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Uncle Joe the Exquisite

Joseph Epstein is perhaps the smartest American alive who also writes well. That he has done so quietly, with impeccable modesty, is a mark of what might be called wisdom. His subjects have been oppositely rambunctious: literature, marriage and divorce, snobbery (“Snobbery,” 2002), envy (“Envy,” 2003) and friendship (“Friendship,” 2006), among others. Ambition? He wrote the book on that, too (“Ambition: The Secret Passion,” 1980). The first page of that book describes Benjamin Franklin in a sentence that could appropriate Epstein himself, and his beginnings in humbler Chicago: “Of common clay, he polished himself until he ended up marble.” Later, in fiction, Epstein would call that “common clay,” once polished, the estate of “Fabulous Small Jews.” That book, published in 2003, was his second collection of stories.

Epstein: At 70, if a man is not concerned with mortality, there is something wrong with him

Epstein’s nonfiction will live longer. For almost a quarter-century, Epstein served as editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s The American Scholar, a magazine that under his tenure became the foremost quarterly assessment of the quality of our national mind. “In a Cardboard Belt!” (Houghton Mifflin) generously collects his final essays from The American Scholar (the title is taken from Zero Mostel’s famous geshrey, as Max Bialystock pleading poverty in Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” — “I’m wearing a cardboard belt!”). These appear alongside other variously published appreciations and body slams of “the culture” — a term the author might himself always put within quotes, were that not too precious, or distracting.

Joshua Cohen: “In a Cardboard Belt!” comes off as very personal, one reader’s lifelong take on the commonplace turn-ons and -offs. Paul Valéry, Max Beerbohm and Lord Berners are paid homage. Oppositely, critics Harold Bloom and George Steiner are turned into gnomic minor demons of “the culture” — a term you claim to mistrust. You write that as you age, your taste has turned to the “exquisite.” What is this “exquisite”? Is the intellectual endeavor a process by which one constantly refines one’s taste? If so, doesn’t the intellectual always run the risk of preciousness?

Joseph Epstein: By the “exquisite” I mean the stylish, the highly refined, the understatedly elegant. I fear that I have become a snob of style. I can scarcely any longer drag my eyes along prose that is ill written. Is this preciousness? I like to think not, if only because style alone does not entirely make it for me. I prefer style allied to good humor and common sense, such as one finds in Beerbohm and Valéry and a little band of other writers. I also admire a small number of writers for qualities quite outside the stylish. I think Theodore Dreiser, sentence by sentence a great klutz of a writer, the most powerful (I do not say the best — Henry James was that — but the most powerful) of American novelists. I admire Alexander Solzhenitsyn for his great-hearted courage.

My complaint against Messrs. Bloom and Steiner (and with Mortimer Adler, whom I also attack in this book) is that they are so learned and yet so deeply out of it. They give learning, even high intelligence, a bad name.

J.C.: For more than 20 years, you were the editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s The American Scholar. Today, what do you see as the role of the small, serious magazine? What is its future? What are the benefits to operating outside of “the news cycle”? And in what way has this remove influenced your own private relationship with the news, as it daily appears?

J.E.: I think you have hit on exactly the point of the small magazines, which is to operate outside “the news cycle,” though not all of them are aware of it. The problem with the news cycle is that it turns so quickly: Hence all the talk of the death of newspapers, owing to their not being able to keep up with the news quickly enough. One cannot live — or at least not live very well — on news, or even contemporary culture, alone. When I edited The American Scholar, I don’t believe the name of any American president then in office appeared in its pages. I thought the point of a quarterly magazine is to get one outside the oppressiveness of the news, with its crisis of the moment, its heated partisanships, and to remind people of the poetry of life, its charm, its grand traditions of learning and creation. Some of the current-day quarterlies still do precisely this, for which I honor them and continue to subscribe to them.

J.C.: Much of your book’s latter quarter is concerned with crisis in today’s American life. You attack what you call “perpetual adolescence,” which you see most grossly epitomized in the televisual; you attack today’s movies, too, and what you call “the culture of celebrity.” I wouldn’t deny the accuracy of your observations, but one thing I missed was your reasoning as to why such a crisis is, in fact, bad. Do eternal verities exist? Are they worth the degree of skepticism and effort required to resist the charms of casual degradation? How relevant can serious intellectual life ever be if it’s constantly to be lived in an aggression against such stimuli? How relevant should it be?

J.E.: I don’t think that I live my daily life in agitation because of the low grade of the culture around me. I find the world a rich and inexhaustibly amusing place. If people didn’t behave goofily, if the culture were near perfection, I might just be out of business as a writer.

I do feel compelled from time to time to point out what strike me as certain obvious flaws in major national trends and tendencies: the quite empty excitement about celebrity, for one, the madness of outraging nature by trying to remain youthful (not to say childish) for as long as possible. And here we bump into those eternal verities you mention. I don’t think it will do to pretend you are 27 when you are 66. I don’t think you want to be pleased with yourself because you are merely well known when you aren’t really all that good at what you are well known for. I don’t in any case think you want to be swept up by the life of your times if it leaves you muddle-headed. I don’t know how eternal such sentiments are, but they feel distinctly like verities to me.

J.C.: In the final essay you wrote for the American Scholar, “I’m History,” you give a brief and surprisingly pleasant account of your firing from the editorship of that magazine. Would it be too reductive to make analogies from this decision on the part of the Scholar’s board? Is this decision, to your mind, indicative of a greater cultural confrontation between the purportedly conservative mindset of the so-called “Great Books” or White Male canon and the current academic vogue for the equal opportunity?

J.E.: I believe I was fired from this lovely, cushy job for being insufficiently correct politically. I felt — as of 1995, the year I was bounced — that current scholarship in Afro American, feminist and gay studies hadn’t produced much that was worth running in the pages of a magazine I edited. So much of such stuff never got much beyond the level of the clichés of victimology, and as such was of no interest to me. I never attacked it in the magazine, except by ignoring it.

Yes, I think a dumbing down is inevitably entailed in reserving places on faculties and in curricula for victim groups. The old ideal, of course, was Matthew Arnold’s — that of teaching the best that was thought and written — and this has taken a pretty good hit from the current-day practice of arranging for specialized departments and centers. As it turns out, historically women and Afro Americans and gays have thought and written a great deal of the very best in western culture. But I do think most of those genuinely superior women, Afro Americans and gays — people such as Willa Cather, Ralph Ellison, W.H. Auden — would have little or nothing to do with current notions of “diversity” as they are practiced in the contemporary university. They would only have been content to be recognized as among the very best, tout court, with no diversity labels added, thank you very much.

J.C.: Many of your best pieces here reflect on literature that is already decades, if not a century, old. Do you think literature takes time to prove itself? If so, who, if anyone, writing today do you think might be read, and lauded, by future Joseph Epsteins?

J.E.: The test of time is, finally, the only test. I not long ago wrote an essay in which I raised the question of what novelist writing over the past half-century or so was likely to be read 50 or so years from now. The only one I felt reasonably confident would be is Isaac Bashevis Singer. I think this because Singer wrote about the mysteries posed by human existence, dealt with the great questions connected with man’s purpose on earth, and did so with unsurpassed storytelling power. His writing has always seemed timeless, which is another way of saying that he passes the test of time.

I can’t leave this question without remarking, selfishly, that I am a little less worried about the absence of future Joseph Epsteins to laud the great writers of the past than I am about future Joseph Epsteins to laud the current writing of, precisely and none other than, Joseph Epstein himself.

J.C.: Much of “In a Cardboard Belt!” is elegiac in nature. Though your prose betrays your mind’s youth, so many of the book’s essays are concerned, or even obsessed, with mortality — especially your own. Interestingly, however, religion, or your personal religiosity, is never mentioned. Why?

J.E.: At 70 — my current age — if a man is not concerned with mortality, something is wrong with him. In my introductory essay, which is about turning 70, I mention the appalling fact that even now I haven’t answered the God question(s). Which are, does God exist? And if He does, does He judge each of us on our everyday actions? I don’t, as I say, have the answer to these questions. As for my religiosity, I can’t resist telling a little story in connection with it. The son of a dear friend of mine, protesting his having to go to synagogue this past Yom Kippur, said to his father: “Why do I have to go to? Uncle Joe [me] doesn’t go. And no one is more Jewish than Uncle Joe.” I think I’ll leave it there.

J.C.: Last, you write movingly, early in your book, about your childhood, and about your father and grandfather. Later, you write warmly of Marcel Proust — perhaps the most sensitive, but least sentimental, of all writers who seek to inhabit their younger selves through literature. What allure does the past hold for you — the literary past, and your personal past? How do those two pasts seem different to you — or do they have a similar patina?

J.E.: The older one gets, of course, the shorter is one’s future, the longer one’s past stretches out, giving one more and more to mull over, if not brood upon. I am one of those lucky people who had an unequivocally happy childhood, having been born in a prosperous time in the most interesting country in the world to intelligent parents who gave me a great deal of freedom and splendid models of how grownups ought to live.

I have never thought of a particular literary past in which I should have preferred to live more than the one into which I was born, even though I don’t think ours is a particularly splendid time for literary creation, especially with the existence of all the competing media of entertainment. The England of Samuel Johnson, the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the France of Flaubert and his cenacle, the America of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner — all seem literarily much more fruitful than the present. These other literary pasts remain delightful to read about, and one of the great things about being a passionate reader is that, like the idiot assigned to wait at the gates of the shtetl for the coming of the messiah, you’re never out of work.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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