Sunday, October 14, 2012

America's Montaigne -Joseph Epstein Baffles BS in Biography

Image of Joseph Epstein

"I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." --Essays Montaigne

Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else.  Heavy Sentences -Joseph Epstein New Criterion

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. Wall Street Journal

Yesterday I placed my order with the good folks at for Joe Epstein's 23rd book Essays in Biography (Axios Press $24).

I have been reading Joe Epstein for decades.  I first learned of Mr. Epstein from a professor ( a tag Joe Epstein eschews -"You mean a piano player in a Kankakee Cat House?") at Loyola University in 1974.  Dr. William Hiebel taught American Literature and Prose.  Joe Epstein had a reputation for crafting brilliant and very readable prose, which he practiced upon the contributing authors to American Scholar. Dr. Hiebel introduced me to writers who wanted people to actually understand what they wanted to say and not build verbal labyrinths to themselves -writes like Joe Epstein, Mark Harris and the much too overlooked James Salter.

Joe Epstein writes with an invitingly genuine quality that makes the reader a comfortable guest in his home.  Charm is a lousy word. To call Joe Epstein charming is an affront to his honesty.  Mr. Epstein  is not charming - he is delightful.  Charming, where I come from, is an insult.   Joe comes from the same bungalow, two-flat, raised ranch helot dwelling environs up on the top of Chicago - Rogers Park.

A Charmer is a bullshitter - a charming Billy, a grifter, a sneak.

One who delights is a like a young Dad whose whispered  words to his six year old son elicit a wild display of little-man heroics and infantile wrestling moves in a crowded Mexican fast-food joint at 43rd & Wallace. " What kind of sides you want? "

" Masha Putatahs!"

" Masha Putatahs? This ain't Schallers."

" I want Masha Putatahs!"

Ready!  Wrestle! That is delight.  Dad and lad going at it over menu selection with squeals and giggles from both indicating their delight in one another and this precious time together alone. Joe Epstein does exactly that, he delights a crowd in lunch hour rush waiting for their orders in Mexican fast-food joint.

In his recent book of stories and essays Fabulous Small Jews Joe Epstein presents a variation on Irish Alzheimers Disease* - ''Psychotherapy is what Jews have instead of golf,'' one character says. ''Gentiles try to improve their backswing, Jews their past.'' 

Joe Epstein reads broadly and deeply, be it a Mexican menu or the canon of John Dos Passos and, as a result, gives back better than he gets within his capacity to be himself -monster and miracle.  All of us know the monsters we drag around and keep at bay, for most part, in the company of people.  We do our best to be more miracle worker than monster.  We all want to be Prospero, but manage to be more like Caliban - you should get a load of me in most waking hours.  Over whom do hold dominion, my monster, or my master?  The Monster ( appetites, follies, vanities and foibles) in two falls to a submission! Maybe not.  The more we read of others and the monster we be, perhaps the more we might master ourselves and serve others better. Maybe not.  Joe Epstein helps.

I believe Joseph Epstein to be America's Montaigne ( the Dad of the essay) and it was Montaigne who gave us Caliban and the assorted anthropophagi who dominate literature from Renaissance on. I too, sprout my head below my shoulders on some very bad days.

Joe Epstein succeeds where charlatans only become celebrities.  More people know of our Norman Mailers, Susan Sontags, Michael Eric Dysons, or Gore Vidals because they never question their own personal Caliban and promote Prospero Mailer on Dick Cavet, or Sara Prospero-Paretsky on the Oprah Show ( dec.).

Joe Epstein is the real deal.  He is America's Montaigne.

* Irish Alzheimer's Disease -You forget everything but the grudges!


Dennis Byrne... said...

Well said. The first thing I look for in the Weekly Standard is an Epstein essay and feel greatly disappointed when none appears.

Art Film Comments from Bill West said...

Thank you, Pat, for remembering forty-two years later. Were you a lanky redhead in '76? My website under my professional name (who could say Hiebel) is You can see me ead my poems on YouTube under Bill West Reads (made last August) @'20" in ten minute intervals or episodes. You can see my photographs on billwestpd. I live half the year in Chicago and the other half on South Beach (southern end of Miami Beach. Are you a sort od B level tennis player? Love, Bill Hiebel