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Life Sentences: Literary Essays
     

Life Sentences: Literary Essays

by Joseph Epstein
 

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Further literary writings by the foremost practitioner of the informal essay in our time.Reading an essay by Joseph Epstein is much like watching Joe DiMaggio hit a pitched ball: the pleasure is in watching a difficult art performed with matchless grace and ease. In Life Sentences, his fourth collection of literary essays, Epstein considers the lives and works of

Overview

Further literary writings by the foremost practitioner of the informal essay in our time.Reading an essay by Joseph Epstein is much like watching Joe DiMaggio hit a pitched ball: the pleasure is in watching a difficult art performed with matchless grace and ease. In Life Sentences, his fourth collection of literary essays, Epstein considers the lives and works of nineteen writers of note, appreciating many of them, roughing up some others, and overall weighing them in the very finely calibrated balance of his well-stocked mind. His subjects include Michel de Montaigne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Mary McCarthy, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Robert Lowell, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Bishop, Ambrose Bierce, and Philip Larkin. No overarching theory or grinding ideological ax mars these finely nuanced readings of writers who matter; as Epstein writes, "What unites this collection of literary essays is the interest of the man who wrote them." And what interests him is excellence in literature.Few pleasures in life are as dependable as reading a Joseph Epstein essay. In that sense Life Sentences is another blue-chip public offering.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Epstein, the editor of the American Scholar and author of Plausible Prejudices, Partial Payments and Pertinent Players, may have run out of alliterative titles, but that hasn't stopped him from continuing to do what he does best: gambol through the gardens of literary greatswith an occasional investigation of that ominous sinkhole above the septic tank. Whether he believes a writer to be rather overrated (Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell), a magnificent failure (Robert Musil), a disconcerting old satyr (Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Tynan) or a Great Man (Joseph Conrad, Michel de Montaigne), Epstein combines the same mix of literary appreciation and biographical thrubbing. He has certain recurring interests, such as the extent to which writers manage their public personae, and which writers are motivated by "ideas", by a philosophy, by a program (Musil, Dos Passos and Solzhenitsyn are; Bishop and Lowell aren't; Conrad transcends). He is fond of quoting Ortega y Gasset's "Create a concept, and reality leaves the room." But for the most part Epstein isn't trying to break new critical ground. Instead, these are the thoroughly enjoyable results of wide reading and felicitous, often funny, writing ("La Rochefoucauld," he writes in a Will Cuppy-ish sort of way, "sided with Queen Anne, which was the wrong, because the losing, side."). Epstein paraphrases William Hazlitt saying "that true taste is demonstrated by enthusiasm"and enthusiasm Epstein certainly has. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Epstein (Pertinent Players, 1993, etc.) delivers literary appreciations and depreciations of an eclectic set of members of the Republic of Letters.

In his fourth collection of literary essays, Epstein knowledgeably displays his affinity for the old school of bare-knuckles criticism as practiced by H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson. The former editor of the American Scholar is no more afraid of airing personal preferences (or prejudices) in literature's service—from Montaigne to Solzhenitsyn—than Mencken or Wilson were when promoting Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald or deflating overlarge reputations. Dreiser and Fitzgerald are reappraised here, along with John Dos Passos and Ambrose Bierce, and are judged selectively on aesthetics, moral purpose, and charm. Thus, Dreiser is pardoned for writing badly but seriously, Dos Passos for writing overambitiously but inventively, and Fitzgerald for writing self-pityingly but lyrically. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop get off less lightly, with Epstein castigating them as much for muddled personal lives as for poetic weaknesses. By contrast, Philip Larkin gets a sympathetic hearing for posterity, despite charges of alcoholism, misogyny, and bigotry. Epstein's double standard—defending those under attack and vice versa—is most telling in his two essays on that improbable married couple of letters, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. The prickly Wilson proved a repugnant character in his journals, especially the priapic, misanthropic senior citizen of The Sixties, but Epstein still asserts his greatness on the basis of such books as Shores of Light and Patriotic Gore. McCarthy, no less prickly or ambitious than Wilson, instead gets relegated to the merely clever and outdated, though her literary instincts were arguably sharper (especially about their friend Nabokov) and her fiction demonstrably better.

Life Sentences, however unexpectedly and puzzlingly lenient or harsh, at least shows that literature is worth arguing over, and it reminds us that there is much in it to profitably argue about.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393333398
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
01/01/1980
Pages:
348
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Epstein has been the editor of the American Scholar since 1975. His own books of essays include The Middle of My Tether, Once More Around the Block, A Line Out for a Walk, Pertinent Players, and With My Trousers Rolled (all published by Norton). He was guest editor for Best American Essays (1993) and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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