The Ideal of Culture: Essays

Joseph Epstein
Hardcover: $24.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-123-3

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 The Ideal of Culture: Essays is the fourth such volume from Axios Press and contains 63 essays. Subjects range from domestic life to current social trends to an appraisal of “contemporary nuttiness.” It follows the much acclaimed Essays in Biography, 2012, A Literary Education and Other Essays, 2014, and Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays, 2016.

After reading Epstein, we see life 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, the Weekly Standard and Commentary.

He is the author of 29 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.


Julia McMichael, Seattle Book Review:

“Masterful writing from Joseph Epstein. . . .”

[Complete review:]

Jonathan Leaf, Modern Age (Fall 2018):

“The release of a major collection of Joseph Epstein’s essays stands as something of an event in the world of belles-lettres. . . . Epstein . . . is not merely someone with a feeling for words. He has the breadth of knowledge, wide perspective, and the mix of shrewdness and prudence that a great commentator must.”

[Complete review:]

Danny Heitman, the Christian Science Monitor (May 8, 2018):

The Ideal of Culture . . . seems, in its insistence on essential verities in an age of great flux, just the right book for our historical moment. . . . As more than one Epstein fan has noted, he seems to have read everything . . . [with] effortless intelligence.”

[Complete review:]

Larry Thornberry, the American Spectator (May 7, 2018):

“Epstein’s work is . . . thoughtful and playful . . . a rarely found combination of . . . light, energy, and grace. . . . He parses . . . the delights, the irritations, and the many mysteries of life. . . . He’s neither right-wing nor left-wing, but the entire bird . . .  (one of the requirements of wisdom being the ability to distinguish a moral crusade from a racket.)”

[Complete Review:]

Kirkus Reviews (March 1, 2018):

Gone are the days,… [Epstein] writes, when “stability, solidity, gravity, a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life.” Although “in our egalitarian age,” cultural elitism is damned, Epstein happily champions “the best that has been thought and said.”

[Complete Review:]


Part One: The Culture

The Ideal of Culture (2017)

From Parent to Parenthood (2015)

Death Takes No Holiday (2014)

Wit (2015)

Genius (2013)

Cowardice (2015)

Old Age and Other Laughs (2012)

What’s So Funny? (2014)

The Fall of the WASPs (2013)

The Virtue of Victims (2015)

Cool (2017)

The Sixties (2017)

University of Chicago Days (2017)

Part Two: Literary

Eric Auerbach (2014)

Kafka (2013)

Orwell (1990)

Proust (2012)

K. Scott Moncrieff (2015)

The Young T. S. Eliot (2015)

Philip Larkin (2014)

Willa Cather (2013)

George Kennan (2014)

Isaiah Berlin (2016)

Michael Oakeshott (2015)

John O’Hara (2016)

Scott Fitzgerald, A Most Successful Failure (2017)

Wolcott Gibbs (2011)

Evelyn Waugh (2017)

F. Powers (2013)

Edward Gibbon (2015)

Herodotus (2014)

Tacitus (2016)

Encyclopaedia Britannica—The Eleventh (2016)

Grammar (2014)

Clichés (2015)

Literary Rivals (2015)

Why Read Biography? (2016)

Part Three: Jewish

Sholem Aleichem (2014)

Jokes: A Genre of Thought (2017)

Jews on the Loose (2016)

Jewish Pugs (2016)

Harry Golden (2015)

Gershom Scholem (2017)

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas (2015)

Part Four: Masterpieces

The Brothers Ashkenzai (2009)

Civilization of the Renaissance (2013)

Montesquieu (2016)

Machiavelli (2016)

Gogol (2013)

Speak, Memory (2014)

Epictetus (2016)

W. Fowler (2017)

As a Driven Leaf (2015)

Joseph and His Brothers (2012)

Life and Fate (2007)

Memoirs of Hadrian (2010)

Charnwood’s Lincoln (2014)

Book of the Courtier (2013)

Ronald Syme (2016)

Quest for Corvo (2009)

The Old Bunch (2012)

Life of Johnson (2015)

Part Five: Hitting Eighty

Hitting Eighty (2017)

Original Publication Information for Essays in this Book


From The Ideal of Culture (2017)

During my teaching days, along with courses on Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather, I taught an under­graduate course called Advanced Prose Style. What it was advanced over was never made clear, but each year the course was attended by 15 or so would-be—or, as we should say today, wannabe— novelists and poets. Usage, diction, syntax, rhythm, metaphor, irony were some of the subjects taken up in class. Around the sixth week of the eight-week term I passed out a list of 12 or so names and historical events—among them Sergei Diaghelev, Francis Poulenc, Mark Rothko, Alexander Herzen, the 1913 Armory Show, John Cage, the Spanish Civil War, George Balanchine, and Jean Cocteau—and asked how many of these items the students could identify.

The identification rate among my students was inevitably low, which did not much surprise me. I mentioned that, at their age (20 or 21), I should probably not have done much better, and then added:

But if as writers you intend to present yourself to the world as cultured persons, you have to know these names and events and scores of others, and what is important about them. This is not something that one gets up as if for an exam, or Googles and promptly forgets, but that must be understood in historical context—at least it must for those who seek to live a cultured life.

Oddly, no one ever asked what a cultured life was, and why it was worth pursuing. This may have been just as well for, though I believed I was myself by then leading (or earnestly attempting to lead) such a life, I’m not sure I could have answered either question. I’m going to attempt to do so now.

In 1952, the anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wrote a famous article, “Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions,” in which they specified no fewer than 164 definitions of culture. Culture can, of course, refer to whole civilizations, such as Western culture or Asian culture; it can refer to national, ethnic, or social-class cultures, such as Israeli culture or Irish Catholic culture, or working-class culture. In all these senses it refers to the overarching aspirations and assumptions that underlay the ways that different peoples and groups have of under­standing and dealing with the world.

Kroeber and Kluckhohn might today have to expand their number of definitions, for the so-called “culture” of corporations, professions, and athletic teams has become among the leading cant phrases of our time. Princeton University Press recently published a book with the title The Culture of Growth, and the movie star Gwyneth Paltrow not long ago noted that her civilized break with her husband contributed to “the cul­ture of divorce.”

What I mean by the ideal of culture is high culture, as set out by Mat­thew Arnold in his 1867 essay “Culture and Anarchy.” Arnold described this level of culture as “the best which has been thought and said,” but in our day it has been enlarged to include the best that has been com­posed and painted and sculpted and filmed. Arnold believed that high culture had its “origin in the love of perfection” and the “study of perfec­tion,” and thought it an idea that the new democracy under the indus­trial revolution developing in his day, needed “more than the idea of the blessedness of the franchise, or the wonderfulness of their own industrial performances.”

Behind Arnold’s notion of high culture was a program for the par­tial reform of human nature. Attaining the perfection of high culture, Arnold held, would bring about “an inward condition of the mind and spirit . . . at variance with the mechanical and material civilization in esteem with us.” Properly cultivated, this elevated culture would lead to “an expansion of human nature” and release us from our “inaptitude for seeing more than one side of a thing, with our intense energetic absorp­tion in the particular pursuit we happen to be following.”

One might think Matthew Arnold’s idea of culture is restricted to the well-born. He saw it otherwise. “In each class,” he wrote,

there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery . . . for the pur­suit, in a word, of perfection. . . . And this bent always tends . . . to take them out of their class, and to make their distin­guishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.

Make no mistake: High culture, culture in the sense in which Arnold speaks of it as an ideal, is an elite activity—but one potentially open to everyone with what Arnold calls a “bent” for it.

From Eric Auerbach (2014)

S. Eliot thought that the first requisite for being a liter­ary critic is to be very intelligent. The second, I should say, is to have a well-stocked mind, which means having knowledge of literatures and literary traditions other than that into which one was born; possessing several languages; and acquiring a more than nodding acquaintance with history, philosophy, and theology—to be, in brief, learned. To be both highly intelligent and learned is not all that com­mon. Eliot claimed for himself—and this by implication, for he was a modest man—only the former.

Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) had both great intelligence and great learn­ing. Born in Germany, Auerbach, along with other Jewish scholars of his time, was another of Adolf Hitler’s intellectual gifts to the United States. After being expelled from his academic post as professor of Romance phi­lology at the University of Marburg during the Nazi purges, he spent 11 years, between 1935 and 1946, at the University of Istanbul. Arriving in the United States in 1947, he first taught at Penn State, was briefly at the Insti­tute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and ended his career at Yale.

While in Istanbul, Auerbach wrote Mimesis: The Representation of Real­ity in Western Literature, which is the greatest single work of literary criti­cism of the 20th century. Auerbach worked on the book between 1942 and 1945, and it was first published in 1946. Part of the mythos of Mimesis has been that he wrote it without the aid of a serious library. This is somewhat exaggerated. The University of Istanbul was far from academically primi­tive, and Auerbach was in touch with friends who could send him such lit­erary materials as he required.

That he didn’t have access to a library that stocked scholarly period­icals probably worked in his book’s favor. Mimesis is a scholarly work unencumbered by footnotes or other critical apparatus. At the close of the penultimate paragraph of the epilogue, Auerbach writes,

[I]t is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been pos­sible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.

Erich Auerbach was a philologist. Once a standard academic disci­pline, philology is no longer in currency, let alone in vogue. In its tradi­tional form, philology dealt with the structure—the grammar, syntax, and semantics—of language and its historical development. Philol­ogy has always seemed a more Continental than English or American enterprise. In America, scholars who in an earlier era might have taught philology taught, instead, what became known as comparative litera­ture. In time, comparative literature fizzled out, taken over by literary theorists who turned out to be not all that much interested in literature in any language.

What distinguished philologists and comparativists was their poly­glotism. They knew multiple languages, and an article of belief among them was that literary works can only be truly comprehended in the languages in which they were composed. If you read works in transla­tion, you are, from the philological standpoint, a schmoozer, a potzer, a kibbitzer, and fundamentally unserious. In the prologue to his recent Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi, Victor Brombert, who for many years taught comparative literature at Princeton, notes that “in all cases, I have discussed only authors whose works I have read in the original.”

Erich Auerbach read eight languages: Greek, Latin, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew. In Mimesis he remarks that he scanted a detailed discussion of the rise of realism in Russian literature because “this is impossible when one cannot read the works in their origi­nal language.” (I, the reader should know, read Mimesis in the excellent English translation from the German by Willard R. Trask.)

In his 1952 essay “Philology and World History,” Auerbach asserted that

the intellectual and spiritual history of the last several mil­lennia is the history of the human race as it has achieved self-expression. It is with this history that philology concerns it­self as a historical discipline.

The task of philology, he held, was to evaluate literature and language in such a way that it might contribute to that history, “and thus to real­ization of a unified vision of the human race in all its variety.” Auerbach felt this task all the more pressing given “the impoverishment of under­standing associated with a concept of education that has no sense of the past”—an impoverishment, he added, that threatens to become “hege­monic.” He also accepted as “inevitable that world culture is in the pro­cess of becoming standardized.” About this, at a time when people are claiming the nation-state an anachronism, he was surely correct. Every time I hear the word “globalization,” I reach for my copy of Mimesis.

The publication of Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach provides an excellent opportunity to witness a master philologist at work. This book includes: five essays on Giambattista Vico, the philoso­pher of history and an important influence on Auerbach, who translated Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725); four essays on Dante, the subject of Auer­bach’s first book (Dante: Poet of the Secular World, 1929); and essays on Montaigne, Pascal, Racine, Rousseau, and Proust. Two of the essays, “Fig­ura” (1938) and “Passio as Passion” (1941), are more traditionally philologi­cal in subject matter and treatment.

In the first of these essays, Auerbach considers the meaning of the word “figura,” its history, and its import in medieval Christian literature, where it denoted foreshadowing and prophecy. The Old Testament, in this regard, was thought to prophesy the New Testament, and Virgil to prophesy Dante. This essay shows, as Auerbach writes,

how a word branches out from its semantic meaning and into a world-historical situation and how the structures that emerge out of this situation can remain effective for many centuries.

In his essay on the word “passio,” Auerbach demonstrates how, over the centuries, it elided into the word “passion.” At its inception, passio denoted passiveness and suffering, which is how it was understood in its religious sense—hence, the Passion of Christ—and went on to become associated with erotic passion, or “a heightening of human existence worth pursuing.” In a brilliant essay not in this book titled “La Cour et La Ville” (1951), Auer­bach does a similar workup of the changing meaning of the word “public,” setting out its differing meanings at different times.

Serious scholar though he was, Auerbach was no less impressive as a literary critic. In fewer than six pages, he places, describes, and explains the power of Marcel Proust’s great novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). “Next to it,” writes Auerbach, “all the other works we know seem to be no more than novellas.” Better than anyone I have read, Auerbach is able to convey the experience of reading Proust’s novel:

No story of the centuries past seems so overwhelmingly his­torical, so covered with patina, so finally and irrevocably over, so mummified, antique, and eternal as the one he gives to us in his representation of Parisian society around 1900 and of the intelligent and sickly young man who inhabits it.

From Jewish Pugs (2016)

Impossible, I suspect, to convince anyone under 50 how cen­tral the sport of boxing was to American popular culture in the first five decades of the last century. No single event—not the Olympics, the World Series, Wimbledon, the Rose Bowl—held the attraction for Americans interested in sports that a heavyweight championship fight held. Nor did it even have to be a championship fight. At the age of 14, on the Friday night of October 26, 1951, I was sitting in the Nortown The­atre in Chicago when they stopped the movie—stopped the movie!—to announce that Rocky Marciano had just beaten Joe Louis in the eighth round of a scheduled 10-round fight at Madison Square Garden.

Prize fights, amateur and professional, were ubiquitous: staged in small clubs and at major stadiums, broadcast over the radio (the Friday Night Fights sponsored by Gillette Blue Blades—“for the quickest, slickest shave of all”), and, beginning in the late 1940s, on television, often several nights a week. A comic strip called Joe Palooka, about a heavyweight boxing champion, was widely syndicated during these years and was a favorite of boys. At the age of 12, I could name the champions and leading contenders in every weight division, from flyweight (108–112 pounds) to heavyweight (no limit), but then so could any normally sports-obsessed kid, and in my boyhood there were lots of us. When Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling of Germany in a return-match first-round knockout in 1938—a fight, alas, before my time—Americans felt that it was a victory over the Nazis, and Louis became a national hero, even though the United States would not enter the war for another three and a half years. Boxing was immensely popular, international, a form of patriotism by other means, in a word, big.

A Canadian who had arrived in this country from Montreal at the age of 17, my father had no interest in baseball or football. Boxing, though, did interest him. He took me to Golden Gloves (amateur) fights at Rainbow Arena on Chicago’s north side, and himself was lucky enough to have a ticket for the second of the three brutal Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano mid­dleweight championship fights.

In Montreal my father had grown up with two brothers, Danny and Sammy Spunt, who owned a boxing gym, the Chicago equivalent of Still­man’s in New York, called The Ringside. In the late 1940s, Chicago seemed safe enough for an 11-year-old boy to mount the El and travel alone down­town, which, for a brief period, I did, to hang out at their gym. Danny Spunt was especially kind to me. He directed me to a file cabinet filled with signed 8” x 10” glossy photographs of all the boxing champions and leading contenders of the day, and told me to take my pick: I took home a Willie Pep, a Gus Lesnevich, and a Sugar Ray Robinson. As long as I didn’t get in the way, which I wasn’t about to do, I could watch fighters spar, shadow-box, and work out on the light or heavy bags. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more masculine, the smell of the joint a rich brew of liniment, leather, cigar smoke, and heavy sweat.

One day Danny Spunt took me into the locker room, where he intro­duced me to a seated fighter leaning against a locker after a workout, his fists taped, his only clothes a heavy leather Everlast protective jock.

“Kid,” Danny said, “meet Tony Zale, the middleweight champion [he pronounced it “champeen”] of the world.”

“Hi, champ,” I managed to gurgle.

“Hi, kid,” Zale replied. No meeting since in my life has impressed me half so much.

One of the leading younger fighters who trained at The Ringside in those days was a black welterweight named Johnny Bratton. His man­ager, a heavyset man in a green corduroy jacket and a coral-colored hat with a large feather in its band that he wore indoors, had flashing gold teeth. In 1951, at the age of 24, Johnny Bratton won the welterweight title by outpointing Charley Fusari. Less than two months later, he lost it to “Kid” Gavilan, a flashy Cuban whose arsenal included an uppercut that seemed to begin around the knees called the bolo punch. Afterwards it was revealed that Bratton fought Gavilan for some 10 rounds of their 15-round fight with a broken jaw. Tumbling downhill from there, he was reduced to fighting bums until he himself was a bum other boxers fought on their way up. Years later, I read in the Chicago Sun-Times that he had been picked up by the cops around Chicago Stadium while attempting to sell a stolen fur coat. He spent much of the rest of his days in an insane asylum in Manteno, Illinois, and died in his mid-fifties. The other, not altogether uncommon, side of the boxing story, Johnny Bratton’s.

By the time I became interested in boxing, Jewish boxers were no lon­ger active. Such glory as Jews had derived from competing in the sport was long in the past. But even this past glory lived on. Across the court­yard in the building in which we lived on Sheridan Road in Chicago resided the Kaplans, Ida and Irv, Ida being the sister of Barney Ross, who in his day held the lightweight, light-welterweight, and welterweight championships. The father of a classmate, Billy Schoenwald, who later became a good friend, was Irv Schoenwald, a successful fight promoter. In the 1940s and early 1950s a former heavyweight, the slightly punchy “Kingfish” Levinsky (his name derived from his family’s fish business on Maxwell Street, the city’s permanent flea market), used to sell garish neck­ties out of a suitcase to Jewish businessmen who worked in the Loop. My father bought one off the old pug.

Mob corruption, of course, was always hovering on the edge of boxing, sometimes damnably close to the center. I had another friend whose father succeeded beyond all his imagining selling aluminum awnings, which allowed him to invest in boxers. His most famous fighter was a heavy­weight named Ernie Terrell, who was WBA champion from 1965 to 1967, when he was beaten badly, humiliatingly, by Muhammad Ali. My friend’s father got tied up with the Mob in Chicago—he had installed awnings for Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, the head of the Chicago Syndicate and a fright­ening figure—whose thugs wanted to control his fighters. At one point, he was pursued by a hitman named Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, had to go into hiding, and, after being rescued by the FBI, testified about Mob interests in boxing.

 Also by Joseph Epstein

Where Were We?: The Conversation Continues, with Frederic Raphael (2017)

Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays (2016)

Frozen in Time (2016)

Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport (2015)

A Literary Education and Other Essays (2014)

Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, with Frederic Raphael (2013)

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)