Essays in Biography

By Joseph Epstein
Hardcover: $24.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-068-7

“Erudite . . . eloquent . . . opinionated . . . edifying and often very entertaining.”

Publishers Weekly (July 2012)

“The acclaimed essayist . . . presents a provocative collection of essays that [is] . . . guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.”

Kirkus Reviews (July 2012)


Who invented the personal essay? That is hard to say. The ancient Roman philosopher and cynical power broker, Seneca? The 16th century French philosopher Montaigne certainly brought it to a peak of perfection. There were many 19th century masters, not so many after that.

Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? That requires no debate at all. It is unquestionably Joseph Epstein. He is not only the best living essayist; he is right up there in the company of Seneca and Montaigne, but one of our own, living in our era and dealing with our pleasures and travails.

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.

Epstein reads omnivorously and brings us the best of what he reads, passages that we would never have found on our own. How easy it is today, in the digital age, drowning in emails and other ephemera, to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Like any master essayist, however, this one brings us more than the shared experience of a lifetime of reading. He brings us himself, alternately scolding and charming, sparkling and deep, buoyant and sad, zany and wise, rebellious and conservative, bookworm and sports fan, clever and everyman, debunker and preservationist, deep into high culture, deep into low culture, curious, fresh, and settled in his ways. This is the friend we all wish we could have, the ideal, humane companion who is completely comfortable in his own human skin.

Each of the 40 different pieces in Essays in Biography describes a person, figures ranging from Saul Bellow, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Isaiah Berlin, to George Washington and Adlai Stevenson, to Joe DiMaggio and Alfred Kinsey. After reading Epstein we see these figures with fresh eyes and we also see ourselves a little more clearly too. 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.

Jack Goodstein, (July 14, 2013):

“More often than not I find myself both thoroughly annoyed with what Joseph Epstein is saying and happily amused by the way he is saying it. Essays in Biography, his latest collection, is no exception. A staunch card carrying conservative, he seems to specialize in melting the clay feet of any liberal, political or cultural, who comes within range of the blow torch of his wit. At times his attacks seem little more than mean spirited gossip. But then, what is as delicious as a spicy dish of mean spirit, especially when well-seasoned with wit and erudition?”

[Complete Review:]

Robert Fulford, National Post (February 5, 2013):

“Epstein writes suave, free-wheeling, charged essays.”

[Complete Review: National Post PDF]

Michael Johnson, Open Letters Monthly – An Arts and Literature Review (February 2013):

Essays in Biography reflects . . . [Epstein’s] kaleidoscopic range and iconoclastic views on thinkers, novelists, poets, and the occasional academic intellectual.”

[Complete Review:]

World Magazine (February 9, 2013):

“Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography includes 40 wonderfully written looks at leaders (and followers) ranging from George Washington, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Jordan to Alfred Kinsey, Susan Sontag, and Isaac Rosenfeld.”

Choice (February 1, 2013):

“[He] brings to biography a genius of discernment.”

[Complete Review PDF]

2012: The Year in Books

Reason writers pick the best books of the year

Brian Doherty, Senior Editor, Reason (December 18,2012):

“[Joseph Epstein is] one of the few living writers whose every book I try to read promptly. He is never—really never—less than a pure thoughtful joy. . . .”

[Complete Review:]

Christopher Flannery, Claremont Review of Books (Fall 2012):

“[Joseph Epstein’s] personal mission statement, apparently, is to instruct and delight. . . . This is a book you can pick up and skip around in with pleasure and profit.”

Edward Alexander, Chicago Jewish Star (Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2012):

“Joseph Epstein is a prolific master of several genres, in all of which he is widely read with pleasure, profit, and admiration. [He has] a place among the great essayists.”

[Complete Review PDF]

Washington Times (November 2, 2012):

“Joseph Epstein[‘s] . . . style and wit make his subjects come alive. . . . [He is] the dean of contemporary essayists.”

[Complete Review:]

The Boston Globe (October 27, 2012):

“This . . . collection of biographical essays . . . [is] unabashedly personal, and flavored throughout by a wit that never stays in the background for long. [What Epstein calls a] ‘heightened sense of life’s possibilities’ is . . . what a reader may take away.”

[Complete Review:]

The Weekly Standard (October 15, 2012):

“Epstein is a gifted storyteller, a discerning critic, and a peerless stylist. . . . It’s fair to say that a variety of over-used adjectives—witty, urbane, intelligent—are in this case quite appropriate.”

[Complete Review PDF]

Carl Rollyson, the Wall Street Journal (October 6, 2012):

“Mr. Epstein’s essays are brilliant distillations . . . [which] bring to biography a genius of discernment.”

[Complete Review:]

Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post (October 21, 2012):

Essays in Biography . . . is smart, witty and a pleasure to read.”

[Complete Review:]

Midwest Book Review (October 2012):

“Insightful and scholarly . . . Essays in Biography is a fine addition to any essay or biography collection, very much recommended.”

[Complete Review:]

Publishers Weekly (July 2012):

“Epstein (former editor of American Scholar and author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit) brings an erudite gift for portraiture to the subjects of this volume’s 40 essays. Focused primarily on figures from the 19th and 20th centuries (with occasional excursions into Greek antiquity and colonial America), Epstein offers eloquent assessments of philosophers, politicians, athletes, composers, social scientists, movie stars, and especially writers and critics. He is particularly drawn to figures whose renown is at odds with their personal and professional shortcomings—hence, his evaluation of Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man, as a writer whose inability to complete his second novel for the next 42 years suggests that “perhaps it is not a good idea to write a great book the first time out.” His studies of Dwight Macdonald, Gore Vidal, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Kristol create a lively, multifaceted portrait of America’s postwar intelligentsia. Though not uncritical, Epstein is more adulatory of celebrities, among them George Gershwin (“a genius of the natural kind”), Irving Thalberg (“the most talented producer in the history of American movies”), and Michael Jordan (“this magnificent athlete who turned his sport into art”). Opinionated and sometimes personal (notably in his piece on Saul Bellow, who fell out with him), these essays are edifying and often very entertaining.”

Kirkus Reviews (July 2012):

“The acclaimed essayist and former editor of the American Scholar presents a provocative collection of essays that illustrate the ways a writer can employ biographical detail.

Epstein (English/Northwestern Univ.; Gossip, 2011, etc.) has assembled a motley crew of characters—from Henry Adams to Xenophon, Michael Jordan to Gore Vidal. The author has a capacious mind, a wide range of interests, political biases (he labels himself a conservative) and a vast storehouse of knowledge about literary history—all of which animate and inform his pieces. (A complaint: There is neither preface nor foreword—no evidence, other than internal, of the date and audience for the pieces.) Epstein begins with a tribute to George Washington, concluding that it was his “moral character” that set him apart—a trait apparently unsullied by his slave-holding? There is little doubt about the author’s conservative preferences; when he writes about literature, he can become downright nasty and laugh-out-loud entertaining. He bites Saul Bellow (“a literary Bluebeard”) substantially in a full essay then returns in other pieces for additional nips. He blasts Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison, admires Bernard Malamud, eviscerates Dwight Macdonald and sucker punches both Mailer (calling “The White Negro” a “wretched essay”) and Vidal, whose essays he calls “dull hamburger.” His assessments of critics Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Irving Kristol range from measured to admiring. Epstein reserves some of his most potent firepower for Susan Sontag (her films, he writes, are surely playing in hell) but loves the work of Max Beerbohm and George Eliot. Writing of the latter, he notes how she had a sympathy for Jews that is lacking in many other major writers. He ends with a moving account of his friendship with a man in a nursing home.

Articulate, funny, informed and bitchy—guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.”

Praise for the Essays of Joseph Epstein

“The modern essay has regained a good deal of its literary status in our time, much to the credit of Joseph Epstein.”

Karl Shapiro

“Joseph Epstein is an essayist in the brilliant tradition of Charles Lamb. He moves so effortlessly from the amusingly personal to the broadly philosophical that it takes a moment before you realize how far out into the intellectual cosmos you have been taken. He is also mercilessly free of the petty intellectual etiquettes common at this moment in our national letters. It is refreshing to hear so independent a voice.”

Tom Wolfe

“If Epstein’s ultimate ancestor is Montaigne, his more immediate master is Mencken. Like Mencken, he has fashioned a style that successfully combines elegance and even bookishness with street-smart colloquial directness. And there is nothing remote or aloof about him.”

John Gross

“Joseph Epstein’s essays no more need his identifying byline than Van Gogh’s paintings need his signature. Epstein’s style—call it learned whimsy—is unmistakable; for Epstein addicts, indispensable.”

George Will

“Epstein’s work is well in the Addisonian line of succession that Cyril Connolly saw petering out in Punch and the professional humorists . . . Epstein is a great deal more sophisticated than they were, and a great deal more readable. His subjects are tossed up, turned round, stuck with quotations, abandoned and returned to, playfully, inverted, and finally set back on their feet, as is the reader, a little breathless but quite unharmed. But is essentially a merry-go-round, not a view to the death.”

—Philip Larkin


George Washington

Henry Adams and Henry James

George Santayana

Adlai Stevenson

Henry Luce

Ralph Ellison

Isaac Rosenfeld

Saul Bellow

Bernard Malamud

Dwight Macdonald

Gore Vidal

Irving Howe

Alfred Kazin

Irving Kristol

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

A. J. Liebling

John Frederick Nims

Susan Sontag


Max Beerbohm

George Eliot

Maurice Bowra.

T. S. Eliot

Cyril Connolly

Isaiah Berlin

Hugh Trevor-Roper

John Gross

Popular Culture

Alfred Kinsey

Charles Van Doren

W. C. Fields

Irving Thalberg

George Gershwin

Joe DiMaggio

Michael Jordan

James Wolcott

Malcolm Gladwell

And Others

Erich Heller

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux


Matthew Shanahan


From George Washington: An Amateur’s View

In The American Commonwealth, his book of 1888, Lord Bryce, considering American political institutions, provides an early chapter titled “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.” Most Americans, without needing to hear the argument, are likely to agree with the chapter’s premises. The planetarkhis, the modern Greek word for ruler of the planet, the President of the United States may well be, but we can all be assured that, whoever he is, nowadays he is almost certainly likely to be a mediocrity. “Besides,” Bryce wrote, “the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity. He has a lower conception of the qualities requisite to make a statesman than those who direct public opinion in Europe have. He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and, above all, what he calls ‘magnetic,’ and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wide knowledge.” Mr. Ford, Mr. Carter, Mr. Reagan, Messrs. Bush, Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Obama—take a bow, please.

Bryce goes on to discuss the other factors inhibiting, if not absolutely excluding, the possibility of a great man becoming President of the United States: the preference for a safe over a brilliant man, the nature of American party politics, the distinct difference between a successful candidate and a successful leader, the humdrum and ceremonial nature of much of the job. “We may now answer the question from which we started,” Bryce writes. “Great men have not often been chosen presidents, first because great men are rare in politics; secondly, because the method of choice does not bring them to the top; thirdly, because they are not, in quiet times, absolutely needed.”

Happy with our mediocrity though we Americans may be, it is also more than a mite interesting to note that Lord Bryce felt that the presidency of the United States was nearly designed with George Washington in mind. “The creation of the office,” Bryce averred, “would seem [to the members of the Second Continental Convention meeting in Philadelphia in 1783] justified by the existence of a person exactly fitted to fill it, one whose established influence and ripe judgment would repair the faults then supposed to be characteristic of democracy, its impulsiveness, its want of respect for authority, its incapacity for pursuing a consistent line of action.” Washington, in this description, was not only the perfect man for the job, but the man after whom the job itself ought to be tailored.

Remarkable though George Washington was in so many ways, the ways of remarking upon both him and his extraordinary qualities are not easy. People have tried, for more than two centuries now, and with vastly uneven results. Was he an authentically great man, or instead merely the right man for his time? Was he a great military leader, or instead, General Kutuzov-like, a man whose genius lay in his sensing when not to fight? Had he a vision for his country, or for that matter anything resembling a coherent political philosophy? Was he, in the judgment rendered him by history, a fluke, a very lucky man, or was the newly fledged United States lucky beyond its wildest reckoning in having a man of George Washington’s caliber to call upon in the crucial years of its revolution and the forming of its unique republican democracy?

I hope no one thinks that I pose these questions with confident answers already in mind, for seeing Washington plain is a project at which even the best minds, of his time and ours, have strained themselves to do. Consider one of the subtlest of those minds, that of Thomas Jefferson, who served as his Secretary of State. In a letter of 1814—written nearly fifteen years after Washington’s death—to a Dr. Walter Jones, who was then preparing a history of the young republic, Jefferson claimed to know Washington “intimately and thoroughly,” and provided the following delineation of his character.

From Max Beerbohm: The World’s Greatest Minor Writer

Lovers—no lesser word will do—of the prose, caricatures, and mind of Max Beerbohm constitute a cult. Membership in the cult requires a strong penchant for irony, a skeptical turn of mind, and a sharp taste for comic incongruity. Like all impressive cults, the Beerbohm cult is small, very small, and always in danger of guttering out—but never, I’m happy to report, quite doing so.

When Max Beerbohm died, in his eighty-fourth year, he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, along with a very select company of roughly three hundred other English heroes of war, politics, and culture. His family’s house in Kensington, at 57 Palace Gardens Terrace, has long borne one of those periwinkle blue plaques noting that an important figure had resided there. In his lifetime, he was knighted, praised by everyone whose praise mattered (T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, Edmund Wilson, and W. H. Auden, among others, weighed in), and was widely respected if not revered by people of literary sensibility.

Still, he was always what Arnold Bennett called a “small-public” writer. Beerbohm, even when alive, thought he had a readership of no more than fifteen hundred in England and another thousand in America. He had no delusions about the breadth of his appeal. His “gifts were small,” he felt, and he told his first biographer, a man named Bohun Lynch, that he “used them very well and discreetly, never straining them; and the result is that I’ve made a charming little reputation.”

But reputations for charm do not usually long survive the lives of those who exhibit them, however well and discreetly. Something more than charm has kept the small if scarcely gem-like Beerbohmian flame alive. I am myself, as you will perhaps by now have gathered, a member of the Beerbohm cult. Ten or so feet behind my back, three of his caricatures (of Byron, Matthew Arnold, and Dante) hang above a bookcase. A picture of Max Beerbohm is on a wall roughly six feet from where I am now writing about him. The photograph shows an elderly man—born in 1872, he lived until 1956—sitting on a cane chair on the terrace of his small villa in Rapallo. Ever the dandy, he is wearing a boater at a jaunty angle, a light-colored and slightly rumpled suit, a white waistcoat, and dark tie with a collar pin. His left leg is crossed over his right. His head and hands seem rather large for his body. His hooded eyes peer out of deep sockets, his thick white mustache does not droop. His countenance, slightly dour like that of so many great comedians, is that of a man on whom, right up to the end of life, not much has been lost.

I first began reading Max Beerbohm the year before his death. Of all the comic reputations of that day—S. J. Perelman, James Thurber, Frank Sullivan—his is the only one, nearly fifty years later, whose comedy holds up for me. The combination of common sense and whimsy that were his special literary blend continues to work its magic. All is presented in a calm and unfaltering style of what I think of as formal intimacy; if he ever wrote a flawed sentence, I have not come across it. “To be outmoded is to be a classic,” he once said of himself, “if one has written well.” His economy of formulation touched on genius. Asked by the playwright S. N. Behrman what he thought of Freudianism, he replied: “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” Ten perfectly aimed words and—poof!—a large and highly fallacious school of thought crumples to dust.

From Michael Jordan: He Flew through the Air

“Forget it. It’ll be close at the end, and then with about twenty seconds left, Michael will have the ball and he’ll keep his eye on the clock, and then with a few seconds left he’ll go for a jumper and hit it. The Bulls will win, and the legend will live. It’s who he is and it’s what he does.”

—Chuck Daly, NBA coach

When I was thirteen, my father allowed me to put up a wooden backboard and basket in our backyard in Chicago. The yard was small, mostly grass, the only concrete being a narrow sidewalk leading to the alleyway. I used that basket in all seasons, including insultingly cold Chicago winters when I would daily shoot a hundred free throws with my gloves on. At other times, I would play fantasy games. Since I have always been of the realist school, in personal life as in literature, I would limit my scoring to somewhere between 24 and 33 points a game, usually winning for my team by popping in two free throws after the clock had run out. Not in my sweetest fantasies could I ever imagine myself doing what Michael Jordan, the retired star of the Chicago Bulls, would do in actuality some 40 years later. If I was a realist even when grounded in fantasy, he, Michael Jordan, was a magic realist, soaring in life.

In Playing for Keeps, his book about Michael Jordan, David Halberstam uses the phrase “Jordanologist” to describe close students of the great player, marketing phenomenon, and international celebrity. Only now do I realize that, since 1984, when he left the University of North Carolina after his junior year to play with the Bulls, Jordanology has been, as the professors say, my subspecialty. Over this period of time I must have seen Michael—as we in Chicago refer to him—play perhaps a thousand games; even though I watched most of them on television, I feel that I know his facial expressions, his moods, his verbal responses at least as well as I do those of most members of my own family. When I acquired cable TV, I did so not chiefly but exclusively in order to see more of Michael before he closed out his career. The prospect of seeing him at night could lift my spirits during the day; actually watching him play—even through the cool medium of the screen—brought me the kind of ephemeral but never-to-be-gainsaid pleasure of a fine meal or a lightish aesthetic experience.

Maybe not so lightish as all that. Having had the chance to observe so much of Michael Jordan in performance may be the equivalent, in sports, of having had tickets to the early years of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. If this reference to Balanchine seems too elevated, the law of carefully measured accolades has long ago run out on Michael Jordan. By now he has been compared with nearly every genius the world has produced, with the possible exceptions of Goethe and Proust. In many quarters, he has become the standard by which genius in other fields is measured. “Frank Galati,” I heard a former president of Northwestern University say about a theatrical director who happens to teach there, “is the Michael Jordan of the contemporary theater.”

When Michael retired, Jerry Sloan, coach of the Utah Jazz, whom the Bulls twice defeated in the NBA finals on their way to winning six championships in eight years, said that he should be remembered “as the greatest player who ever played the game.” Sidney Green, a journeyman player and briefly a teammate, asserted that Jordan “was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.” Jayson Williams, the power forward for the New Jersey Nets, called him “Jesus in Nikes.” Bobby Knight, the coach of Indiana University, once remarked that we would not see his equal in our lifetimes and neither would our children or our grandchildren in theirs. Later he pushed things up a notch by stating that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time, not just of basketball but of any sport. My own view is that in Michael we had the reincarnation of Achilles, but without the sulking and without the heel.

Also by Joseph Epstein

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)


For Immediate Release

September 19, 2012

Essays in Biography by Joseph Epstein—New Book from Axios Press
A Collection of 40 Essays Written by the Greatest Living Essayist Writing in English
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.

The latest volume of Epstein’s work is called Essays in Biography. Each of the forty different pieces describes a different individual: some of them writers and thinkers such as Saul Bellow, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or Isaiah Berlin; some of them historical figures such as George Washington or Adlai Stevenson; some of them popular culture figures such as Joe DiMaggio or Alfred Kinsey.

After reading Epstein we see these figures with fresh eyes—and we also see ourselves a little more clearly too. 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.

“The acclaimed essayist . . . presents a provocative collection of essays that [are] . . . guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.”
—Kirkus Reviews

For more about the book go to:
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-three books, many of them collections of essays. His books include the bestselling Snobbery and Friendship, as well as the short story collections Fabulous Small Jews and The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff.

Media Contact
Jody Banks
Axios Press
[email protected]

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