Life is not easy for me being a snob and a reverse snob simultaneously," writes Epstein (Friendship) in this engaging, irascible collection. The longtime editor of the American Scholaris indeed omnidirectional in his disdain-"nature was overrated," he sniffs while driving through the Pacific Northwest-but some targets get extra attention. Chief among them are allegedly overrated intellectuals like Mortimer Adler (a "clown savant" with a "coarse and deeply vulgar mind"), Edmund Wilson ("a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem, a nearly perpetual erection and a mean streak") and Harold Bloom ("nearly perfect unreadability"). Modern America is condemned for its "perpetual adolescence" and aversion to Henry James. And the feminists, Marxists, queer theorists and other "hacks" running the Modern Language Association are lashed for replacing literary aesthetics with trendy politics in university English departments (a critique that is stated more than shown). Epstein goes easier on actual (and dead) producers of literature in appreciative essays on Keats, Proust, Truman Capote and Max Beerbohm. And he's downright fond of fixtures in his own life, from a favorite Chinese restaurant to his dad, a true adult who wore black socks and business shoes to the beach. Throughout, Epstein cuts the cantankerousness with wry humor and perceptive erudition. (Sept. 6)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savageby Joseph Epstein
Taking his title from the wounded cry of the once great Max Bialystock in The Producers — “Look at me now! Look at me now! I’m wearing a cardboard belt!” — the charming essayist Joseph Epstein gives us his largest and most adventurous collection to date. With his signature gifts of sparkling humor and penetrating intelligence, he
Taking his title from the wounded cry of the once great Max Bialystock in The Producers — “Look at me now! Look at me now! I’m wearing a cardboard belt!” — the charming essayist Joseph Epstein gives us his largest and most adventurous collection to date. With his signature gifts of sparkling humor and penetrating intelligence, he issues forth as a memoirist, polemicist, literary critic, and amused observer of contemporary culture. In deeply considered examinations of writers from Paul Valéry to Truman Capote, in incisive take-downs of such cultural pooh-bahs as Harold Bloom and George Steiner, and in personally revealing essays about his father and about his years as a teacher, this remarkable collection from one of America’s best essayists is a book to be savored.
Epstein's (Snobbery: The American Version) description of Truman Capote as "gayer than a leap year Mardi Gras" is just one of the sly remarks setting the tone for this collection of 31 essays and reflections. In "Goodbye, Mr. Chipstein," a story about the 30 years he spent teaching English and writing at Northwestern University, Epstein reveals how his students taught him nothing but reminded him of the "surprise of human possibility." He discusses restaurants in "Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton" and pays homage to the unnamed creator of the BLT sandwich, all the while explaining his dislike of overly friendly waiters. He also covers literature in several entries, e.g., with his dismissal of the Great Books clubs and his thoughts on how refusing the position of poet laureate of the United States is the only way to be recognized in association with that position. In the end, it is Epstein's introductory comments on turning 70 that mark the entire work: Epstein shuns literary honors and states he just wants to be remembered as a good writer by thoughtful people. And so it is. Recommended for academic library literary collections.
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Oh Dad, Dear Dad
It will soon be seven years since my father died, leaving me, at a mere sixty- two, orphaned. He was ninety-one when he died, in his sleep, in his own apartment in Chicago. Such was the relentlessness of his vigor that, until his last year, I referred to him behind his back as the Energizer Bunny: he just kept going. I used to jokehalf joke is closer to itabout “the vague possibility” that he would predecease me. Now he has done it, and his absence, even today, takes getting used to.
When an aged parent dies, one’s feelings are greatly mixed. I was relieved that my father had what seems to have been an easeful death. In truth, I was also relieved at not having to worry about him any longer (though, apart from running a few errands and keeping his checkbook in the last few years of his life, he really gave my wife and me very little to worry about). But with him dead, I have been made acutely conscious that I am next in line for the guillotine: C’est, as Pascal would have it, la condition humaine.
Now that my father is gone, many questions will never be answered. Not long before he died I was driving him to his accountant’s office and, without any transition, he said, “I wanted a third child, but your mother wasn’t interested.” This was the first I had heard about it. He was never a very engaged parent, certainly not by the full-court-press standards of today. Having had two sonsme and my younger brotherhad he, I suddenly wondered, begun to yearn for a daughter?
“Why wasn’t Mother interested?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” he said. Subject closed.
On another of our drives in that last year, he asked me if I had anything in the works in the way of business. I told him I had been invited to give a lecture in Philadelphia. He inquired if there was a fee. I said there was: $5,000.
“For an hour’s talk?” he said, a look of astonishment on his face.
“Fifty minutes, actually,” I said, unable to resist provoking him lightly. His look changed from astonishment to bitter certainty. The country had to be in one hell of a sorry condition if they were passing out that kind of dough for mere talk from his son.
Was he, then, a good father? This was the question an acquaintance put to me at lunch recently. When I asked what he meant by good, he said: “Was he, for example, fair?” My father was completely fair, never showing the least favoritism between my brother and me (a judgment my brother has con- firmed). He also set an example of decency, nicely qualified by realism. “No one is asking you to be an angel in this world,” he told me when I was fourteen, “but that doesn’t give you warrant to be a son-of-a-bitch.” And, as this suggests, he was an unrelenting fount of advice, some of it pretty obvious, none of it stupid. “Always put something by for a rainy day.” “People know more about you than you think.” “Work for a man for a dollar an houralways give him a dollar and a quarter’s effort.” Some of his advice seemed wildly misplaced. “Next to your brother, money’s your best friend” was a remark made all the more unconvincing by the fact that my brother and I, nearly six years apart in age, were never that close to begin with. On the subject of sex, the full extent of his wisdom was “Be careful.” Of what, exactly, I was to be carefulvenereal disease? pregnancy? getting entangled with the wrong girl?he never filled in.
My father and I spent a lot of time together when I was an adolescent. He manufactured and imported costume jewelry (also known as junk jewelry) and noveltiesidentification bracelets, cigarette lighters, miniature cameras, bolo tieswhich he sold to Woolworth’s, to the International Shoe Company, to banks, and to concessionaires at state fairs. I traveled with him in the summer, spelling him at the wheel of his Buicks and Oldsmobiles, toting his sample cases, writing up orders, listening to him tellad infinitum, ad nauseamthe same three or four jokes to customers. We shared rooms in less-than-first-class hotels in midwestern townsDes Moines, Minneapolis, Columbusbut never achieved anything close to intimacy, at least in our conversation. His commercial advice was as useful as his advice about sex. “Always keep a low overhead.” “You make your money in buying right, you know, not in selling.” “Never run away from business.” Some of it has stuck; nearly a half century later, I still find it hard to turn down a writing assignment lest I prove guilty of running away from business.
My least favorite of his maxims was “You can’t argue with success.” In my growing-up days, I thought there was nothing better to argue with. I tried to tell him why, but I never seemed to get my point across. The only time our argumentts ever got close to the shouting stage was over the question of whether or not federal budgets had to be balanced. I was then in my twentiiiiies, and our ignorance on this question was equal and mutualthough he turned out to be right: all things considered, balanced is better.
When not in his homiletic mode, my father could be very penetrating. “There are three ways to do business in this country,” he once told me. “At the top level, you rely heavily on national advertising and public relations. At the next level, you take people out to dinner or golfing, you buy them theater tickets, supply women. And then there’s my level.” Pause. Asked what went on there, he replied: “I cut prices.” His level, I thought then and still think, was much the most honorable.
He appreciated jokes, although in telling them he could not sustain even a brief narrative. His own best wit entailed a comic resignation. In his late eighties, he made the mistake of sending to a great-nephew whom he had never met a bar mitzvah check for $1,000, instead of the $100 he had intended. When I discovered the error and pointed it out to him, he paused only briefly, smiled, and said, “Boy, is his younger brother going to be disappointed.” Work was the place where my father seemed most alive, most impressive. Born in Montreal and having never finished high school, he came to America at seventeen, not long before the Depression. He took various flunky jobs, but soon found his niche as a salesman. “Kid,” one of his bosses once told him, so good was he at his work, “try to remember that this desk I’m sitting behind is not for sale.” Eventually, he owned his own small business.
He worked six days a week, usually arriving at 7:30 a.m. If he could find some excuse to go down to work on Sunday, he was delighted to do so. On his rare vacations, he would call in two or three times a day to find out what was in the mail, who telephoned, what deliveries arrived.
He never had more than seven or eight employees, but the business was fairly lucrative. In the late 1960s I recall him saying to me, “The country must be in terrible shape. You should see the crap I’m selling.” In later years, a nephew worked for him; neither my brother nor I ever seriously thought about joining the business, sensing that it was a one-man show, without sufficient oxygen for two. One day, after he had had a falling-out with this nephew, my father said to me, “He’s worked for me for fifteen years. We open at eight-thirty, and for fifteen years he has come in at exactly eight- thirty. You’d think oncejust oncethe kid would be early.” “I call people rich,” Henry James has Ralph Touchett say in The Portrait of a Lady, “when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination.” Although not greatly wealthy, my father made enough money fully to meet the demands of his. He could give ample sums to (mostly Jewish) charities, help out poor relatives, pay for his sons’ education, buy his wife the diamonds and furs and good clothes that were among the trophies of my parents’ generation’s success, in retirement take his grandsons to Israel, Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Soviet Union, New Zealand. At the very end, he told me that what most pleased him about his financial independence was never having to fall back on anyone else for help, right up to and including his exit from the world.
In my late twenties, my father, then in his late fifties, had a mild heart attack, and I feared I would lose him without ever getting to know him better. Having just recently returned to Chicago after a stint directing the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Arkansas, I thought it might be a good thing if we were to meet once a week for lunch. On the first of these occasions, I took him to a French restaurant on the Near North Side. The lunch lasted nearly ninety minutes. I could practically smell his boredom, feel his longing to get back to “the place,” as he called his business, then located on North Avenue west of Damon. We never lunched alone again until after my mother’s death, when I felt he needed company.
At some pointaround, I think, the time he hit sixtymy father, like many another successful man operating within a fairly small circle, ceased listening. A courteous, even courtly man, he was, please understand, never rude. He would give you your turn and not interrupt, nodding his head in agreement at much of what you said. But he was merely waitingwaiting to insert one of his own thoughts. He had long since mastered the falsely modest introductory clause, which he put to regular use: “I’m inclined to believe that there is more good than bad in the world,” he might offer, or “I may be mistaken, but don’t you agree that disease and war are Mother Nature’s way of thinning out the population?” I winced when I learned that the father of a friend of mine, having met him a few times, had taken to referring to my father as “the Rabbi.” Although he did not dwell on the past, neither was he much interested in the future. He had an astonishing ability to block things out, including his own illnesses, even surgeries. He claimed to have no memory of his heart attack, and he chose not to remember that, like many men past their mid-eighties, he had had prostate cancer. “I’m a great believer in mind over matter,” he used to say.
He also liked to say that there wasn’t anything really new under the sun. When I would report some excess to himfor example, a lunch check of $180 for two in New Yorkhe would say, “What’re ya, kidding me?” Although he was greatly interested in human nature, psychology at the level of the individual held no attraction for him. If I told him about someone’s odd or unpredictable or stupid behavior, he would respond, “What is he, crazy?” Then, after his retirement at seventy-five, my father began to write. His own father had composed two booksone in Hebrew and one in Yiddishfor which my father had paid most of the expense of private publication. Offering to sell some of these books, he kept a hundred or so copies stored in our basement. This turned out to be a ruse for increasing the monthly stipend he was already sending my grandfather: each month he would add $30, $45, or $50, saying it represented payment for books he had sold. Then one day a UPS truck pulled up with another hundred books and a note from my grandfather, who had grown worried that his son’s stock was running low.
And now here was I, his eldest son, also publishing books. My father must have feltwith a heavy dose here of mutatis mutandislike the Mendelssohn who was the son of the philosopher and the father of the composer but never had his own shot at a touch of intellectual glory. So he, too, began writing. His preferred form was the two- or three-sentence pensée (he would never have called it that), usually pointing a moral. “Man forces nature to reveal her chemical secrets” is an example of his work in this line. “Nature evens the score because man cannot always control the chemicals.” In the middle of the morning my phone would ring, and it would be my father with a question: “How do you spell ‘affinity’?” Then he would ask if he was using the word correctly in the passage he was writing, which he would read to me. I always told him I thought his observations were interesting, or accurate, or that I had never before thought of the point he was making. Often I tossed in minor corrections, or I might suggest that his second sentence didn’t quite follow from his first. I loved him too much to say that a lot of what he had written bordered on the commonplace and, alas, often crossed that border. I’m not sure he cared all that much about my opinion anyway.
He began to carry a small notepad in his shirt pocket. On his afternoon walks, new material would occur to him. Adding pages dailyhourly, almosthe announced one day that he had a manuscript of more than a thousand pages. He referred to these writings offhandedly as “my stuff,” or “my crap,” or “the chazerai I write.” Still, he wanted to know what I thought about sending them to a publisher. The situation was quite hopeless; but I lied, said it was worth a try, and wrote a letter over his name to accompany a packet of fifty or so pages of typescript. He began with the major publishers, then went to the larger university presses, then to more obscure places.
After twenty or so rejections, I suggested a vanity-press arrangementnever using the deadly word “vanity.” For $10,000 or so, he could have 500 copies of a moderate-size book printed for his posterity. But he had too much pride for that, and after a while he ceased to send out his material. What he was writing, he concluded, had too high a truth quotientit was, he once put it to me, “too hot”for the contemporary world. But he kept on scribbling away, flagging only in the last few years of his life, when he complained that his inspiration was drying up.
Altogether, he had ended up with some 2,700 pageshis earnest, ardent attempt to make sense of the world before departing it. Although he had no more luck in this than the rest of us, there was something gallant about the attempt.
Becoming aware of our fathers’ fallibilities is a jolt. When I was six years old, we lived in a neighborhood where I was the youngest kid on the block and thus prey to eight- and nine-year-olds with normal boyish bullying tendencies. One of them, a kid named Denny Price, was roughing me up one day when I told him that if he didn’t stop, my father would get him. “Ya fadda,” said Denny Price, “is an asshole.” Even to hear my father spoken of this way sickened me. I would have preferred another punch in the stomach.
WorldWar II was over by the time I was eight, but I remember being disappointed that my father had not gone to fight. (He was too old.) I also recall my embarrassmentI was nineat seeing him at an office party of a jewelry company he then worked for (Beiler-Levine, on Wabash Avenue), clownishly placing his hand on the stomach of a pregnant secretary, closing his eyes, and predicting the sex of the child.
He was less stylish than many of my friends’ fathers. He had no clothes for leisure, and when he went to the beach (which he rarely did), he marched down in black business shoes, socks with clocks on them, and very white legs. He cared not at all about sportswhich, when young, was the only thing I did care about. Later, I saw him come to wrong decisions about real estate, worry in a fidgeting way over small sums he was owed, make serious misjudgments about people. He preferred to operate, rather as in his writing, at too high a level of generality. “Mother Nature abhors a vacuum,” he used to say, and I, to myself, would think, “No, Dad, it’s a vacuum-cleaner salesman she abhors.” At some point in my thirties I concluded that my father was not nearly so subtle or penetrating as my mother.
What do boys and young men want from their fathers? For the most part I think we want precisely what they cannot give usa painless transfusion of wisdom, a key to life’s mysteries, the secret to happiness, assurance that one’s daily struggles and aggravations amount to something more than some stupid cosmic joke with no punch line. Oh, Dad, you have been here longer than I, you have been in the trenches, up and over the hill; quick, before you exit, fill me in: does it all add up, cohere, make any sense at all, what’s the true story, the real emes, tell me, please, Dad? By the time my father reached sixty, I knew he could not deliver any of this.
But, now past sixty myself, I cannot say I expect to do better. Besides, the virtues my father did have, and did deliver on, were impressive. Steadfastness was high on the list. He was a man you could count on. He saw my mother through a three-year losing fight against cancer, doing the shopping, the laundry, even some of the cooking, trying to keep up her spirits, never letting his own spirits fall. He called himself a realist, but he was in fact a sentimentalist, with a special weakness, in his later years, for his extended family. (He and his twin brother were the youngest of ten children, eight boys and two girls, my father being the only financial success among them.) He had great reverence for his own father, always repeating his sayings, marveling at his wisdom.
We may not have reverenced him, but we certainly paid him obeisance. He was of the last generation of fathers to draw off the old Roman authority of the paterfamilias. The least tyrannical of men, my father was nevertheless accorded a high level of service at home because of his role as head of the household and efficient breadwinner. Dinner always awaited his return from work. One did not open the evening paper until he had gone through it first. “Get your father a glass of water,” my mother would say, or, “Get your father his slippers,” and my brother and I would do so without quibble. A grandfather now myself, I have never received, nor ever expect to receive, any of these little services.
My father lived comfortably with his contradictionsanother great virtue, I think. He called himself an agnostic, for example, and belonged to no synagogue, yet it was clear that he would have been greatly disappointed had any of his grandsons not had a bar mitzvah. He always invoked the soundness of business principles, yet in cases of the least conflict between these principles and a generous impulse, he would inevitably act on the latter: loaning money to the wrong people, giving breaks to men who did not seem to deserve them, helping out financially whenever called upon to do so. To bums stopping him for a handout he used to say, “Beat it. I’m working this side of the street,” yet he gave his old suits and overcoats to a poor brain- fozzled alcoholic who slept in the doorways on North Avenue near his place of business.
Not long before my high school graduation, my father told me that he would naturally pay for college but wondered if maybe I, who had never shown even mild interest as a student, might not do better to forget about it. “I think you have the makings of a terrific salesman,” he said, though he let me make the decision. I chose college, chiefly because most of my friends were going and I, still stalling for time, was not yet ready to go out into the world.
But, then, my father allowed me to make nearly all my own decisions. True, he had insisted that I go to Hebrew school, on the grounds, often repeated, that “a Jew should know something of his background, about where he comes from.” But apart from that, my brother and I decided what we would study, where we would go to school, and with whom. He never told me what kind of work to go into, offering only another of his much-repeated apothegms: “You’ve got to love your work.” He never told me whom or what kind of woman to marry, how to raise children, what to do with my money. He let me go absolutely my own way.
Only now does it occur to me that I never sought my father’s approval; growing up, I mainly tried to avoid his disapproval, so that I could retain the large domain of freedom he permitted me. For starters, he was unqualified to dispense approval where I sought it: for my athletic prowess when young; for my intellectual work when older. Then, too, artificially building up his sons’ confidence through a steady stream of heavy and continuous approvalthe modus operandi of many contemporary parentswas not his style. “You handled that in a very businesslike way,” my father once told me about some small matter I had arranged for him, but I cannot recall his otherwise praising me. I would send him published copies of things I wrote, and he would read them, usually confining his response to “very interesting” or remarking on how something I said had suggested a thought of his own.
In my middle thirties I was offered a job teaching at a nearby university. In balancing the debits and credits of the offer, I suggested to my father that the job would allow me to spend more time with my two sons. “I don’t mean to butt in,” he said, before proceeding to deliver the longest speech of his paternal career, “but that sounds to me like a load of crap. If you’re going to take a teaching job, take it because you want to teach, or because you can use the extra time for other work, not because of your kids. Con yourself into thinking you make decisions because of your children and you’ll end up one of those pathetic old guys whining about his children’s ingratitude. Your responsibilities to your sons include feeding them and seeing they have a decent place to live and helping them get the best schooling they’re capable of and teaching them right from wrong and making it clear they can come to you if they’re in trouble and setting them an example of how a man should live. That’s how I looked upon my responsibility to you and your brother. But for a man, work comes first.” In the raising of my own sons, I attempted, roughly, to imitate my fatherbut already the historical moment for confidence of the kind he had brought to fatherhood was past. For one thing, I was a divorced father (though with custody of my sons), so I had already done something to them that my father never did to mebreak up their family. For another, I found myself regularly telling my sons that I loved them. I told them this so often that they probably came to doubt it.
True, I wasn’t like one of those fathers who these days show up for all their children’s school activities, driving them to four or five different kinds of lessons, making a complete videotaped record of their first eighteen years, taking them to lots of ball games, art galleries, and (ultimately, no doubt) the therapist. But I was, nonetheless, plenty nervous in the service, wondering if I was doing the right thing, never really confident I was good enoughor even adequate. The generation of fathers now raising children, I sense, is even more nervous than I was then, and the service itself has become a good deal more arduous.
Many are the kinds of bad luck one can have in a father. Being the son of certain menI think here of Alger Hiss’s son, Tony, who seems to have devoted so much of his life to defending his father’s reputationcan seem almost a full-time job. One can have a father whose success is so great as to stunt one’s own ambition, or a father whose failure has so embittered him as to leave one with permanently bleak views and an overwhelmingly dark imagination of disaster. Having too strong a father can be a problem, but so can having too weak a father. A father may desert his family and always leave one in doubt, or a father may commit suicide and leave one in a despair much darker and deeper than any doubt. Worst luck of all, perhaps, is to have one’s father die of illness or accident before one has even known him.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin in a famous line that is not only amusing but, it is agreed, universally true. But need it be true? Ought one to blame one’s parents for all that one (disappointingly) is, or that one (equally disappointingly) has never become? One of the most successful men I know once told me, without the least passion in his voice, “Actually, I dislike my parents quite a bit”which didn’t stop him, when his parents were alive, from being a good and dutiful son. (We are, after all, commanded to honor our parents, not necessarily to love them.) Taking the heat off parents for the full responsibility for the fate of their children throws the responsibility back on oneself, where it usually belongs. “I mean, I blame for every fuckups in my life my parents?” asked Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had a horrendously rough upbringing. His resounding answer to his own question was “No.” The best luck is, of course, to love one’s parents without complication, which has been my fortunate lot. Whether consciously or notI cannot be sure even nowmy parents gave me the greatest gift of all. By leaving me alone, while somehow never leaving me in doubt that I could count on them when needed, they gave me the freedom to go my own way and to become myself. Of the almost cripplingly excessive concern for the proper rearing of children in our own day, in all its fussiness and fear, my father’s response, I’m almost certain, would have been: “What’re they, crazy?” Copyright © 2007 by Joseph Epstein. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
JOSEPH EPSTEIN is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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