Essays in Biography

Overview

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.
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Essays in Biography

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Overview

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.
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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.
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Table of Contents

Americans

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

Englishmen

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

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