The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Epstein, Joseph
James Seaton - 12/14/10
Lifespan: (1937– )

Joseph Epstein is a teacher, editor, and writer whose literary criticism and familiar essays are marked by a nonideological cultural conservatism. A Chicago native who attended the University of Chicago and lectured in the creative writing program at Northwestern University for many years, Epstein writes for the intelligent general reader rather than for academics. He turns to writers and thinkers not for theory or doctrine but for “that body of knowledge known as unsystematic truths.” Reading “endless stories, poems, and plays” has left him with “an abiding skepticism about general ideas, systems, and theories.” Epstein values authors not for their theories or even ideas but rather for what he calls simply “point of view.” He insists that “Everyone has opinions . . . but not everyone has a point of view.” The philosopher George Santayana, for example, is important not because of the “isms” he defended—naturalism and materialism—but because his work demonstrates a “talent for facing unpleasant facts” with “an almost happy pessimism” that leaves one not depressed but enlivened.

In contrast to those cultural radicals who suppose that literature, if it is worth anything at all, must embody a protest against everyday life and particularly against bourgeois morality, Epstein finds that the great works clarify, enrich, and illuminate rather than overturn the conclusions of common sense and traditional morality. Although Joseph Epstein has written at book-length on divorce, envy, ambition, and snobbery, and although has also published several collections of short stories, he is likely to remain best known for his expertly crafted essays. These familiar essays, many of which first appeared in the American Scholar during his long and celebrated tenure as editor of that journal (1975–97), are collected in such volumes as The Middle of My Tether (1983), Familiar Territory (1979), Once More Around the Block (1987), and Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999). His essays on literary topics appear in Partial Payments (1989), Plausible Prejudices (1985), and Life Sentences (1997).

Further Reading
  • Epstein, Joseph. Snobbery: The American Version. New York: Mariner, 2003.
  • Winchell, Mark Royden. Neoconservative Criticism: Norman Podhoretz, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
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