Houghton Mifflin, 2011, 256 pp., $25
Friendship: An Exposé
Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 288 pp., $24
Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins
Oxford University Press, 2003, 144 pp., $23.95
Snobbery: The American Version
Houghton Mifflin, 2002, 288 pp., $25
Ambition: The Secret Passion
E.P. Dutton, 1980, 312 pp., $20
by Joseph Epstein
Books of essays don’t sell, an editor once told me, so don’t send me one. Joseph Epstein, who considers the label “essayist” an honorific and who himself has been one of the editors of the annual series, The Best American Essays, has compared the essayist’s place in the realm of literature to a seat at the children’s table at the family holiday dinner. Not to get too snooty about it, as Joe Epstein might say, the essay deserves a better seat than that, maybe even one at the high table.
Every essay on the essay, like the one you are now reading, must mention Montaigne, that 16th-century Frenchman of the minor aristocracy who left a lackluster local life to write in a book-crammed tower under the inscription Que sais-je? (“What do I know?”). Montaigne, as Harold Bloom declared, stands with Shakespeare at the start of the modern age as one of the two figures most responsible for the way we think about what it means to be human. The modern age, it has often been said, began when the world was “disenchanted”, when for the first time life could not be understood as a coherent whole with each part—you included—fulfilling its appointed role in a fixed universal scheme of things. For the first time—at least since Socrates, who did not publish (and perished)—there appeared something we could recognize as a contingent individual, one able and obligated to develop a consciousness of self and contemplate what to do about it.
Sir Francis Bacon, lawyer, courtier and inventor of frozen food, carried this insight onward in Elizabethan England through outrageously short, highly aphoristic essays containing brilliant one-liners (“‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer”). Bacon’s jousts are probably the reason so many crackpots thought he must have written plays under the weird name of Shakespeare. My high school yearbook was called The Baconian, and in my Aunt Elsie’s attic I found an old volume of Bacon’s essays all marked up by some nervous girl graduate of the late 19th century. Bacon’s gems were, and are, hard to understand, not least because he makes his argument and then without signaling the shift cuts against it—a way of engaging himself in dialogue.
In early 18th-century England, the essay, featuring that new and nerve-jangling institution the Coffee House—became, along with “the correspondence of the pen”, the personal letter—the leading literary form. The names Addison & Steele and their publications The Tatler and The Spectator were inseparably associated with a style, elegant, lively and English, that floated easily to America. From that same schoolteacher aunt’s attic I stole a slender volume, published in New York in 1901, of excerpts from Addison & Steele all devoted to that excellent clubman Sir Roger de Coverley. The essays were a college-prep guidebook for the then-new 20th century. At the end of the book are sample entrance test questions from Vassar to the newly opened Stanford University. To be admitted to the University of California at Berkeley you were asked to compare and contrast the presentations of character found in Addison’s Sir Roger de Coverley and Macauley’s Warren Hastings (the nabob of British India whom Burke sought to impeach). “Touch upon the following points . . . Macauley said of Addison that he ‘without inflicting a wound, effected a great social reform, and reconciled wit and virtue, after a long separation, during which wit had been led astray by profligacy and virtue by fanaticism.’” This is as good a description as any ever offered of the essayist’s vocation. The question would be whether American essayists would follow the English model or strike out anew. Emerson made it new, and in our time, Joseph Epstein follows in that lineage.
As our primal essayist, Emerson made the form into a distinctively American way of self-reflection. He came to maturity just when the Enlightenment really took hold in the United States. No longer would clever young men assume without question that they would go to a New England college and then be called to a nearby or, more adventurously, a Midwestern pulpit. Emerson balked, backed out and then devoted his career to inventing a career. Here is where college secret societies were invented as a matter of practical necessity. If you were about to graduate but your fate no longer was pre-assigned, then what would you do? And who are you anyway? The answer would be sought as you tried to describe and explain yourself to 14 others, no holds barred. What you and they said could be all too revealing, so keep it secret, inside the “tomb.”
Herein is the real lineage and theme of the American essay. The roster of writers is impressive, ranging well beyond the Emersonian model. A great era of the American essay began in the mid-20th century with E.B. White’s New Yorker pieces on the foibles of Manhattanites, Connecticut country gentry and endearing human-animal interactions. Next up was John Updike: in Harold Bloom’s nasty characterization “a junior novelist with a major style.” Updike was an ultra-prolific, omnidirectional essayist, producing 700-page collections every few years. Updike disparaged “essaying”, calling it “Hugging the Shore” in contrast to the novelist’s duty to put out into the open fictional sea. Ultimately, however, Updike will be regarded as one of the finest essayists in the English language, outstripping his oeuvre of novels. And the essay has been a fecund field for American women of letters such as Elizabeth Hardwick, Cynthia Ozick and Anne Fadiman, each demonstrating that female sensibility is an advantage for the essay’s primary business: explaining, examining, scrutinizing what is going on in the human heart, mind and soul.
Joseph Epstein came to essaying prominence from 1973 to 1995 as editor of the American Scholar, the publication of the Phi Beta Kappa Society (full disclosure: your reviewer is not and has never been a member—a laughable thought). As such, Epstein figuratively occupied the quarterly’s “Emerson Chair of Essaying”, the sage of Concord having delivered America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” in his 1837 oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, entitled “The American Scholar.” From this editorial post, Epstein entered the intellectual history of the country, writing essays under the pseudonym “Aristides”, after he who was expelled from ancient Athens because people were fed up hearing him always referred to as “The Just.”
For me, a Foreign Service Officer serving abroad through the grim Cold War years, the sight of the American Scholar arriving via the APO or FPO was a message in a bottle from civilization. Unlike its British intellectual sister Encounter, Epstein kept it politics-free, never allowing a mention of a current American President, and dedicated to the proposition that the purpose of a quarterly “little magazine” was “to get outside the oppressiveness of the news.” This he admirably did, although his essays on the social character of the country, which “reconciled wit and virtue” indubitably had over- and undertones of a conservative distaste for liberal laxity. I, for one, wondered how long it could last, because performances-in-print of this sort rarely last very long. “I’m history”, he wrote in his 1995 valedictory essay after he had been canned, almost surely for being insufficiently politically correct.
In the course of his editorship Joseph Epstein had accumulated a body of writing that would be, as he assumed a lectureship at Northwestern University, the foundation for a unique addition to the literature of the essay. From time to time his readers were reintroduced to his friend and mentor Edward Shils of the University of Chicago’s intimidating Committee on Social Thought. Much more than a professor of sociology, Shils was a renaissance man of parts who across the years in Epstein’s telling emerged as a kind of Mycroft Holmes, the go-to guy for advice on all of one’s most damnable perplexities.
Epstein has roamed a wide range: editor of the Norton Book of Personal Essays, pronouncing on marriage and divorce “in an age of possibility”, which is to say temptation; prose portraits of teachers and literary masters; studies of Tocqueville and Fred Astaire; a growing collection of short stories that seem like a Chicagoan’s version of the Pickwick Papers; and Epstein’s recent guides through the realm of Jewish jokes.
Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit is the latest in what has become a series of book-length essays. What Bacon dealt with on one page, as in “Of Friendship”, Epstein considers across 250 pages, and much more entertainingly so than his Elizabethan forebear. Taken together, Epstein’s mega-essays constitute something of an autobiography, a Henry Adams-like The Education of Joseph Epstein, a chronicle of contemporary American personal and sociological change, an engagingly profound prolegomenon for the reappraisal of core human traits (or aspects of Original Sin) that in our time and country seem to be changing shape in weirdly unpredictable ways.
Ambition is inherent in the human condition and cannot be suppressed or denied for long, although strenuous efforts may be made to disguise the passion. Epstein’s Ambition: The Secret Passion, published in 1980, was stimulated, the author later noted, by his sense that the drive was fading somewhat from the American scene and needed, of all things, to be juiced up—this when the country was on the leading edge of the “Gordon Gekko”-era of upwardly scrambling graspers.
Epstein’s miscalculation of the zeitgeist was fortunate, for it drove him to analyze in depth the distinctively American version of ambition. On the one hand, there were those sharp characters determined to rise to the top no matter what: Ben Franklin, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Simon Guggenheim and his dynasty—all great achievers who produced long-lasting benefits for the economic, cultural and overall national good, whatever corners they might have to cut to do so. On the other hand, those brimming over with ambition, success and their ambiguities have been the frequent targets of American literature: Daisy Miller, George Babbit, Jay Gatsby, Flem Snopes, Sammy Glick et al. Each displayed a unique way of upward striving that was despicable, aggressive, without scruple. Sinclair Lewis “spewed vitriol in the face of business civilization”; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby “dealt ambition a stylish blow.” Epstein points out with delight that the writers themselves lusted for success: Mark Twain the plunger, always out for another buck; Faulkner, who said any real writer would “walk over his grandmother” to make his name; John O’Hara, who never got over his unfulfilled ambition to go to Yale.
Gordon Gekko aside, Epstein’s 1980 worry that ambition might be losing altitude was on to something. The cultural upheavals of 1968 and the short 1970s had been given an ideological overlay by the European-origin New Left, an intervention with carrying power into our time as revealed by the disparagement, and worse, of the private productive sector of the economy, and by all those college students who declare their career ambition to be “to work for a nonprofit” (any one will do, so long as it is reliably unprofitable).
Ambitions, when achieved, beget snobbery, whose cousin is envy. Snobbery: The American Version (2002) and Envy (2003), a short book in the New York Public Library’s series on “The Seven Deadly Sins”, begin to suggest an Epsteinian project in the lineage of Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century literary giant who increasingly makes cameo appearances across the pages of Epstein’s books. The project resembles a modern prose version of Johnson’s 1749 poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Walter Jackson Bate, Johnson’s modern biographer, described snobbery as
the helpless vulnerability of the human individual before the social context, the tangled, teeming jungle of plots, follies, vanities, and egoistic passions in which anyone—the innocent and the virtuous no less than the vicious—is likely to be ambushed. . . . Johnson’s characters are ‘athirst for wealth’ and ‘burning to be great.’ . . . As they rise, they jostle others aside, and if they attain the wealth, power, or fame for which they pant, they are at once dogged by the envy and hate of rivals, who soon bring them down.1
Epstein gives us the American version, in which two categories stand out. The first is the “limousine liberals” of the cultural elite who profess to disdain ambition yet lust for power, fame and fortune. When they get it, they assuage their pangs of guilt by acts of “radical chic”, immortalized by Leonard Bernstein’s famous 1970 penthouse party for the Black Panthers. The other, to borrow Freud’s phrase, is “the narcissism”, or snobbery, “of small differences.” In this, Epstein observes, Washington, DC, is “the Yankee Stadium of snobbery” in which the game underway provides a world of meaning whose only purpose is to gain a miniscule advantage in putting someone else down by way of supposedly life-enhancing tickets, invitations or recognition (as in Newt Gingrich’s umbrage at not getting on Clinton’s Air Force One); or, more commonly if far less interestingly, who can most plausibly pretend to work latest into the Federal bureaucratic night.
Beyond the Beltway, the country must make do with what Epstein declares are the seven deadly sins of snobbery: serving iceberg lettuce to guests, sending your children to state colleges, admitting you voted for Bush (either one), driving a Cadillac SUV, enjoying inexpensive wine, listening to Tchaikovsky, mocking denim in public.
More seriously, Epstein touches upon, but doesn’t sufficiently elaborate, the most consequential and nationally debilitating snobberies of our time: the way that envy mixes with snobbery to produce a uniquely American form of ressentiment, and the moral snobbery of victimhood. Each is exquisitely practiced by the cultural elite atop the media, the professoriate, the pantheon of celebrities and the higher political classes, all of whom enthusiastically seek to rile the masses to follow suit. However people may differ about defining snobbery, everyone should realize, Epstein concludes, that it is very bad mental hygiene, a disabling waste of time for those who come out ahead, always only momentarily, as well as for those snubbed wretches down below.
Epstein’s Friendship: An Exposé (2006) at first would seem an outlier to the author’s central project, a happy exploration at length of everybody’s idea of a nice thing. Not quite so; the more this sizeable book goes along, the more problematic friendship seems to become, and Epstein himself begins to emerge as something of an addict in need of rehabilitation through a “Befrienders Anonymous.”
What (or must one only say who?) is a friend anyway? As Socrates noted, “We have not been able to discover what we mean by a friend.” Epstein takes up the challenge by trying to form a taxonomy: acquaintances, comrades, companions, “old friends”, professional friends and so forth. The book’s theme emerges through assertions by the ancients: Aristotle’s “It is impossible to be a great friend to many people”, and Hesiod’s “He is a worthless man who makes now one and now another his friend.” Struggling with it all, Epstein posits that boyhood and girlhood are “the pre-lapsarian” age of friendship, a time when friendship “just was”, an observation with an undeniable ring of truth. But friendship in our fallen age is something else—not impossible, but more often than not something of a trial, starting with our contemporary child-centered culture, in which incessant adult intervention has obliterated that long-since-passed edenic childhood of friendship, probably tainting the relationship through all the subsequent ages of man.
In all this, Joe Epstein emerges as a mensch, a good and true friend. His friends, he concludes, must be “serious”, yet capable of irony and delight in whimsy. This he demonstrates through his buddy Edward Shils and contrasts it with Shils’s own turbulent relationship with Saul Bellow. All the main categories are examined: men friendships, women friendships, man-woman non-romantic friendships, and the fairly rare married friendship: “to be in a marriage with a man or woman who becomes one’s best friend—companion, confidant, lover, pal, all these things in one—is probably untoppable”, he concludes.
Rather alarming, however, is Epstein’s “Friendship Diary”, a chronicle of all his friendship activities from Saturday April 24 to Friday April 30. For this Epstein merits the Congressional Medal of Honored Friendship, or perhaps he merits being locked up as just too loony about such things: “Stop me before I befriend again.” The telephone vastly expands Epstein’s outreach: “Whole mornings or afternoons have drifted away from me in telephone talk with friends.”
Friendship: An Exposé was published just before the cultural tsunami brought about by Facebook, but Epstein had experienced Friendster (the early precursor to MySpace and Facebook) and is on to the phenomenon, lamenting that it reveals “the vast loneliness in the world.” These new technologies will bring about a change in the nature of friendship and, one might add, probably a change in human consciousness as well. At the end, Epstein confesses that he may be guilty of polyphilia, Aristotle’s warning against having too many friends; about 75 was the max according to the philosopher, a number that today seems jocularly minuscule.
At a recent initiation ceremony of a college society, the inductees were asked, “Which can you learn more from, a person or a book?” Political correctness antennae twitching, everyone answered, “from a person.” Epstein notes rather wistfully that Proust, for all his socializing, would choose a book, perhaps revealing that even he may at times feel friendundated.
If Washington, DC, is the Yankee Stadium of snobbery, the nation’s capital also is the March Madness of Gossip, as embodied in President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884–1980) who, after she ascended to become the grande dame of Washington Society, embroidered a pillow with her instruction that “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.”
With Gossip, we can begin to see in his array of meta-essays the emergence of a Darwin-like descent of man in reverse, a downward spiral toward a lower form of life. First comes Ambition. As in Leigh Hunt’s Victorian-era poem, “Abou Ben Adhem” (“may his tribe increase”), Epstein wants his name to be written first in the angelic book of ambition and does so for a worthy reason: love for his fellow man. But when the ambitious rise in status, they succumb to the temptation of Snobbery toward those on the ladder’s lower rungs, causing them to envy you, and with Envy we recognize one of the original seven deadly sins. We next come to Friendship in the hope of returning to Abou Ben Adhem’s love for his fellow man, because Epstein himself is clearly in the Abou Ben Adhem class of good guys. But then down the path comes the technology serpent—from the telephone to Facebook—to transform friendship into a quantitative contest in which he who dies with the most “friends” wins.
Then comes gossip. As ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, Gossip traces in capsule form the overall descending trajectory. Starting as a harmless foible over the backyard fence, then recognized as perhaps performing a vital social function, gossip gives the public a whole lot of “stuff they need to know and can’t learn anywhere else, like how reliable people are, how trustworthy.” In this Epstein cites the seminal paper by Yale psychologists Sarah R. Wert and Peter Salovey (now Yale’s Provost) on gossip as “a promising venue” for gaining important knowledge about how societies work. So Epstein’s very human confession, that “I want to know the scandal”, gets a bath and a halo through many of these pages.
Once again, however, an age-old human trait currently seems to be spinning out of control as technology takes command. A process comes into operation that begins to resemble the spreading decadence described in Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome. First there are the facts of the situation. Then comes what people say about the facts, which can help clarify and interpret the facts. But then Rumor rears her ugly head, and clarifying commentary becomes vulnerable to the poisons of conspiracy theorizing, while mere gossip begins to shape the fate of nations. In today’s vast blogosphere, technology not only takes command but produces a forum awash with trash, with Shakespeare’s “What news on the Rialto?” inundated by reams of deliberately false defamations.
Epstein’s volumes require the reader’s most serious reflection. Yet at the same time they are always lighthearted, optimistic and fun. When Epstein was booted out of his editor’s chair at The American Scholar, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose intellectual Irish wit was akin to Joseph Epstein’s Jewish version, had an American flag flown over the Capitol and then presented to Epstein, a fitting tribute by one great American to another. The next step should be re-publication of the best of Epstein in The Library of America Classics series. But no need to wait for that. Just go out and get Gossip and its forerunners now. Besides, it’s too soon for a “best of”, because he’s not finished.
1Bate, Samuel Johnson (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 281.