"VANITY IS NO DOUBT worth contemning, except that is partly allied with curiosity -- curiosity about that most continuously fascinating of subjects: oneself. Surely it is a superior cosmic joke that despite all our attempts at introspection, from astrology to psychoanalysis, none of us truly knows what he looks like." This serene, conversational style comes as an unexpected reprieve to readers of current American writing, bobbing insecurely between journalism's impenetrable rock of fact and fiction's whirlpool of aberrant fantasy. Embellished with the amenities of another era, Joseph Epstein's collection of columns from The American Scholar (which he edits) is a one-man revival of the familiar essay at its most genial and urbane.
Like others whose prose flourished in this pliable form, Epstein is a conglomerate man of letters -- critic, editor, university teacher and commentator on contemporary fads and follies. Like them he tackles homely rather than earthshaking subjects: food, exercise and language, not nuclear war or the welfare state. Daniel Defoe wrote about bankruptcy and sailors, Addison about travel books and E. B. White about racoons and humor. Familiar Territory ranges over matters as diverse and commonplace, but works them up to a modern moral climax. "Greetings and Salutations" considers the proper limits of intimacy in speech and correspondence, and "Sex and the Professors" unclothes academic ethics between faculty and students. In "Running and Other Vices," the smugness of joggers turns the author's fancy to the purveyors of running gear "who even now are running all the way to the bank."
Serious thoughts; but seldom heard here without an encouraging word of levity or a hilarious reminiscence. When a voice on the other end of the phone asks, "Is this Dr. Epstein?" he has to fight back the temptation to respond, "It is. My advice is to read two chapters of Flaubert and get right into bed." And musing on male sartorial fashions in "Dandies Askew," he remembers getting himself up in tan corduroy jacket, plaid shirt and black knitted tie, "a Czech poet in exile, perhaps, or a minor English novelist of exquisite sensibility," only to be asked by a young lady if he is a furrier. "A fur trapper I could have accepted, but a furrier?"
This writer's disposition is high-spirited but skeptical, combining the appealing eagerness of William Hazlitt for sharing his enthusiams with the savory crankiness of H. L. Mencken for conveying his dislikes. Though essentially good-humored, Epstein can't resist rising to the bait of affectation or banality with an apt bilious phrase. Walter Cronkite is impaled as "an instance of absolute fluency in the service of complete mindlessness, but then he has a face only a nation could love." Describing the current American addition to pyschotherapy. Epstein laments: "With the aid of therapeutic ideas and notions, we are able to cultivate our problems with a refinement perhaps unknown to any other nation in history. We have become connoisseurs of grievance -- one nation problematical, with anxiety and aggravation for all."
Most of these essays have to do with worldly things that affect our tastes, the palates of our minds, but they go on inevitably to an appraisal of our attitudes and the kind of people we are. We can't escape the continuity, as we read, between taste and intellect, aspects of our personalities that are often supposed to exist in separate enclaves. Though politics don't enter overtly, a strong whiff of cultural conservatism does, and sometimes a politial reverberation slips by wearing an esthetic cloak. Discussing Harrison Salisbury's Esquire article, "Travels Through America," Epstein observes how well suited Salisbury's sloppy phrases, borrowed from the vocabulary of youth ("we are trashing our people," "living their own life-style," "put it all together"), are to his facile instant anti-Americanism. "Such language is the verbal equivalent of denim, and is unseemly when worn by an older man."
But the essays are most appealing when their author is basking in a subject he relishes. Since he is unashamedly bookish -- he makes a love of books almost as stylish as a passion for sports -- it is no wonder that his essay called "The Opinionated Librarian" should be so infectious. It is an account of his spartan self-discipline in trimming his own library to fit the available bookshelves, and gives us not only the illusion that we too can master the masters, but that we have the courage to throw out our ancient New York Reviews and Commentaries . This essay is also a lively exercise in crotchety criticism, ("I would . . . trade four Mailers for a single nonfiction V. S. Pritchett any day of the week.") and the writer notes that personal taste is more important than critical judgement for the pleasure of reading.
"Am I alone in perferring, when the meal before me is magnificent, that the company not be too scintillating, but instead comfortable, even somewhat old shoe?" asks Epstein in his delectable piece on "Foodstuffs and Other Nonsense." Here he sifts the relation between food and companionship, food and sex, food and snobbery; suggests that now is the right time to hit the best-seller lists with a detective-story killer who disposes of his victims in a Cuisinart; and offers tidbits of recondite culinary information like the makings of a rare Virginia dish called "preserve of fowle," consisting of a dove inserted into a partridge into a guinea hen, and so on, "like a Chinese box." Familiar Territory is itself like a Chinese dinner -- with choice dim sum of speculation, a main dish of wholesome ingredients, and a sauce that is suave, intricate and inimitable, calculated to make you come back for more.