Epstein's essays focus on the mental states and mores of some literary lions

August 08, 1993|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

PERTINENT PLAYERS: ESSAYS

ON THE LITERARY LIFE

Joseph Epstein

Norton

! 414 pages, $24.95

It was a special pleasure in 19th-century England, Joseph Epstein writes, when a letter arrived from the Rev. Sydney Smith. Some of us feel a similar pleasure when a new essay arrives from Joseph Epstein.

Mr. Epstein's work is a sign that dark as the world is, it's still possible to love it. All you need is humor; openness to experience; common sense that stops short of philistinism; the power of making subtle distinctions, and courage.

Mr. Epstein is most drawn to the "good-natured pessimist," who "grow[s] up believing in the corruption inherent in life and then [goes] on to be fairly regularly surprised by how much goodness there is in the world." His third collection of literary essays contains several eye-opening examples of the qualities he admires.

Sydney Smith, always short of money, forced by his father into a career as a country parson and barred from promotion by his Whig politics, can still write: "[A]s long as I can possibly avoid it I will never be unhappy." Robert Louis Stevenson's zest for life is never undercut by his money troubles, domestic chaos or permanently ruinous health.

A young Southern writer named Tim McLaurin, escaping an often brutal working-class life only to face cancer, refuses to indulge in hatred of his origins. Mr. McLaurin's "Keeper of the Moon" is far from perfect, Mr. Epstein writes, but he "has written a book propelled by a greater love of life than writers older and more sophisticated than he" -- and Mr. Epstein means Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis and Auberon Waugh.

What comes across clearly, though, is that the role of the good-natured pessimist is enormously hard. Sydney Smith, unlike Mr. Epstein and most of his heroes, had his religious faith; xTC Stevenson died in Samoa at 44, before anger might have had a chance to set in.

But Mr. Epstein finds a bitterness in Isaac Bashevis Singer's last published works that makes them "not very interesting art" -- though he might have added that Singer was ill for years before he died. But the most problematic case is here at home: H. L. Mencken, whose "streak of darkness" threatened to wreck his reputation when his diaries were published in 1989, despite his will's express language.

When Mr. Epstein's defense of Mencken against charges of anti-Semitism appeared in Commentary, I thought it strained, if understandably so, given Mr. Epstein's love of Mencken's work and his view of Mencken's character. But read again, in a context provided by essays on other writers, his argument carries more weight.

Mr. Epstein says that by having the diaries published, the trustees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library "fed a man known for his candor into the maw of an age wishing to be known for its false spirit of caring." But digs at Jews and blacks similar to those in the diaries appear in "My Life As Author And Editor," which came out this spring and which Mencken did want published.

The problem is that the things people say about -- and within -- their own group have a very different character when uttered by outsiders. Mr. Epstein himself acknowledged the rule long ago, and quoted the classic case involving Otto H. Kahn, the financier and philanthropist. A Jew who converted to Christianity, Kahn cited a familiar and offensive slang word for Jews as "what you call the Jewish gentleman who has just left the room."

Now he writes of that rule as a barrier to free, and truthful, speech. (As a college English teacher, he must live with the academic left's war on political incorrectness.) But Mr. Epstein's greatest service to Mencken may be to call in other writers as witnesses, not so much to Mencken's character as to the changes in permitted public speech between his pre-Holocaust era and ours.

Henry James' references to Jews, Mr. Epstein notes in an essay on teaching him, "did not, as he did in so many other ways, rise above his time and place," but "in the Dreyfus Affair, James was absolutely on the correct side, applauding Emile Zola's 'J'accuse' and deploring the anti-Semitism of such long-time French friends as Paul Bourget, which quite sickened him."

And reviewing Joseph Alsop's memoirs, Mr. Epstein observes that even Eleanor Roosevelt, when young, would take a verbal crack at the Jews.

Mr. Epstein concludes, a bit wishfully, that Mencken wasn't an anti-Semite at all. Whatever virus Mencken had was far milder than that which infected, say, Henry Adams -- or George Santayana, whose most famous line adorns Baltimore's Holocaust memorial.

Russell Baker, whose poor Southern WASP family lived near Mencken and belonged to the class at whom Mencken directed more sustained and public nastiness than he did at Jews and blacks together, said such talk might have been hurtful, but it was standard in those days. The public seems to have agreed.

It would be unfair to Mr. Epstein to reduce a review of his work to an opinion check, distributing praise or blame when the author agrees or disagrees with you. In the essays I've cited and others -- on such writers as William Hazlitt and Desmond MacCarthy, and on such non-literary figures as Robert Hutchins, the legendary president of the University of Chicago; Ben Hecht, the co-playwright of "The Front Page"; and Sidney Hook, the late philosopher -- Mr. Epstein conveys the value of literature both for itself and in relation to the wonderful complexity of life. I've learned more about those things from his work than, perhaps, from my college literary studies. I hope many other readers, amateur and professional, will learn from him too.

Mr. Landaw is an editor with The Sun.

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