A Literary Education and Other Essays

By Joseph Epstein
Hardcover: $24.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-078-6

“Epstein follows up Essays in Biography (2012) with another collection of provocative and beguiling thought pieces. The range of his curiosity is exhilarating.”

Publishers Weekly (March 31, 2014)

Summary

Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Joseph Epstein would surely be at the top of anybody’s list. 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.

Joseph Epstein’s A Literary Education and Other Essays is the second volume of essays from Axios Press following the much acclaimed Essays in Biography, 2012. It contains thirty-eight essays describing a diverse range of subjects. In the new Introduction, Epstein comments that A Literary Education “is not united by the biographical or any other theme but instead covers the range of my interests and preoccupations as an essayist over a writing career that spans more than fifty years: education, language, the arts, magazines, intellectuals, the culture.”

After reading Epstein, we see all these topics and people with a fresh eye. We also see ourselves a little more clearly. This is what Plutarch intended: life teaching by example, but with a wry smile and such a sure hand that we hardly notice the instruction. It is just pure pleasure.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein was formerly editor of the American Scholar. A long-time resident of Chicago, he has taught English and writing at Northwestern University for many years. He has written for numerous magazines including the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Commentary.

He is the author of twenty-four books, many of them collections of essays. His books include the bestselling Snobbery and Friendship as well as the short-story collections The Goldin Boys, Fabulous Small Jews, and The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff.

David George Moore on Amazon.com (April 18, 2015):

“You learn a lot about writing by reading great writers. . . . I’ve been reading Epstein’s essays for several years. Epstein’s writing is always marked by deep insight, wonderful wordsmithing, and a delightful (even devious) sense of humor.”

George Core, The Sewanee Review (Fall 2014):

An Honest and Perspicacious Writer

“No one, as has been said countless times, is as good an essayist as Mr. Epstein, which is to say as original, witty, amusing, learned and engaging. He seems able to write well on virtually anything . . .”

Jeff Minick, Smoky Mountain News (October 29, 2014):

“What adds luster to Epstein’s style and thought are the wide range of topics addressed in A Literary Education. He delivers opinions on the health of the United States . . . , takes an affectionate look at the world of comedians . . . , revisits the Jewish delis of his youth . . . , and critiques our obsession with raising children.”

[Complete review: SmokyMountainNews.com]

Suzanne Fields, the Washington Times (August 13, 2014):

“[This is a] wonderful book of summer reading that’s [also] . . . good for the cold, gray days ahead. . . . Epstein . . . describes the kinds of ideas he wanted his students to take away. . . , ‘from Charles Dickens, the importance of friendship, loyalty and kindness in a hard world; from Joseph Conrad, the central place of fulfilling one’s duty in a life dominated by spiritual solitude; from Willa Cather, the dignity that patient suffering and resignation can bring; from Tolstoy, the divinity that the most ordinary moments can provide—kissing a child in her bed good night, working in a field, greeting a son returned home from war.’ [ Epstein’s] a man of his time and above his time. . . .”

[Complete review: WashingtonTimes.com]

John S. Sledge, Virginia Quarterly Review (August 4, 2014):

A Master Essayist Releases a New Collection

“[Joseph Epstein’s] prose is fluid, funny, and always worth attending.”

[Complete review: VQRonline.org]

Christopher Buckley in Stamford Magazine (July/August 2014):

On His Nightstand . . . In His Words:

“Joseph Epstein’s new collection of essays, A Literary Education. He simply cannot be topped as an essayist.”

Sven Birkerts, Los Angeles Review of Books (July 14, 2014):

“Epstein is an essayist of the old school—learned, productive, and available to many occasions. A man gifted with a wit both cutting and self-deprecating, and an easy command of the many syntactic variations of the periodic sentence, he also has a fearless willingness to assert a view—and this, as any reader of the essay knows, is the drive wheel of the whole business, never mind if that view is widely shared or unpopular.”

[Complete review: LAReviewofBooks.org]

Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly (June 29, 2014):

“Marvelously lively intellectual company, by turns flinty and opinionated (as when he writes of the 1990s New York Review of Books “[It] has become the representative intellectual journal of our age, with the important qualification that it has not been a great age, and that the New York Review of Books has done more than its share to diminish it”) and warm and inclusive, as in his wonderful and insightful piece on Jewish jokes. . . .”

[Complete review: OpenLettersMonthly.com]

Danny Heitman, the Wall Street Journal (June 17, 2014):

“. . . Maybe its time for a ‘Joseph Epstein Reader’ that would assemble the best work from his previous books for old and new fans alike. In the meantime, A Literary Education inspires hope that Mr. Epstein’s good run [referring to the author’s 24 books] isn’t over just yet.”

[Complete review: WSJ.com]

John Podhoretz, Commentary (June 2014):

“Epstein’s . . . A Literary Education and Other Essays . . . . is his 24th book. This volume confirms that Epstein is not only the greatest living American literary critic, but also the country’s foremost general essayist. He is, almost singlehandedly, holding aloft the flame for what used to be the honorable calling of ‘the man of letters.’”

Larry Thornberry, the American Spectator (June 2014):

“Joseph Epstein turns out the best essays—of the literary or familiar kind—of any writer on active duty today. . . . Those who’ve reviewed Epstein’s work over the years . . . praise his humor, his erudition, his vast learning, and his elegance. . . . Epstein’s writing, like most French desserts, is very rich stuff.”

[Complete review: Spectator.org]

William Giraldi, the New Criterion (May 2014):

“. . . [Epstein] writes sentences you want to remember. . . . His essays are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres. . . . [They] have personality and style, yes, but they also have something to say, and that’s the pivotal distinction between Epstein and his bevy of imitators. . . . What’s more, his wit is unkillable. . . .”

[Complete review: EvidenceAnecdotal.blogspot.com]

[Complete review: NewCriterion.com]

Publishers Weekly (March 31, 2014):

“Epstein follows up Essays in Biography (2012) with another collection of provocative and beguiling thought pieces. The range of his curiosity is exhilarating.”

[Complete review: PublishersWeekly.com]

Kirkus Reviews (April 1, 2014):

“[In A Literary Education] prolific essayist, biographer, and novelist Epstein . . . delivers . . . lots of erudition . . . and . . . fun.”

[Complete review: KirkusReviews.com]

Peter Dabbene, ForeWord Reviews (June 2014):

“Erudite, penetrating, and decisive . . . Epstein’s delivery is filled with thorough analysis, delightful allusions, and outright laughs. . . . Despite his obvious sophistication and wide range of learning, . . . [this is] fair criticism. . . . [He] seems a humble man.”

[Complete review: ForewordReviews.com]

Patrick Kurp, The Laughing Skeptics (May 23, 2014):

“[Joseph Epstein is] a contemporary master.”

Introduction

Part One: A Literary Education

A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature (2008)

Part Two: Memoir

Coming of Age in Chicago (1969)

Memoirs of a Fraternity Man (1971)

My 1950s (1993)

A Virtucrat Remembers (1988)

A Toddlin’ Town (2009)

Old Age and Other Laughs (2012)

Part Three: The Culture

The Kindergarchy: Every Child a Dauphin (2008)

Prozac, with Knife (2000)

You May Be Beautiful, but You Gonna Die Some Day (2011)

Whose Country ’Tis of Thee? (2011)

Stand-Up Guys (2003)

You Could Die Laughing: Are Jewish Jokes a Humorous Subject? (2013)

Duh, Bor-ing (2011)

Nostalgie de le Boeuf (2010)

The Symphony of a Lifetime (2010)

Part Four: The Arts

What To Do About the Arts (1995)

Who Killed Poetry? (1988)

Culture and Capitalism (1993)

Educated by Novels (1989)

Part Five: Education

A Case of Academic Freedom (1986)

The Academic Zoo: Theory—in Practice (1991)

Lower Education (2011)

English As It’s Taught (2011)

The Death of the Liberal Arts (2012)

Part Six: Language

My Fair Language (2012)

Heavy Sentences (2011)

The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery (1997)

Part Seven: Magazines

New Leader Days: Can You Have a Political Magazine without Politics? (2006)

Commentary (2010)

The New York Review of Books (1993)

The TLS (2001)

There at the New Yorker (2011)

Part Eight: Intellectuals

Leo Lerman (2007)

Walter Cronkite (2012)

Paul Goodman in Retrospect (1978)

Saul Steinberg (2013)

Hilton Kramer (2012)

Original Publication Information for Essays in this Book

Index

From A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature

(2008)

Sydney Smith, the early-nineteenth-century clergyman, wit, and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, once remarked that, if the same progress as had been made in education were made in the culinary arts, we should today still be eating soup with our hands. Quite so. Sydney Smith’s simile holds up all too well in our time. New ideas and reforms continue to crop up in education—from the installation of the elective system more than a century ago at Harvard to the advent of digital technology throughout the educational system in recent years—each, in its turn and time, heralding fresh new revolutions in learning. One after another, these revolutions fizzle, then go down in flames, leaving their heralds all looking like some variation of what Wallace Stevens called “lunatics of one idea.”

Meanwhile, things continue to slide: standards slip, curricula are politicized and watered down, and, despite all the emphasis on schooling at every level of society, the dance of education remains locked into the dreary choreography of one step forward, two steps back. Education remains education, which is to say a fairly private affair. No matter how much more widespread so-called higher education has become, only a small—one is inclined to say an infinitesimal—minority seems capable of taking serious advantage of it, at any rate during the standard years of schooling.

Let me quickly insert that, when young, I was not myself among this minority. As a student in the middle 1950s, I attended the University of Chicago. No teacher in whose class I sat has ever remembered me upon meeting in later years, and this for good reason: My plan during my student days was to remain as inconspicuous as possible; I was sedulous only in the attempt to hide my ignorance, which was genuine and substantial. But more than mere ignorance was entailed. I somehow could not bring my mind to concentrate—to “focus,” as we say today—for long on many of the matters at hand.

A teacher in command of all the standard academic locutions—those “if you wills” and “as it weres,” with a mirabile dictu and other Latin tags thrown in from time to time at no extra charge—might stand authoritatively at his lectern setting out eight reasons for the emergence of the Renaissance. As he did so, all I could think was what induced him to buy that hopeless necktie he was wearing, and might that be a soup stain prominently in the middle of it, and, if so, made by chicken noodle or minestrone? At examination time, I recalled only five of the eight reasons for the Renaissance, and wound up with a C, which did not stand for charming.

Classrooms can, of course, sometimes kill great subjects, and also splendid books. Recognizing this, Willa Cather insisted that her own books not be made available in school editions, for she feared that students, reading them too early and under the duress of formal education, would never return to them in later life when they were more likely to be truly ready for them. As delivered in conventional classrooms and lecture halls, education is not available to everyone, including sometimes quite bright, even dazzlingly brilliant, people. Henry James was never very good at school, and neither was Paul Valery; Marcel Proust performed mediocrely at the Lycee Condorcet. W. H. Auden failed to come away with a First at Oxford. Sainte-Beuve said of Pascal, who was an authentic genius, that “it was easier for him to make discoveries for himself than to study after the way of others.” Was there something wrong with these men, powerful artists and philosophers all, or something wrong with education, as it is usually construed and practiced?

I had a cousin named Sherwin Rosen, who, before his death at the age of sixty-three, was the chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Chicago, a department that for more than thirty years now has been dominant in its discipline. At his memorial, one of my cousin’s older colleagues, Gary Becker, a Nobel prizewinner, remarked that Sherwin came close to being washed out of the PhD program in economics at the University of Chicago. The reason, Gary Becker said, is that my cousin was slow in response to questions in seminar rooms. He didn’t have confident answers at the ready; his replies tended to be halting, faltering. But then a day or two, sometimes a week, later, Sherwin would return to the professor who had asked him the question and quietly reveal the defect in its formulation. “What this taught me,” Professor Becker said, “is that too much in formal education has to do with quick response, with coughing up information quickly, and not enough leeway is allowed for reflection and brooding in the thoughtful way that serious subjects require.”

I like this anecdote because it subverts normal notions of how education should work. After thirty years teaching in a university, I came to have a certain measured suspicion, sometimes edging onto contempt, for what I called (only to myself ) “the good student.” This good student always got the highest grades, because he approached all his classes with a single question in mind: “What does this teacher want?” And once the good student decides, he gives it to him—he delivers the goods. The good student is thus able to deliver very different goods to the feminist teacher at 9:00 am, to the Marxist teacher at 10:00 am, to the conservative teacher at 11:00 am, and just after lunch to the teacher who prides himself on being without any ideology or political tendency whatsoever.

From A Virtucrat Remembers

(1988)

Well, I hope you think a little better of the world.

We mustn’t make up our minds too early in life.

Henry James, The Princess Casamassima

Famous American corners, permit me to name a few: Hollywood and Vine, State and Madison, Broadway and 42nd Street, Haight and Ashbury. Shortly before beginning this essay, I happened to be in San Francisco, staying with someone who lives in the Haight-Ashbury district, and over a three-day visit walked past the corner of Haight and Ashbury and along the street and in the neighborhood known as “the Haight” perhaps twenty times. I never did so without a rich stew of emotion boiling within me. If San Francisco was the spiritual capital of that period in recent history we think of with chronological inexactitude as “the sixties,” then nearby Berkeley was its Finland Station and Haight-Ashbury its Red Square. To alter my trope rather abruptly, if the sixties were your idea of a good time, the Haight was Ciro’s, the Chez Paris, the Copacabana; it was, baby, where the good times rolled.

Although some small changes have been made on the Haight—a few new shops have gone in, a few head shops have gone out—and although rising real estate prices presage other changes in the near future, I found myself surprised how little the street seemed to change, how very “sixties” it all still appeared, at least outwardly. Block after block of shops sell handcrafted jewelry, gay and feminist books (such as the Anarchist Collective Bookstore), used clothing, berets, (putative) health food, aggressively uninteresting paintings—in short, as Zorba the Greek might say, the full catastrophe. The street’s denizens are got up in sixties regalia: beards, long hair, dreary denim, backpacks, bedrolls, bandanas. Walking past the corner of Haight and Ashbury, I noted a man of perhaps my own middle years, red-eyed and in an advanced stage of scragglitude, who plunked his guitar and intoned, “Oh, ya drop dead in the street and they give ya a ticket for littering.” A block or so farther on, I heard, behind me, one man say to another, “Whaddaya say we go up to Montana, get hold of some shit, and take it down to Mexico?”

On the Haight I felt like I was Rip Van Winkle in reverse—as if I fell asleep and awoke to find not that it was forty years later but twenty years earlier. Except of course it wasn’t, and there was ample evidence to prove that it wasn’t. The young, blond, longhaired, be-sandaled girls who seemed so much a part of the counterculture fantasy—a pipe of pot, a book of Howl, and thou—are now older, gray, still long-haired and be-sandaled women, looking much the worse for wear. The man who sang about dropping dead in the street, the chances are, may do just that. While many of these aging hippies sleep in Buena Vista Park, where they are not disturbed by San Francisco’s highly tolerant police, others drop off on stoops before pastel-painted houses or in doorways. When they wake in the cool San Francisco morning, they are not a charming sight; they are, instead, a reminder of the good sense of Santayana’s remark that “the state of nature presupposes a tropical climate.”

As I walked along the Haight, I, who am perhaps about as square as one can get on this earth, felt no hostility directed at me. Yet I felt a good deal of my own hostility directed toward them, these sad and aging hippies, who seemed to be standing around awaiting a bus into the past. I felt about them a sense of revulsion, and loathing, and above all depression—the latter, especially, when I would notice a young adolescent who looked to me as if he might be a runaway come to the Haight to live the countercultural dream. Looking into the drug-besotted eyes of these people who are now pushing middle age, I thought, my God, the squalor, the waste, the horror! And I also felt, what good luck that the counter-cultural dream progressed no further than it did! Passing a clutch of these people, men and women, on the very corner of Haight and Ashbury, I muttered to myself, “What you do with your own life is your own business, but I’m awfully glad that, in the battle of competing visions, yours lost.”

But did it? The pathetic creatures lingering on the Haight are but the lost remnant of a now dead movement, people who bought the whole package of inchoate philosophy, quarter-baked politics, and sappy transcendentalism that made up the intellectual content of the movement. And yet in diluted form much of the spirit of the sixties lives on; and in some quarters it seems not merely living on but very nearly prevailing, even if not in the preserved-in-amber form one finds it in on the Haight. I find this spirit alive and all too well in the universities, for example. Those professors now in their forties, and hence dominant as full professors, department chairmen, and deans, were all in their twenties in the late 1960s. Wherever they actually went to school, the true alma mater for most of them is the sixties, when they were graduate students. One sees the sixties influence not only in their dress and ubiquitous beards—theirs is surely the first generation of full professors to teach in jeans—but in their chumminess with students, their readiness to subvert tradition, their rush to align themselves with what they construe to be virtuous causes. The generation of the sixties was above all the generation of virtue. They set out to make America better. America, unfortunately or fortunately, was not as good as they and, in their view, still isn’t.

Tell me what you think of the sixties and I shall tell you what your politics are. Tell me that you think the period both good and bad, with much to be said for and against it, and you are, whether you know it or not, a liberal. Tell me that you think the sixties a banner time in American life, a period of unparalleled idealism, a splendid opportunity sadly missed, and you are doubtless a radical, sentimental or otherwise. Tell me that you think the sixties a time of horrendous dislocation, a disaster nearly averted, a damn near thing, but a thing nonetheless for which we are still paying and shall continue to pay, and I shall tell you . . . well, I am not sure what you are precisely, but your views, friend, are close to mine and I am pleased to meet you.

Also by Joseph Epstein

Essays in Biography (2012)

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (2011)

The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories (2010)

Fred Astaire (2008)

In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007)

Friendship: An Exposé (2006)

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006)

Fabulous Small Jews (2003)

Envy (2003)

Snobbery: The American Version (2002)

Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (1999)

Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1997)

With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (1995)

Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life (1993)

A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays (1991)

The Goldin Boys: Stories (1991)

Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1988)

Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (1987)

Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985)

Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (1983)

Ambition: The Secret Passion (1980)

Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979)

Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974)

AXIOS PRESS

For Immediate Release

May 19, 2014

A Literary Education and Other Essays by Joseph Epstein—New Book from Axios Press For Longtime Epstein Fans and New Readers

Just released, Joseph Epstein’s A Literary Education and Other Essays is the second volume of essays from Axios Press following the much acclaimed Essays in Biography, 2012. It contains thirty-eight essays describing a diverse range of subjects. In the new Introduction, Epstein comments that A Literary Education “is not united by the biographical or any other theme but instead covers the range of my interests and preoccupations as an essayist over a writing career that spans more than fifty years: education, language, the arts, magazines, intellectuals, the culture.”

From Publishers Weekly:

“Epstein follows up Essays in Biography (2012) with another collection of provocative and beguiling thought pieces. The range of his curiosity is exhilarating.”

From Kirkus Reviews:

“[In A Literary Education] prolific essayist, biographer, and novelist Epstein . . . delivers . . . lots of erudition . . . and . . . fun.”

From the New Criterion:

“. . . [Epstein] writes sentences you want to remember. . . . His essays are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres. . . . [They] have personality and style, yes, but they also have something to say, and that’s the pivotal distinction between Epstein and his bevy of imitators. . . . What’s more, his wit is unkillable. . . .”

About the Author: Joseph Epstein was formerly editor of the American Scholar. A long-time resident of Chicago, he has taught English and writing at Northwestern University for many years. He has written for numerous magazines including the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Commentary.

He is the author of twenty-four books, many of them collections of essays. His books include the bestselling Snobbery and Friendship as well as the short-story collections The Goldin Boys, Fabulous Small Jews, and The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff.

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