AMBITION: The Secret Passion by Joseph Epstein

AMBITION: The Secret Passion

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Ambition, according to Epstein, has been so discredited that even those who evidence it refuse to profess it. And that's bad: ""to discourage ambition is to discourage dreams of grandeur and greatness."" True or false or piffle, his redemptive effort fails became he has so little that's original, entertaining, or even particularly cutting to say on the subject. In lengthy chapters roughly concerned with success, wealth, and social standing as incentives, he presents arid capsule biographies of Ben Franklin, Henry Adams, John D. Rockefeller, Mark Twain, the Guggenheims, the duPonts, Henry Ford, Edith Wharton, and Joe Kennedy--to the point of demonstrating that, for instance, Rockefeller and Ford weren't solely after money or power! This is not only no revelation; in the absence of psychological insights, even of biographical accuracy (e.g., Epstein rejects as calumny the now-established bigamy of JDR's father), it's a dry hole. A chapter on failure then cites, with marked ungenerosity, the cases of Scott Fitzgerald (who made a posthumous success of failure) and Adlai Stevenson, who ""was riven by wanting power--doubtless to do good with, at least as he construed it--and by his inability to own up to it and. . . to do what is required to get it."" Much of this is directed at middle-class dropouts who scorn what their parents worked for; some is directed, indiscriminately, at social critics as different as David Reisman and Christopher Lasch; some is aimed at the novelists (Sinclair Lewis et al.) whose ""preponderant views"" have allegedly ""come to dominate American life."" Epstein does score a point in noting that some of ambition's supporters (such as Michael Korda) make it as unattractive as its detractors; but most of this is a broad sweep with too coarse a net to catch anything.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 1980
Publisher: Dutton