Joseph Epstein: sane voice of dying middle class

May 26, 1991|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,Mr. Landaw is a makeup editor for The Sun.


Joseph Epstein.


331 pages. $21.95.

If essayists were baseball players, Joseph Epstein would be an unspectacular but always successful control pitcher like the old Yankees' Ed Lopat.

After more than 15 years, readers like me know well enough what to expect from him -- the self-deprecation that skates close to the edge of false modesty but never falls in, the deadpan passage that swerves into a striking figure of speech -- but the turns still work as well as ever. What's more, they work on second and third exposures, as sharp between hard covers as they were when they first appeared in The American Scholar. The question is: How does he do it?

Without a strong point of view, as Mr. Epstein has observed elsewhere, a style is nothing. At the heart of his point of view is a deep appreciation of what George Orwell called the actual process of life. His subjects -- hats, envy, smoking, gossip, money -- recall, in their deceptive ordinariness, Orwell's naughty postcards or toads in springtime. It's significant that neither George Orwell nor Joseph Epstein, who admires Orwell so much while differing from him in so many particulars, had the hothouse upbringing of the stereotype intellectual.

Mr. Epstein likes to say that he was a poor student who caught fire intellectually only in college. "I used to believe that there were no good teachers at my high school," he writes, "but then it occurred to me that if a teacher was thought to be good -- which meant serious and demanding -- I steered clear of him. I remember a teacher of chemistry named Dr. Davidson, one of those gallant pedagogues with a Ph.D. who preferred to teach in the trenches of a city public high school. He was dark with a receding hairline, a perpetually furrowed brow, and rimless glasses. He taught and walked the corridors in a white lab coat, and, with every gesture, radiated an air of high intellectual

purpose. I would just as soon have taken Dr. Davidson's chemistry course then as I would enter myself in a backwards naked marathon now."

Whatever Mr. Epstein lost by treating school that way, he evidently made up for in appreciation of experience. When he did fall in love with books, he understood that they were meant to illuminate and enhance life, not substitute for it, turn it into theory or stimulate grievances against it.

A brief sketch of his late journalist friend Jerry Neil sounds like a description of Mr. Epstein's own ideal self: Neil was "able to participate in the wider culture of the world while never forgetting his origins. He had read widely in European history and English literature. He admired Max Beerbohm, H. L. Mencken, and A. J. Liebling. He had the old-fashioned journalist's love of oddity of character and appetite for a comic anecdote. . . . He dressed with refinement and thought the same way."

Mr. Epstein's career, thus highlighted, seems almost an object lesson in the benefits of slacking off at school, hardly the message we need to hear now. But he had something going for him that we're losing: In his day, the middle class' center still held.

Mr. Epstein's disclaimers about academic work for himself and others might console anyone worried about schools today -- as ** who isn't? "When I learn that only a very small percentage of 17-year-olds in America have read 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles,' or know why 'The Federalist' was written, or can locate Yugoslavia, Greece, and France on a blank map," he writes, "I confess that I neither read nor knew how to do any of those things at 17, and I am none too confident about other such items that appear in these reports now that I am in my fifties." But when he discovered his calling as a writer, he drew support from a tradition of intellectual and moral seriousness that the middle class had kept up for generations. Over the next 30 or so years, the interest of large parts of that class in maintaining this tradition lapsed, with grim consequences for learning and for life.

His habits formed in the "ancien regime of middle-class behavior," Mr. Epstein could observe the gambling, hustling, philandering side of life without risking his own moral stability. But that low life has migrated from the dark corners where it was long tolerated into center stage. That means diminished support for the effort to live a decent, ordinary life, and turns the idea of sowing wild oats into something possibly life-threatening.

Luckily for the readers, it's not Mr. Epstein's way to get bitter. He treats his subjects with wry, sometimes elegiac appreciation, letting the sense of loss come out chiefly in asides and implications. Perhaps he does so because anger suits people dominated by their politics and he's not, at bottom, a political man; or perhaps he doesn't care to concede more than he must to the rising whininess of American life.

Mr. Epstein had, as he describes it, an upbringing so happy that at first it doesn't seem fair to expect a temperament like his of anyone less fortunate than himself. But Mr. Epstein, who's no Pangloss, shouldn't be penalized because he prefers to leave his deeper sorrows at a dignified remove. What he has to tell us about the "gift and puzzle" of life is as profitable to think about as it's pleasant to read.

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