In a long career, Joseph Epstein has divided his primary work about evenly between literary essays – pieces about books and authors – and familiar essays about topics as varied as puns, naps, thrift, name-dropping, the pleasures of magazines, and the perils of plastic surgery.
The distinction between his two fields of writing has seemed less important over time, since his literary essays brim with personal anecdote and his familiar essays sparkle with literary allusions. What unites them all is Epstein’s seemingly effortless intelligence: the way he can summon a saying from Aristotle or an anecdote about Albert Einstein as if commenting on old friends.
Epstein’s easy familiarity with the treasures of Western culture is, in fact, a defining signature of his essays. One could make an extended game of counting the time reviewers have used the word “erudite” to describe the voice at the center of his previous collections. As more than one Epstein fan has noted, he seems to have read everything.
How does one achieve such a sterling command of the canon? The truth, Epstein confesses in his new collection, The Ideal of Culture, is that he sometimes fakes it. In a story that promises to resonate with freelance writers everywhere, Epstein introduces the book by recalling a phone call early in his career from a Washington Post editor wondering if he’d like to review a four-volume collection of “My Past and Thoughts,” the memoirs of Alexander Herzen – an offer he readily accepted. “I thanked her,” Epstein tells readers, “hung up, and asked myself, ‘Who is Alexander Herzen?’”
But Epstein plowed into the assignment, discovering Herzen’s stature as a great 19th-century Russian writer. There’s a similar story later in the book about Epstein agreeing to lecture on George Orwell’s “1984,” a celebrated novel that had, to that point, never made it to his reading list. As he puts it, “the act of writing is itself an act of education, perhaps even before it can be considered anything so grand as an act of creation. The way this works is that, at the outset, writing forces the writer to realize what he doesn’t know.”
Epstein taught English for many years at Northwestern University, a job he secured, rather miraculously, without the typical academic requirement of an advanced degree. His background as an intellectual layman informs his essays, which cheerfully assume that any reasonably curious reader can join him in mutual discovery of a subject.
That’s the chief sentiment of the book’s title essay, which advances the old-fashioned notion that knowledge of good books, music, and theater is key to a meaningful life. The essay first appeared The Weekly Standard, and most of the other pieces in “The Ideal of Culture” originated in conservative journals, too. Even so, Epstein isn’t an overtly partisan writer and the subject of politics seldom comes up in his essays. To the degree that he can be considered a conservative, it’s because he’s skeptical of worshiping the new and the novel at the expense of the old and enduring. By “removing oneself from the noise and vulgarities of the present, and lending oneself the perspective of the past,” he tells readers, “an engagement with high culture makes life richer – and thereby, immensely more interesting.”
Along with familiar essays on such subjects as wit, genius, cowardice, and the meaning of cool, “The Ideal of Culture” includes lively literary profiles of iconic authors, including Orwell, Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Other writers under Epstein’s looking glass seem very much in the Alexander Herzen category, not quite ringing the bell of familiarity for general readers: Eric Auerbach, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Michael Okeshott.
It’s to Epstein’s credit that he can take a reader by the sleeve and gently tug him into a topic he had no idea he’d be interested in. That surely seems the case with Auerbach, a literary scholar who, at first glance, would seem engaging only within the academy. But from the first paragraph of Epstein’s commentary, we become immersed in Auerbach’s intellectual odyssey, which included an especially fruitful creative period immediately after he was exiled from Nazi Germany. As Hitler marched across Europe, Auerbach eloquently argued for great literature as an example of “what is at stake in the battle against those who would simplify, politicize, or otherwise degrade it.”
In this way, the pursuit of high culture becomes not only a pleasure but an act of daring. So, too, with “The Ideal of Culture,” which seems, in its insistence on essential verities in an age of great flux, just the right book for our historical moment.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”