V.S. Naipul and Paul Theroux, both of which also appear in the present collection.

coverEnjoyable as they are, some of Epstein’s shorter pieces do not seem like they belong with others in this collection: the scope of the pieces on John Frederick Nims, Susan Sontag, and George Gershwin is simply too restricted for them to appear alongside, say, his near pamphlet on Henry Luce. The titular conceit at the heart of Essays in Biography also prevents the inclusion of some of Epstein’s best recent work, including “Heavy Sentences,” a hilarious and incisive review-essay from the June 2011 New Criterion that helped set in motion a reissue of Style, F.L. Lucas’s long out-of-print guide to prose composition.

coverKingsley Amis, in one of those feats of hilarious contrarianism he was always performing, famously savaged Lolita in The Spectator. The most memorable part of his review is a catalogue of Nabokov’s stylistic tics that appears after a longish quote from the novel: “No extract…could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question. French, Latin, anent, perchance, would fain, for the nonce — here is style and no mistake.” For Amis, all self-conscious attempts at “style” amount ultimately to nothing more than “a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction.” Amis’s point is, or should be, well-taken. A style that is not the literary expression of an appealing personality — archness alone does not qualify — is simply annoying.

The most common criticism of Epstein I know is made more or less along these lines. He is, some would argue, a great prose stylist but not a very deep thinker, a septuagenarian poseur who has admittedly mastered euphony but whose prose leaves one feeling a bit cold. I have never found this to be the case. Like his mentor A.J. Liebling, Epstein dispenses real wisdom with what looks like insouciance but is really just old-fashioned agility. The most marked characteristic of his prose is a maddening subtlety that allows him to be breezy without sounding flippant, to appear learned without being pedantic, and, most strikingly, to be moral but never moralistic. His personality escapes the page with such force that, having read at least two horizontal feet of his books, one is almost tempted to think of him as a witty, fair-minded, loquacious uncle.

Thank God for Uncle Joe.

is a freelance critic. His writing has been featured on Arts and Letters Daily, The Dish, The Browser, Real Clear Books, and The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. He is currently at work on a P.G. Wodehouse encyclopedia.


  1. Uncle Joe is the same guy who would wipe homosexuality off the face of the earth if he could and wrote that there is nothing that his sons could do to bring him more sorrow if they turned out to be gay. That Uncle Joe, right? So when considering if Saul Bellow was an especially decent human being or a critic who doesn’t like Gore Vidal or Susan Sontag, both gay writers, consider the context and the source.

  2. I went through a phase where I thought Joseph Epstein was really good. I even read his short stories. However, I’ve pretty much given up on him, because his Right-Wing politics gets in the way of whatever is beneficial in his essays.

  3. Tough, but fair, review of the body of Epstein’s work.

    On a side note: I hope the litmus test for the quality of a writer isn’t his or her political views.

  4. If Epstein said what Gary says he said, then that ruins it for me. However, as a writer, I did enjoy the essay on Washington: it’s not sparkly, but I think it gets to the heart of a man who crucially was in the right place at the right time.

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