Essays in Biography


Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably Joseph Epstein. Epstein is penetrating. He is witty. He has a magic touch with words, that hard to define but immediately recognizable quality called style. Above all, he is impossible to put down. How easy it is today to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Each of the 39 pieces in this book is a pure pleasure to read.
Read More Show Less
... See more details below
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (12) from $2.48   
  • New (7) from $14.45   
  • Used (5) from $2.48   
Essays in Biography

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK Study
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$10.99 price
(Save 8%)$11.99 List Price


Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably Joseph Epstein. Epstein is penetrating. He is witty. He has a magic touch with words, that hard to define but immediately recognizable quality called style. Above all, he is impossible to put down. How easy it is today to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Each of the 39 pieces in this book is a pure pleasure to read.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Essays in Biography…is typical of [Eptstein's] work in that each of its 40 pieces is smart, witty and a pleasure to read.
—Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
Epstein (former editor of American Scholar and author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit) brings an erudite gift for portraiture to the subjects of this volume’s 40 essays. Focused primarily on figures from the 19th and 20th centuries (with occasional excursions into Greek antiquity and colonial America), Epstein offers eloquent assessments of philosophers, politicians, athletes, composers, social scientists, movie stars, and especially writers and critics. He is particularly drawn to figures whose renown is at odds with their personal and professional shortcomings—hence, his evaluation of Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man, as a writer whose inability to complete his second novel for the next 42 years suggests that “perhaps it is not a good idea to write a great book the first time out.” His studies of Dwight Macdonald, Gore Vidal, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Kristol create a lively, multifaceted portrait of America’s postwar intelligentsia. Though not uncritical, Epstein is more adulatory of celebrities, among them George Gershwin (“a genius of the natural kind”), Irving Thalberg (“the most talented producer in the history of American movies”), and Michael Jordan (“this magnificent athlete who turned his sport into art”). Opinionated and sometimes personal (notably in his piece on Saul Bellow, who fell out with him), these essays are edifying and often very entertaining. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“The acclaimed essayist . . . presents a provocative collection of essays that [are] . . . guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.”
--Kirkus Reviews, July 2012

“Erudite . . . eloquent . . . opinionated . . . edifying and often very entertaining.”
--Publishers Weekly; July 2012

“The joys of reading Joseph Epstein are many. . . . Readers consistently find wit, whimsy, and learning at the most accessible and enjoyable level.”
--Larry Thornberry, The American Spectator, October 1, 2012

“Mr. Epstein’s essays are brilliant distillations . . . [which] bring to biography a genius of discernment.”
--Carl Rollyson, Wall Street Journal; October 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews
The acclaimed essayist and former editor of the American Scholar presents a provocative collection of essays that illustrate the ways a writer can employ biographical detail. Epstein (English/Northwestern Univ.; Gossip, 2011, etc.) has assembled a motley crew of characters--from Henry Adams to Xenophon, Michael Jordan to Gore Vidal. The author has a capacious mind, a wide range of interests, political biases (he labels himself a conservative) and a vast storehouse of knowledge about literary history--all of which animate and inform his pieces. (A complaint: There is neither preface nor foreword--no evidence, other than internal, of the date and audience for the pieces.) Epstein begins with a tribute to George Washington, concluding that it was his "moral character" that set him apart--a trait apparently unsullied by his slave-holding? There is little doubt about the author's conservative preferences; when he writes about literature, he can become downright nasty and laugh-out-loud entertaining. He bites Saul Bellow ("a literary Bluebeard") substantially in a full essay then returns in other pieces for additional nips. He blasts Arnold Rampersad's biography of Ralph Ellison, admires Bernard Malamud, eviscerates Dwight Macdonald and sucker punches both Mailer (calling "The White Negro" a "wretched essay") and Vidal, whose essays he calls "dull hamburger." His assessments of critics Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Irving Kristol range from measured to admiring. Epstein reserves some of his most potent firepower for Susan Sontag (her films, he writes, are surely playing in hell) but loves the work of Max Beerbohm and George Eliot. Writing of the latter, he notes how she had a sympathy for Jews that is lacking in many other major writers. He ends with a moving account of his friendship with a man in a nursing home. Articulate, funny, informed and bitchy--guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781604190687
  • Publisher: Axios Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2012
  • Pages: 603
  • Sales rank: 486,429
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is a long time resident of Chicago. Joseph Epstein has taught English and writing at
Northwestern for many years. He is the author of 22 books, many of them collections of essays, and has also written for numerous magazines including the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Commentary.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


George Washington 3

Henry Adams and Henry James 27

George Santayana 41

Adlai Stevenson 57

Henry Luce 93

Ralph Ellison 129

Isaac Rosenfeld 143

Saul Bellow 159

Bernard Malamud 179

Dwight Macdonald 191

Gore Vidal 209

Irving Howe 221

Alfred Kazin 237

Irving Kristol 249

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 253

A.J. Liebling 267

John Frederick Nims 279

Susan Sontag 283


Max Beerbohm 291

George Eliot 301

Maurice Bowra 313

T.S. Eliot 325

Cyril Connolly 343

Isaiah Berlin 355

Hugh Trevor-Roper 367

John Gross 381

Popular Culture

Alfred Kinsey 391

Charles Van Doren 403

W.C. Fields 423

Irving Thalberg 435

George Gershwin 445

Joe DiMaggio 453

Michael Jordan 467

James Wolcott 481

Malcolm Gladwell 491

And Others

Erich Heller 505

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 513

V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux 525

Xenophon 539

Matthew Shanahan 551

Index 565

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)