Life Sentences: Literary Essaysby Joseph Epstein
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.
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 servicefrom Montaigne to Solzhenitsynthan 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 standarddefending those under attack and vice versais 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.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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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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