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Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary…

Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life

by Joseph Epstein

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Epstein's third book of literary essays strikes a less polemical note than either Partial Payments (1989) or Plausible Prejudices (1985). Here, the American Scholar editor concentrates on writers for whom he feels a certain affinity, and proves an expert literary portraitist. At his best, he offers insights into a writer's career as evidence of ``the literary life,'' in which ``the experience of books has been integral with the experience of life.'' Epstein's notion that endless reading leads to ``skepticism about general ideas, systems, and theories'' pays off in appreciative portraits of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sidney Hook, and Sydney Smith. The author successfully draws attention to the neglected work of Italo Svevo, who created a masterpiece against all odds; to Desmond McCarthy and to Maurice Baring, who deserves better than Edmund Wilson's faint praise. Cautionary tales are offered in fair-minded profiles of educational maverick Robert Hutchins, ``hack genius'' Ben Hecht, and once-overrated poet Carl Sandburg. Epstein's heroes include George Orwell and Henry James. And he has an affinity for William Hazlitt. Epstein is a joy to read and compares favorably with his fellow New Criterion contributor Bruce Bawer (The Aspect of Eternity), who otherwise shares the same commitment to common sense and readability. ( )
  jwhenderson | Aug 23, 2011 |
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