Tuesday, February 21, 2012

`What Others Have Sensed Only Inchoately'

“I must say that since I have begun writing these essays I have never been pressed for a subject; and so long as I continue to write them, I suspect I never shall be pressed. Part of this has to do with America. Rich in so many things, America is richest of all in things to write about. For the familiar essayist in America every day is like Christmas morning in a wealthy and loving Christian home; subjects, like gifts, are strewn about everywhere.”

This cheery reminder and goad to gratitude is taken from Joseph Epstein’s preface to his first collection of essays, Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life, published in 1979. It’s the last of his twenty-two books I have read, finally picked up after reading his most recent, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (2011). Epstein ranks with Arthur Krystal, Cynthia Ozick and Marilynne Robinson as one of our best working essayists. The unlikely alignment of those names and the array of subjects they address suggest the unlimited elasticity of the form.

Epstein’s spirit is Montaignean – curious, friendly, skeptical, witty and formidably well-read – a quality virtually extinct among contemporary writers. He’s a raconteur of the essay, blessed with good taste, a natural with a style at once conversational and bookish, the happy opposite of stuffy, strident, provocative or drily academic (despite having taught for almost thirty years at Northwestern University). From books and life he has accumulated an over-stuffed warehouse of jokes, anecdotes and learning. He’s constitutionally conservative – that is, appreciative, mindful of lasting values -- but seldom descends into the merely political.

The passage quoted above is what excites me. It’s too long for an effective motto, but I might adopt it as the tutelary apothegm of Anecdotal Evidence. I’ve never been able to work up sympathy for writers who complain of blockage or lack of inspiration. Just look around. The world is forever hurling material at us. Our job is simply to pay attention and catch it, hardly a difficult task in the United States which amounts to a baroque sideshow of attractions. Elsewhere in his preface Epstein writes:

“With a point of view [which he rightly distinguishes from a mere collection of opinions] all but the most recondite subjects belong to the familiar essayist, whose range is precisely as wide as his interests.”

I don’t always agree with Epstein’s judgments. He is flabbergastingly wrong about Saul Bellow, though much of his disapproval seems rooted in the souring of their one-time friendship, and he overrates Theodore Dreiser. It’s his point of view I find amenable, not always his opinions. His essays are almost never dull, even in patches, and he usually accomplishes his objective as spelled out in the preface:

“In the end the true job of the familiar essayist is to write what is on his mind and in his heart in the hope that, in doing so, he will say what others have sensed only inchoately.”

Isn’t that one of the main reasons we go on reading literature?

2 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

Yes.

Anonymous said...

I've read most of Joseph Epstein's books, much to my intense delight.
I like his selection of personal essays in the Norton Book of Personal Essays.

TJG