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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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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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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