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Not Your Regular Joe

A conversation with the essayist and editor Joseph Epstein

June 30, 1999

Narcissus Leaves the PoolIt happened once that GQ magazine was to photograph the editor and writer Joseph Epstein in his classroom at Northwestern University. Minutes before the photographer arrived, Epstein wrote on the blackboard a quotation from Baudelaire, covertly hoping it would turn up in the background of the published photograph. "Plus un homme cultive les arts, moins il bande," he scrawled in chalk. (Roughly translated, "The more a man immerses himself in the arts, the poorer his sex life.") Sure enough, the quotation made it into print. Epstein couldn't have been happier.

This anecdote -- half erudition, half prank -- is far more illustrative of who Joseph Epstein is than any photograph could ever be. This is a writer, after all, who expounds as confidently on Michael Jordan as on Evelyn Waugh, who has been known to describe W. H. Auden as a "mangy old coot," and who is somehow able to imbue such topics as name-dropping and nap-taking with literary and social significance. During the course of a career that has seen more than 1,700 essays into print (his writing has prompted comparisons to Michel de Montaigne and Charles Lamb), Epstein has mananged to have serious fun with a serious form.

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Born and raised in Chicago, Epstein has been a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University since 1974. In addition to ten essay collections, he has written two full-length books, Divorced in America (1974) and Ambition (1989), and a collection of short stories, The Goldin Boys (1991). In 1997 he stepped down from his post as editor of The American Scholar, a position he had held for twenty-two years. Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999), his most recent effort, is the sixth and final collection of the "familiar essays" he originally wrote for that journal. "The time has come for an end to preening, to thinking oneself still youthful," he writes in the book's introduction. "It is time to enter upon a new stage in life, time -- my God! -- to get serious."

Epstein spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein   

Narcissus Leaves the Pool is one of a handful of literary essay collections -- such as Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Wendy Lesser's The Amateur -- to be published of late. Would you care to comment on the current state of the essay?

The essay seems to be thriving at the moment. This may just be because there are a number of people right now who are fairly good at writing this strange form. Then again, it may have something to do with the fact that fiction is losing some of its prestige, which is not something that pleases me. I read a vast amount of contemporary fiction; I go to it to find out about how we live now, which is something that becomes less accessible as one grows older. Then again, the relative success of the essay may also have something to do with the diminishing national attention span. These days one sees a novel of four hundred pages, sighs, and says, "There goes a week of my reading life."

I'm surprised to hear you feel there's something to be gained from contemporary literature. You've written that literature today is second-rate.

I find myself buying lots of contemporary books, but somehow -- and this just may be a sign I'm getting older -- the earlier ones seem to have more quality. I think literature used to be taken more seriously, and was written out of greater seriousness, than it is now. When I was nineteen years old Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore were still alive and operating. There aren't figures like that today. But it may be natural to think that one has always arrived on the scene too late. You just get there, and you say, "What? The party's over?" I was recently asked to be a subject of a Paris Review interview. I remember reading the early Paris Review interviews with E. M. Forester and Faulkner and others, and so I thought, God. Now they're doing one with me. See how the world has slipped. It's worse than I thought.

You've written that the inclusion of contemporary writers in teaching curricula has not done much for literature. Could you explain why?

I think it's lowered the standard. In the old days of Oxford they used to teach nothing beyond Wordsworth. The assumption was that you didn't have to teach the good contemporary novelists and critics, because if you were interested in literature you were going to read them on your own. I'm not sure that assumption holds up anymore; it may be that there are too many competing forms of intellectual entertainment -- movies and television and all of that. But university education is so finite that it seems to me a mistake to spend a lot of the four years reading living writers. You should really try to cram yourself with the most serious stuff. Mine are clearly reactionary views, though, that aren't going to have any effect at all. The fascination with the contemporary is going to go on and on until students are studying writers who haven't even written anything yet.

Your essays are erudite but are also accessible and instructive. Could it be that you're a born teacher?

I don't think so. When I write an essay I don't set out to teach. I set out, usually, on a mission of self-discovery -- to find out what I really think about a subject. I don't have fixed opinions or views when I start to write; it's writing that forces them out of me. I suppose there's a certain element of showing off, too -- that's the erudition. But for the most part I'm really trying to figure out what I think of certain things.

There are two kinds of writers. (Robert Benchley once said there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't.) One is a writer who's always telling you things you never thought of, or didn't know before. The other is a writer who's telling you things that you do know but that you've never quite formulated for yourself. I'm the latter kind of writer. People are often saying to me, "You know, I've always felt that, but I never really thought to put it that way." It's pleasing when that happens. Simply to give pleasure at a fairly high intellectual level makes my day.

William Saroyan believed that the two kinds of writers were those whose style implied that death is inevitable, and those who implied that it isn't. You've expressed a similar sentiment yourself. Could you expand on this idea?

I don't mope and think about death all the time -- not quite -- but the idea that life is going to be over conditions almost everything I do. I'm always thinking about this -- when I work, when I read. I just don't want to waste myself on too much trivia. That's not to say that I don't watch my share of bad movies and read lots of gossip and all the rest of it, but I would hate to get to my deathbed and feel that I've blown it by wasting such small gifts as I have. Certain people are on a schedule in life and certain people are able to avoid the schedule. The people who are able to avoid the schedule probably enjoy life more. Those of us who are on a schedule are always hearing footsteps behind us. I've always felt this way. I must have been born with the gift of perpetual middle-age.

What accounts for your attraction to the famous cynic La Rochefoucauld?

La Rochefoucauld is an impressive character. While being deeply cynical in trying to get to the core of human nature, especially that part of human nature that most people would want to hide, he is also amused by the spectacle. That's what attracts me to him. American writing is not noted for cynicism; our country is founded on optimism. In a way, it won't quite do to be an American cynic.

What about Max Beerbohm? You've said that you so treasure his essay collection, And Even Now, that if you were a pharaoh you'd have it buried with you. How did you first come upon Beerbohm? Why has he been such an influence?

I first came upon Beerbohm late in college at the University of Chicago. I somehow knew straightaway that this was a very interesting dude, and the more I read of him the more I found he spoke to me in a significant way. He's of a small school of writers called the Laughing Skeptics. They don't have unusually bright views of the world; they take people's measure properly. And yet they are able to laugh about it and be amused by the spectacle. Mencken had some of this quality, although in a different way. Even Justice Holmes had it. But Beerbohm had it in excelsis. For example, Beerbohm was once asked what he thought of Freudianism. He replied -- I always imagine his reply in this piping English accent -- "A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?" Now that's real economy. Demolishing all of Freud in one sentence. He's always able to take the false drama out of things. That's what I love about him. I suppose the reverse of Max Beerbohm would be Norman Mailer.

It seems that fictional works can be more revealing than essays. Have you, for all your frankness as a writer, been able to hide behind the essay form?

Somebody once wrote me a letter years ago saying, "Your essays may be familiar but they're not very personal." I think that's all right. Whether I want to hide or not, I don't know. But you're on to a good point -- that is to say that in fiction one does feel that writers leave lots of fingerprints around. When you finish certain novels you feel you know where the novelist really lives, whereas if you read an essayist you don't necessarily. I don't, for example, tend to write about my family. I don't write about sex. And I don't for the most part write about fantasies, which fiction writers frequently do. So it may be that although the essay form pretends to great candor, candor really isn't essential to the form, even though the essayist is writing in the first person the whole time.

In 1991 you published your first and only work of fiction, The Goldin Boys, a collection of short stories. When did you start writing fiction?

I started out in life wanting to write stories. I did write them, and an occasional story was published in Harper's, and places like that, but they were never very satisfactory to me. I never felt I was writing the kinds of stories I wanted to write. And then somehow I rose above the idea of making judgments about people in stories. The idea that there are good people and bad people is not the way to proceed in fiction. What you need to do is find an interest in all people. It took me until my early forties to rise above my own hollow prejudices and discover this. I haven't abandoned my hollow prejudices, you understand; I simply rose above them to write these few stories that I hope work the way I want them to work.

The other thing I found is that certain subjects seem to me great story subjects, and other subjects seem to me great essay subjects. The story subjects seem to be those which can only be worked out in a dramatization. The issue of abortion is a case in point. I once wrote a story called "High Anxiety," about a man who discovers that his nineteen-year-old daughter, who's a very important person in his life, has had an abortion. He's very upset, and tries to get at why he's upset. My opinion of abortion -- whether I'm for it or against it -- doesn't matter. What interested me was, Why does it affect people so? On the other hand, when my mother died there seemed to be no point in putting her into a story. She was an extraordinary character, and to write about her in a straight way was the right way, it felt to me. I feel myself lucky to have found two sturdy forms -- the familiar essay and the short story -- in which to attempt to understand such experience as has come my way.

The characters peopling your stories not only all live in Chicago but are all working men as well, with occupations ranging from selling shoes or office furniture to writing literary biographies. How come?

I've always felt there to be something intrinsically interesting about work. Work is the thing most people do most of the time; it marks them. People often say, "I don't mean to talk shop, but ... " I find they're much more interesting when they talk shop than when they talk philosophy or theology or other things, and I've tried to make that an element of my stories. To write about characters and ignore their work leaves them kind of empty. You could do that in an aristocratic society where people didn't have to work. Nobody works in Henry James, for example -- except Henry James. In American writing this is the left-out element, and it needs to be put back in. I try when possible to have people in my stories have a job. I'm running an employment service actually.

You've written only two full-length books -- one on divorce, the other on ambition. How did you choose these topics?

I chose the first topic, divorce, simply because I wanted to write a book, and because I had just gone through a divorce. It seemed to me at the time that there was a lot of craziness and highblown nonsense being written about the subject. There was a book called Creative Divorce, if you can imagine, about how good divorce is for you. I thought that I ought to say that it's not good for you. It was my first book. It's a lugubrious book. I'm a bit afraid to go back and read it. Occasionally I'll pick it up and look at a sentence or two, and they seem to parse, I'm pleased to say. But it's a dark subject.

It seemed like there was a lot of nonsense being written about ambition, too. People were as ambitious as ever when I wrote that book, but somehow it wasn't officially thought good to admit to it. Ambition was part of the criticism of capitalism, and so if you were ambitious there was something wrong with you. I felt otherwise. In fact I felt stirrings of ambition in myself. Without ambition where are we? What I've since come to feel is that I see a lot of people with a sort of empty ambition, people who just want to get ahead, want to be rich, want all the fame and all the good things, but there's really nothing behind the ambition. Such people don't stand for anything, and that's when ambition gets dreary. I wish I'd featured more of that in the book.

Do you have any other books in the works?

I'm currently attempting a book on snobbery. Nobody seems to have written a book directly on snobbery since Thackeray, who wrote a book called The Book of Snobs. I hesitate to say this about anything by Thackeray, but it's not such a good book.

I began working on the book once before, actually, but it quickly became clear to me that I was writing the history of the world, which nobody seems to require just now, so I set it aside. Now I'm trying to make it a smaller book, a book of three hundred or so pages. The emphasis will be on snobbery in America. The more democratic a country's intentions the more snobbish it figures to be. Without ever using the word snobbery, the unavoidable Tocqueville underscores this in Democracy in America. The question of snobbery plays throughout a lot of my essays, I think. There are the essays on vulgarity, on name-dropping, on people trying to elevate themselves in some way over other people. It's a great subject. I hope I do it justice.

Is there a relationship between economic climate and literary quality?

There must be. But I think there's even more of a relationship between politics and literary quality. I'll give you an example of what I mean. I've often thought that a writer of my kind would not work in Israel. That is to say, Israel is such a serious country, and so political, that my kind of writing just wouldn't work there. To be an Israeli writer is very different from being an American writer. I can write the kind of thing I do because America is not so politicized a country. It's very nice. I feel very lucky to have all the freedom one does living in a stable economy in a country that's not absolutely dominated by politics.

You made headlines in the literary world two years ago when you stepped down after twenty-two years from your position as the editor of The American Scholar. Did closing the door on that era open any new doors for you?

My dear friend Edward Schils once said to me that if you don't feel a sense of intellectual progress in what you're doing, it becomes death. I think I'd come to the end of my editing tether. I'd had a very nice, easy, profitable run with that magazine for twenty-two years, with nobody telling me what to do, or how to run it, but I'm not sure that doing it for another ten years would have been any better. And I find I don't miss editing at all. It's nice to be no longer looking for pieces for other people to write, and for subjects for other people to go into. When I left the magazine I wrote a final essay, called "I'm History," and in it I said that I'd like to have a little sign made for my desk that read "RESPONSIBLE FOR MY PROSE ONLY." A reader actually sent one to me. It's on my desk now. I note it, happily, at the start of each day's work.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Katie Bolick is an Atlantic Unbound editor.

Epstein photo © Chicago Tribune.
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