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“Essays in biography” by Joseph Epstein

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Over a writing career of nearly four decades, Joseph Epstein has published various collections of what he likes to call “familiar essays,” usually on literary subjects. His agreeably approachable and fluid prose no doubt is the result of invisible but careful labor, his opinions are tart and confidently expressed, he seems to have read just about everything and quotes from that reading with daunting authority. On the other hand, he affects modesty but appears to possess little of it; he dances a fine line between amiability and smugness and occasionally lands on the wrong side of it.

“Essays in Biography,” which by my count is his 12th essay collection (as well as his 23rd book), is typical of his work in that each of its 40 pieces is smart, witty and a pleasure to read. It also is a rather strange book that only intermittently lives up to the promise in its title. Since no foreword or afterword is provided, only a list (without dates) of the seven publications in which the essays originally appeared, it is left to the reader to guess as to the provenance of the pieces, but many of them appear to be book reviews — of biographies, memoirs or other books about the lives of mostly notable people. But his present publisher has tried to inflate them into studies in biography, which they simply are not.

That Epstein has allowed himself to be published by Axios is, in and of itself, not a little strange. Axios is the publishing wing of the Axios Institute, which gives every evidence of being a feel-good think tank or research institute, and which in its “Mission Statement” rattles on at modest length about “values” — “Values refers to objects, states of being, ideas, ways of thinking, or people that we value or do not value and related beliefs, assumptions or attitudes about what is valuable or not valuable” — in ways that strike me as almost diametrically opposite to the skeptical, sardonic view that Epstein is inclined to take toward human self-improvement schemes. Indeed, Axios has recently published “Desires, Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough,” by Mortimer J. Adler, the late pop philosopher and “Great Books” propagandist whom Epstein kissed off in a memorable obituary for the Weekly Standard as “The Great Bookie.” Now, under the aegis of Axios, the two are bedfellows, albeit mighty strange ones.

Oh well, these are tough times for books and the people who write them, so any port in a storm. I do hope, though, that Epstein is privately embarrassed by the over-hyped jacket copy with which his new book is festooned: “Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably, it is Joseph Epstein. Epstein is penetrating. He is witty. He has a magic touch with words, that hard-to-define but immediately recognizable quality called style. Above all, he is impossible to put down. . . . How easy it is, in today’s digital age, drowning in e-mails and other ephemera, to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose!” So be sure to have no purpose in mind when you sit down with “Essays in Biography.”

Internal evidence suggests that what seems to be the earliest of these pieces, about Henry Luce, was originally published in the late 1960s. The essay is fine as far as it goes in discussing the journalistic empire that brought forth Time, Fortune, Life, Sports Illustrated, People and other contributions to the general weal, but those magazines have changed enormously (or, in the case of Life, simply died except for occasional special issues) since Epstein’s piece first appeared, and no effort has been made to bring the essay up to date and take those changes into consideration. I am old enough to remember all too well Time in the glory years about which Epstein writes, and even to have done a number of book reviews for Sports Illustrated during the 1970s, but younger readers will be more puzzled than enlightened by the well-aimed darts that Epstein sticks into Time’s ghastly prose style and Luce’s preoccupation with what he liked to call “the American Century.”

Epstein serves the reader (and himself) far better when he turns to subjects that have more staying power than does a journalist-editor-publisher who, no matter how famous and powerful during his lifetime, is now almost completely forgotten. Epstein’s remarkable capacity to fetch from his memory the exactly appropriate quotation is on view, for example, in a piece about Henry James and Henry Adams, contemporaries who had to acknowledge each other’s existence but fundamentally did not like each other. Adams’s wife, Clover, Epstein reminds us, “said of Henry James that, as a novelist, he ‘chews more than he bites off,’ ” which is literary sniping at its most deliciously malicious, while James “said of the Adamses that they preferred Washington to London because ‘they are, vulgarly speaking, “someone” here and . . . they are nothing’ in England.” In a piece about George Santayana (who is probably now forgotten outside university philosophy departments), Epstein lays low almost an entire breed:

“What is it about the study of philosophy that tends to make brilliant minds stupid when it comes down to what are known as actual cases? Consider Martin Heidegger, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the four great names in twentieth-century philosophy: the first was a Nazi, the second died certain that America was responsible for all the world’s evil, the third was a Stalinist long after any justification for being so could be adduced, and the fourth lived on the borders of madness most of his life. Contemplation of the lives of the philosophers is enough to drive one to the study of sociology.”

Epstein goes in a similar direction when writing about Irving Howe, who as a young man wrote that World War II was “between two great imperialist camps,” a truly preposterous view that reminds Epstein “of George Orwell’s famous crack that there are certain things one has to be an intellectual to believe, since no ordinary man could be so stupid.” He takes the phenomenally overrated Susan Sontag to the woodshed, correctly pointing out that “all her political views were left-wing commonplace, noteworthy only because of her extreme statement of them.” As this indicates, Epstein takes a dim view of leftist ideological orthodoxy, as well he should, but it would be interesting to hear him on the subject of the rightist ideological orthodoxy that is now playing havoc with the American political system. His own conservatism appears to be rooted in conviction and experience rather than self-interested anger, and indeed he is capable of generosity toward some on the other side of the divide whom the tea party doubtless would revile:

“A special feeling continues to surround [Adlai] Stevenson’s name even after his death. His claim to be remembered as more than a period politician surely rests on the striking effect he has had on a large segment of the American electorate. Stevenson is inextricably tied up with the aspirations of a great many Americans for a better world in which America will have an honorable place — and rightly so, for these were also Adlai Stevenson’s aspirations. He was a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity. Yet these same qualities, because unalloyed with any strong political vision or original political program, finally ended in crippling him.”

All of which is true, as is Epstein’s considerably less-generous judgment of another gentleman of the left, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., whose posthumously published journals give painful evidence of his “infatuation — adoration is a more precise word” — with the Kennedy family: “First Jack, then Bobby, ultimately the entire clan — Schlesinger seems never to have met a Kennedy he did not adore. The result, as even he seems vaguely to grasp, would be the ruin of his reputation as a serious historian.”

Apart from politicians, Epstein has admiring things to say about some of his fellow writers, perhaps most notably in an acutely perceptive essay about Ralph Ellison, and rather less admiring things about others, among them Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal. He has a keen nose for anti-Semitism and brings it to light whenever he finds it, at times to the detriment of otherwise admirable people. It does not seem to me that he is consistently at the top of his form in this collection, as some of these pieces are rather perfunctory and some are dated, but it gives pleasure all the same.

yardleyj@washpost.com

ESSAYS IN BIOGRAPHY By Joseph Epstein Axios. 603 pp. $24

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