Joseph Epstein, who has always prided himself on being an ordinary man with a real life -- a down-to-earth, close-to-the-people kind of writer -- was in a Chicago butcher shop one day, discussing sports. "So, whaddya think of the Bears?" his interlocutor queried over the counter. "Well," he said,"I must say . . ." And then he stopped. I must say? Hardly the sort of preamble a guy should use in a butcher shop, with another guy, talking football. "It struck me then," says Epstein gloomily, "how far afield I'd gone. How remote and formal. Where did my street smarts go?"

Epstein, one of the best American practitioners of the essay, has come a long way indeed. Even though he is a professor at Northwestern, living scant miles from the Chicago neighborhood where he first saw light in 1937, he is worlds away from the kind of boy he was, growing up.

His father was a jewelry salesman -- "junk jewelry," he says, "although the nicer word is `costume' " -- who never finished high school; his mother was a homemaker. They had no interest in books. What was prized was street savvy, athletic prowess, being wickedly good with girls, making witty repartee. "I was successful in all those things except the girls part." As far as talk: "I loved linguistic precision, no matter the level," he says. "What is prust?" Epstein remembers asking his mother about the Yiddish word. "It means unlettered boor," she answered. "Unlettered boor!" he says. "Imagine the native gift that woman had."

There was a question about whether Epstein should go to college. He was in the lower quartile of his high school class. "I didn't have all the positive stereotypes of a Jewish upbringing. No music. No literature." But he applied to the University of Illinois anyway, and when he got in, his curiosity was piqued. He read Harold Robbins's A Stone for Danny Fisher and Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door. Full of ambition, he transferred to the more intellectual halls of the University of Chicago and then felt his spirits sink. "The professor was quoting from Fleurs du Mal, and the girl next to me began to chant along with him. My God! I thought to myself. She had Baudelaire. She had French. And she had it by heart. How could I compete?"

Epstein spent long years in the library catching up. By the time he graduated, he knew he wanted a life in academics. He served two years in the army, but used the time to gain "an enlarged sense of America," which he wrote about for the New Leader. Upon his release, the magazine made him an editor. He wrote for Harper's, the New Republic, and subsequently was hired by the Encyclopedia Britannica. He edited manuscripts for Quadrangle Books in New York, and then, in 1974, was offered a job at Northwestern, where he has been teaching since. Epstein is the author of numerous books of essays and criticism, the most recent among them Narcissus Leaves the Pool. For a quarter century, he edited the American Scholar.

But what of that epiphany at the butcher shop? The business about losing his common touch? "I'm writing a book about snobbery," he says. "Where does that need come from -- to prove we're better than the other guy, to get a leg up?"

It sounds like just the subject for a street-smart intellectual. (I must say.)