FAMILIAR TERRITORY: Observations on American Life by Joseph Epstein

FAMILIAR TERRITORY: Observations on American Life

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Trampled ground, indeed. In these 14 essays, culled from the pages of the American Scholar (which he edits), Epstein gives voice to various ideas, many opinions, and a mass of crotchets--all in the course of setting himself up as a modern Tocqueville. But where Tocqueville saw both promise and danger in American manners and morals, Epstein sees only decay and decline. Starting with the problem of forms of address (no first-name chumminess for Mr. E.), he moves on to complain about the condition of modern language. It seems that too many words are meaningless cant and the new slang is not only ""a reflection of anger. . . one wonders if it is not also an aid to anger."" Lacking an American Academy of language, he'd settle for ""a national posse of cranks."" Epstein is especially vexed by the youth of the Sixties and the culture they wrought. Their democratization of behavior undermined the clear social divisions dear to Epstein's heart; professors should be distinguishable from students and clothes should not be worn to express a mood, whim, or lifestyle. Indeed, ""lifestyle"" is one of the words he likes least; though he shows that it denotes the changing relationship of work to leisure, he still insists that it's meaningless and opts for ""life."" Even worse than the messy Sixties, however, is their Seventies' avatar in the form of jogging, meditating, gourmandizing self-help devotees. ""Boutique America"" caustically indicts the combination of entrepreneurial drive and cultural pretension behind all the little shops named ""Wood 'N Things"" which sell plants, macram‚, health food, etc. Valid criticisms--but the tone is not convincing. Comparing such phoniness with ""real life,"" Epstein makes his neighborhood sound like a suburb of Our Town; and, with his plugs for old ways, old jokes, and old values, runs the same risk of smugness that youth culture does. When Epstein retreats from both life and lifestyles and turns to books (Beerbohm, Liebling, Mencken), he can be charming and amusing. Books bring out his ideas, life calls forth his crotchets.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press