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Essays in Biography by Joseph Epstein

Essays in Biography (2012)

by Joseph Epstein

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Well written and thoughtful biographical essays. The only quibble I have with the book is founded in my own prejudices. I just wish more of the subjects were pleasant people. Looking at the table of contents, there are only 9-10 people that I wouldn't cross the street to avoid (assuming they were still living). The problem is assuredly my own hatred of confrontation and unpleasantness! ( )
  lothiriel2003 | Aug 13, 2013 |
Good easy read that introduced me people that I had heard about but didn't really know. And others I didn't know at all. As a reader it's amazing how much is still out there. ( )
  charlie68 | May 20, 2013 |
Epstein is a great essayist- following often times the classical definition of an essay. All of these essays are about people he either knows or finds of general interest.
His approach is to offer very balanced opinions about the individuals. Sometimes they center on the individual's achievements, others about the personality or character, and most often combines both. But, in the end, most of the essays are a joy to read because of Epstein's domain of the language and his ability to draw meaningful conclusions about the people he writes. ( )
  xieouyang | Jan 1, 2013 |
Joseph Epstein is one of the best essayists in contemporary American letters. A traditionalist who adopts a wary view of literary trends and personalities, he takes no prisoners when confronting unwarranted reputations. Here is how his review of Sigrid Nunez's memoir of Susan Sontag begins: "Susan Sontag, as F.R. Leavis said of the Sitwells, belongs less to the history of literature than to that of publicity." Not only has Sontag been put in her place, that place is among literary predecessors who have made spectacles of themselves. Mr. Epstein is, in some respects, a throwback to the Leavis era, with its touting of a "great tradition" in literature. But Mr. Epstein is not a throwback insofar as he is constantly engaged with the present and with an impressive array of subjects: from Malcolm Gladwell to George Washington, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Joe DiMaggio "Essays in Biography" is divided into sections on Americans (the largest), Englishmen, popular culture and "Others." He could have included an entire section devoted to critics, since he has pieces on Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and James Wolcott.

Mr. Epstein's ability to capture a subject in a memorable 3,000 words should be the envy of biographers, who write at greater length but sometimes with no greater effect. Biographies are vats of facts that take patience to digest; Mr. Epstein's essays are brilliant distillations. Biographers are rarely as nimble and pithy as he can be, and they labor under constraints he would surely chafe at. Indeed, the author once returned the advance for a biography of John Dos Passos that he had agreed to write, an enterprise that would surely have taxed his desire to say what he really thinks.

What? Biographers don't say what they think? A biography—whatever its rewards—usually comes complete with shackles. Biographers have opinions, but bald judgments are usually eschewed. The biography of Susan Sontag that I co-wrote ("Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon") could not have begun with Mr. Epstein's first sentence; it would have been called tendentious and worse. The biographical narrative is supposed to unfold without editorializing, and most biographers will say it isn't their place to judge but to understand—although Mr. Epstein might counter that judgment is a form of understanding.

The value Mr. Epstein brings to biography is an incisive grasp of person and prose. This acuity comes out in his review of Saul Bellow's letters. Mr. Epstein knew Bellow and was in a position to observe the touchy novelist's interactions with friends. As a result, the review comes to life as both criticism and biography: "Saul had two valves on his emotional trumpet: intimacy and contempt." Here, too, a biographer can only gasp at the freedom accorded the essayist, as when he notes the "con in much of Bellow's correspondence." Mr. Epstein thinks "Herzog" works so well because of the letters the title character writes to all sorts of addressees, concluding that, "in some ways," the letter was Bellow's "true métier." This is the setup for a devastating verdict: Bellow was not "truly a novelist." He had ideas but no stories and could not shape a narrative, ending up with the "high-octane riffs" of a "philosophical schmoozer."

Mr. Epstein is to be prized for his ability to stand back from the biographical field, so to speak, while taking aboard the insights of biographers. He brings to biography what he calls "the amateur view" in an essay on George Washington, in which he draws on historians like Barry Schwartz and Gordon S. Wood. Mr. Epstein cites a chapter from Lord Bryce's "The American Commonwealth" called "Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents" and embarks on an extended meditation on just why it is not quite so easy to determine if Washington was a great man.

Bryce asserts that the American voter does not mind settling for mediocrity and actually prefers someone who is safe over someone with an original or profound mind. Of Washington, Mr. Epstein asks: "Was he an authentically great man, or instead merely the right man for his time?" He then canvasses opinions about our first president, beginning with Thomas Jefferson's mixed review: Washington was not an agile thinker, proved a cautious and not particularly quick improviser as a general, and though a man of integrity and forceful leadership, had a habit of exactly calculating "every man's value." Mr. Epstein implies that historian Forrest McDonald came close to suggesting Washington was a myth that the country needed to believe in.

Perhaps only Mr. Epstein would then refer to "Pride and Prejudice," comparing the reader's tendency to identify with Elizabeth Bennet, because she is left undescribed, to Americans' desire to read into Washington traits the country most covets. Then comes a classic Epstein formulation: "Washington was famous even before he was great, monumental while still drawing breath, apotheosized while still very much alive." In 19 words, Mr. Epstein builds a biographical schema that does not have to be labored over for 300 pages.

The essayist concludes that Washington's greatness inheres in his moral character, in his "genius for discerning right action." Something similar might be said about Joseph Epstein, who brings to biography a genius of discernment that is expressed in the just and moral character of his prose. ( )
  carl.rollyson | Oct 29, 2012 |
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In memory of Matthew Shanahan (1917-2012)
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“What is it about the study of philosophy that tends to make brilliant minds stupid when it comes down to what are known as actual cases? Consider Martin Heidegger, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the four great names in twentieth-century philosophy: the first was a Nazi, the second died certain that America was responsible for all the world’s evil, the third was a Stalinist long after any justification for being so could be adduced, and the fourth lived on the borders of madness most of his life. Contemplation of the lives of the philosophers is enough to drive one to the study of sociology.”
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 160419068X, Hardcover)

Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably 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. How easy it is today to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Each of the 39 pieces in this book is a pure pleasure to read.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:31 -0400)

Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably 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. How easy it is today to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Each of the 39 pieces in this book is a pure pleasure to read.

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