"I have always thought," says Joseph Epstein, "that if one wants to be a writer, he must first make himself incompetent in everything else." Whether the best-selling author of the recent Snobbery: The American Version is truly all that bungling in the majority of his pursuits is unclear, but one thing is certain: the man knows how to juggle.
Juggling not in the metaphorical sense, either, although the case could be made for that. Joseph Epstein manages to keep aloft two distinct genres, the nonfiction of Snobbery and the fiction of his new collection of stories, Fabulous Small Jews. What he does equally well is juggle actual balls, four or five of them at a time, throwing in little tricks and variations with fluid dexterity. It is an impressive skill, and one that jibes nicely with the colorful bow ties he's given to wearing.
In his genre-juggling act, the non-fictive objects have been more and weightier. Fabulous Small Jews is Epstein's second work of fiction, compared with 13 volumes of essays and commentary written in the past 30 years. This to say nothing of his 22-year tenure as editor of The American Scholar, each issue of which included his astute commentary under the pseudonym Aristides. All in all, he has penned literally thousands of essays, and come to be known as a master of the form. "The modern essay," writes Karl Shapiro, "has regained a good deal of its literary status in our time, much to the credit of Joseph Epstein."
Epstein has a unique knack for writing familiarly on topics ranging from the maxims of La Rochefoucauld to the pleasures of owning a cat. He has been known to invoke the likes of Plutarch and Montaigne in considering the cultural significance of the hairdo. And then there is, of course, his celebrated work on the theretofore mostly uncharted territory of the snob in America.
"For those of us who make this goofy decision to be a writer," he says, "all life is material. I'm lucky in that I have these two forms, essays and stories, and I'm able to choose which is best for a particular material."
Works of fiction are often more revealing of their authors than even the most penetrating essays. Indeed, if Snobbery is a glimpse of the humorous contentions of an erudite critic, Fabulous Small Jews is a glimpse of the critic himself. Its characters fall mostly into the distinct group its title suggests. Their Jewishness is certain and their smallness consistent; their fabulousness takes on assorted and understated forms.
Like these new characters, Epstein grew up in Chicago and continues to live within its grasp. Since 1974 he has been a lecturer in English at Northwestern University. Jewishness, he says, "is the culture out of which I come and partly in which I live." While his parents and all their friends were Jewish, Epstein's was never a very religious family. In World War II era Chicago, his father was particularly apprehensive about anti-Semitism. According to Epstein, however, Jewish stereotypes had far fewer real-world correlates in the Windy City. "In those days the typical [Jewish] stereotype was that one grew up playing the violin, that his father owned his own business, and so on. But Chicago had none of that. The Jews were mostly working class; culture didn't really figure in. No one I knew was in psychotherapy."
Epstein is also slight, with a bookish air about him that is offset comically by his patented bow tie. He has the "fleshy ears" of many of his new characters; his own support round, thinly rimmed glasses. Anything less than a placid and measured wake would not be assumed of the attentively clad Epstein, sipping his tea beneath the Joseph Conrad bust that looms in his living room, listening to Haydn, and busying himself with the works of Beerbolm, Eliot and Mencken.
His gift as an essayist has, however, earned Epstein not a few detractors. (The most honest tack isn't always also the most popular.) In the most recent instance, would-be authors of the world balked at his suggestion in The New York Times Op-Ed section that they all, every one of them, keep their books inside them. Weblogs and online bulletin boards lit up with indignation. Said one woman in a letter to the Times, "Thank goodness that Joseph Epstein is not my 9-year-old daughter's teacher, discouraging her creativity and dashing her hopes that she can write a story that others might want to read." Alas, Epstein has always been something of a literary rascal. At the cocktail party of intellectual literature, he is the guy at the punch bowl, quietly and articulately cracking wise about the relative size of the objects stuck up the asses of everyone else in the room.
In his essays, Epstein possesses a wealth of apt, obscure and effortless knowledge. In person, he is a man of anecdotes: conversation with him invariably anchored here and there by winsome, real life accounts. Indeed it seems nearly every story in this new collection has behind it an anecdote of equal charm.
"You can do in stories things that are above those in essays," says Epstein. "In essays and piecework, you are trying to make a point, whereas in stories you are not quite sure what the point is. T.S. Eliot once said of Henry James, 'He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it,' which, I think, is the ultimate compliment for an author. Stories are above ideas."
Ideas aside, Fabulous Small Jews is every bit as evocative as Epstein's bestselling nonfiction, if decidedly subtler in its approach. The world of the fictive may not be his customary stomping grounds, but Epstein apparently needs no map to navigate its passageways. In his own words, put forth in a past essay, "Life, like the show, must go on, even if one is forced to make half of it up." | October 2003
Doug Wagner has written for Black Book Magazine, Canongate's Mojo Collection, and Alternet.org. These days, when not traveling to far-flung places, he hangs his hat in San Diego, California.