LIFE SENTENCES

LITERARY ESSAYS

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 McCarthy, no less prickly or ambitious than Wilson, instead gets relegated to the merely clever and outdated, though her literary instincts were arguably sharper (especially about their friend Nabokov) and her fiction demonstrably better.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. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-393-04546-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1997

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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