Max Beerbohm once observed there were some writers who have been spoiled by their desire to do “important” work: “Some people are born to lift heavy weights. Some are born to juggle with golden balls.” Writing about Beerbohm in this hefty collection of biographical essays, Joseph Epstein sees those golden jugglers as “the ones with wit, the ability to pierce pretension, and the calm detachment to mock large ideas and salvationist schemes.”
Not without cause does Epstein think of himself as one of those jugglers (in fact he once published an essay about his modest abilities as a real juggler), who pierce contemporary salvationist schemes, mainly leftist and academic ones. Epstein, who edited The American Scholar for more than two decades, much to the magazine’s credit, is the author of 23 books, many of them collections of personal or literary essays. He may or may not be, as the blurb on the new one has it, “the greatest living essayist writing in English” but, like Beerbohm, he would mock ever so adroitly this inflation of his writings into greatness.
Divided into four sections — “Americans,’’ “Englishmen,’’ “Popular Culture,’’ “And Others’’ — and with nearly two dozen welcome photographs, the collection ranges from George Washington to Adlai Stevenson, from Xenophon to Matthew Shanahan, a blind man recently dead to whom the book is dedicated. The pieces vary in length and in the manner with which the subjects — all males except for George Eliot and Susan Sontag — are treated. They are unabashedly personal, and flavored throughout by a wit that never stays in the background for long.
Wyndham Lewis once endowed a character in his novel with “the curse of humor”; Epstein is blessed with that curse. One of his more recent collections, “In a Cardboard Belt,’’ featured pieces he called personal, literary, and savage. The savage essay in the new book is an evisceration of Saul Bellow, a former friend of the essayist (they played racquetball together) whom Bellow disparaged in a later-published letter to a friend mainly on the basis of an Epstein short story that featured a figure Bellow found unadmirable and decided was modeled on him, although the resemblance is not even close. Epstein’s final judgment of Bellow is that he was perhaps not a novelist at all, rather “a high-octane riffer, a philosophical schmoozer, an unsurpassed intellectual kibitzer,” but no storyteller and with whom future generations are unlikely to spend much time. Here the move beyond humor ends with a curse on the departed novelist’s head and reputation.
His terse formulations are often marked by a memorable sting. Alfred Kazin’s endless grievances in his journals are that of “a man perpetually ticked off, a walking wound in search of a saltshaker.” Edmund Wilson appears as “a man to whom literary costiveness was as alien as sexual temperance” (you have to read that one twice). As for punk rock, it “is, I suppose, an acquired taste, like that for arsenic.”
Prejudices like the following will surely offend some readers, though not this one: Walter Benjamin “must surely be among the 20th century’s most overrated writers,” while for Susan Sontag “self-promotion was her true métier.” Epstein describes the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s criticism as a “no prisoners taken” operation. I felt that about his final estimations of such men of the left as Dwight Macdonald and (especially) Irving Howe, where Epstein seemed insufficiently appreciative of their continuing usefulness as literary and cultural critics. But this is to say no more than that a contentious critic like Epstein livens up the atmosphere, makes us think about how much we do or don’t value a writer.
In the “Popular Culture’’ section, essays on Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio show a writer very much in the know about two great sports. Then there is Charles Van Doren of all people, the infamous quiz show cheater who gets an especially lively account, partly due to Epstein’s having worked with him for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Here the “familiar” essay is enhanced by familiarity.
But the encomiastic mode shows Epstein at his most generous best, with pieces on heroes as widely divergent as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and W.C. Fields. And there are affectionate, accurate portrayals of two figures on their way to being forgotten, the poet and editor John Frederick Nims and the critic and editor John Gross.
It is fitting that a book of sometimes sharply adverse portraits should end with a tribute to Matthew Shanahan, the blind man whom Epstein read to, then met regularly for lunch over some years. Epstein says he got out of those lunches “much laughter,” along with “poise, humor, high spirits.” That “heightened sense of life’s possibilities” he took from Shanahan, is something like what a reader may take away from these essays in biography, whose words on the page rouse us to convivial and active engagement.William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is “What’s Been Happening to Jane Austen: Essays on Novelists and Critics.’’