LIFE SENTENCES: Literary Essays by Joseph Epstein

LIFE SENTENCES: Literary Essays

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Epstein (Pertinent Players, 1993, etc.) delivers literary appreciations and depreciations of an eclectic set of members of the Republic of Letters. In his fourth collection of literary essays, Epstein knowledgeably displays his affinity for the old school of bare-knuckles criticism as practiced by H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson. The former editor of the American Scholar is no more afraid of airing personal preferences (or prejudices) in literature's service--from Montaigne to Solzhenitsyn--than Mencken or Wilson were when promoting Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald or deflating overlarge reputations, Dreiser and Fitzgerald are reappraised here, along with John Dos Passos and Ambrose Bierce, and are judged selectively on aesthetics, moral purpose, and charm. Thus, Dreiser is pardoned for writing badly but seriously, Dos Passos for writing overambitiously but inventively, and Fitzgerald for writing self-pityingly but lyrically. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop get off less lightly, with Epstein castigating them as much for muddled personal lives as for poetic weaknesses. By contrast, Philip Larkin gets a sympathetic hearing for posterity, despite charges of alcoholism, misogyny, and bigotry. Epstein's double standard--defending those under attack and vice versa--is most telling in his two essays on that improbable married couple of letters, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. The prickly Wilson proved a repugnant character in his journals, especially the priapic, misanthropic senior citizen of The Sixties, but Epstein still asserts his greatness on the basis of such books as Shores of Light and Patriotic Gore. McCarthy, no less prickly Or ambitious than Wilson, instead gets relegated to the merely clever and outdated, though her literary instincts were arguably sharper (especially about their friend Nabokov) and her fiction demonstrably better. Life Sentences, however unexpectedly and puzzlingly lenient or harsh, at least shows that literature is worth arguing over, and it reminds us that there is much in it to profitably argue about.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton