Having recently become a deliberative septuagenarian, prolific commentator Epstein (Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide, 2006, etc.) gathers another profusion of personal essays.
Most of this varied fare first appeared under the byline Aristides in the American Scholar, the literary quarterly he edited from 1975 to 1997. Epstein practices the craft of the essay quite proficiently in multi-layered pieces that often prompt reflections beyond the subject matter directly at hand. True, his literary musings on favorite authors sometimes draw so heavily on said authors’ biographies that they sound a bit like prefaces to the Collected Works. But that’s fine by us, as they say in his hometown (Chicago), when he shares his thoughts about favorites like Auden, Valéry, Beerbohm, Karl Shapiro and, of course, philosopher Max Bialystock, the famous producer who supplies the book’s title. Proust, Epstein avers, produced a masterwork so good “it shouldn’t even be read for the first time.” Capote, as a “savvy man” and Keats, as a medical man, are considered anew. Nice as the appreciations may be, the best fun here is in the ad hominem pastings administered to panjandrum know-it-alls like Edmund Wilson, Mortimer Adler and (more contemporaneously) big old Harold Bloom. Epstein also considers such issues as book disposal, poets laureate, pedagogy, the wisdom of his father, movies and what’s wrong with the world—“too many people in it just like me,” he concludes. As is proper for a talented teacher and essayist, he is wonderfully opinionated. He hates “public intellectuals” and turgid writing. He’s a guileless snob, an Anglophile and a bit of a Francophile too, with a trace of Yiddishkeit.
Anyone who quotes Bialystock instead of Derrida is our kind of guy. Who says fun has to be brainless?