The best of these essays are more than mildly charming, but Epstein’s self-satisfied opinions can be more than mildly...

THE IDEAL OF CULTURE

ESSAYS

A prolific essayist offers forthright opinions on literature, writing, culture, and aging.

The former editor of the American Scholar, Epstein (Emeritus, English/Northwestern Univ.; Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays, 2016, etc.) gathers recent essays, most published in Commentary, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. Having turned 80 in 2017, Epstein takes pride in being “out of it,” oblivious to popular culture, contemporary novels, art, and politics. As a younger man, he describes himself as having been a “strong liberal, leaning to the radical in politics,” but the social and political upheaval of the 1960s changed those views profoundly. As a teacher at Northwestern, he saw intellectual authority questioned and sullied. In several essays he laments “the death of traditional liberalism” as represented by Hubert Humphrey and Lionel Trilling and the rise of “dogmatic academic feminism, victimological African-American Studies,” and the widespread prevalence of “victim studies.” As a result, there “has been the emphasis on race, class, and gender and the concomitant politicalization—some would add trivialization—of much that goes on in the humanities and social sciences departments.” Victimhood is not limited to academia, according to Epstein, but pervades literature (memoir and the fiction of Toni Morrison, “a connoisseur of victimhood whose novels deal with little else”) and politics. Politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, writes the author, are not evaluated “on their intrinsic qualities” but “because of the accidents of their birth; because they are black, or women, or, one day doubtless, gay, or disabled.” Epstein waxes nostalgic for the serene gentility of WASP culture. Gone are the days, he writes, when “stability, solidity, gravity, a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life.” Although “in our egalitarian age,” cultural elitism is damned, Epstein happily champions “the best that has been thought and said.” In an essay on wit, the author modestly admits that he is not witty but “mildly charming.”

The best of these essays are more than mildly charming, but Epstein’s self-satisfied opinions can be more than mildly infuriating.

Pub Date: May 7, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60419-123-3

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Axios Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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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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