Wednesday, April 24, 2024

'Living Through Radical Change'

Ten years ago, Joseph Epstein wrote to his friend Frederic Raphael: 

“I have myself long ago put aside any thought about writing an autobiography. . . . When I became, almost without conscious decision, a bookish and a scribbling man, the larger sense of adventure went out of my life, and I was henceforth almost entirely spectatorial in my interests, even in my passions.”


Fortunately, Epstein was not under oath when he made his avowal. At age eighty-seven, he has a right to change his mind. The result is Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life (Simon and Schuster, 2024), a brief, charming autobiography that is at the same time an account of the cultural changes, many of them unpleasant, that have occurred during his lifetime. Longtime Epsteinologists will already know the broad outlines of his life (“an American, Chicago born”). Here the average Joe, the homme moyen sensual, is an erudite witness to the dissolution of the West’s cultural values, while remaining true to the book’s title, frequently expressing gratitude for the gifts that the culture has given him. In his introduction he writes:


“The underlying theme of my autobiography is living through radical change: from a traditionally moral culture to a therapeutic one, from an era when the extended family was strong to its current diminished status (I have grand-nieces and -nephews I have never met and am unlikely ever to meet), from print to digital life featuring the war of pixel versus print . . .”


Epstein recounts some of the tantrums he inspired, including his politically motivated ousting from The American Scholar, which he edited from 1975 to 1997, and the Wall Street Journal column he wrote in 2020, poking fun at the incoming first lady using the title “Dr.,” though she was neither M.D. nor dentist – the usual academic pomposity. But he also recounts growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Chicago in the twentieth century, blessed with excellent parents. These passages recall some of the episodes in Meyer Levin’s Chicago novel The Old Bunch (1937) and Daniel Fuchs’ Brooklyn novels. Epstein was no child prodigy and his example suggests that the best education is a self-education. He describes teaching at Northwestern for twenty-eight years, his divorce, raising four children single-handedly, a successful second marriage and the death of a son from a drug overdose. Epstein doesn’t linger on the death and expresses no self-pity but the loss subtly colors much of what follows. In 2024, how many Americans can say they’ve never known a drug casualty?


Of particular interest to this reader is Epstein’s account of aging. He’s my senior by more than a decade, so I read this part of his book as a scouting report. His interests, he says, are “narrowing” but adds, “Writing still gives me great pleasure.” He remains prolific and praises by name many of his editors. His health is good. He misses friends, including Hilton Kramer, John Gross and Edward Shils. He has lost interest in travel. “What to many people would seem a dull life, mine,” he writes, “I find calmly satisfying.” 


Epstein was fortunate to find his true calling early – writing. It suits his temperament. He is the opposite of an “activist,” which accounts for his fondness for such writers as George Santayana and Max Beerbohm. On his final page he writes:


“My own role in life has been largely spectatorial [there’s that word again]. I have spent most of my years on the sidelines, glass of wine in hand, entertained by the mad swirl of the circus put on by humanity, trying to figure out what is and what is not important in life. I have, from time to time, put down the glass of wine and, in essays, reviews, short stories, written up my findings. Chief among them is that the world, for all its faults, flaws, faux pas, remains an amusing place.”   


Along with his autobiography, Simon and Schuster has also published Epstein’s Familiarity Breeds Content: New and Selected Essays.


[The note to Raphael can be found in Where Were We?: the Conversation Continues (St. Augustine’s Press, 2017).]


Richard Zuelch said...

I'd like to know if he's EpSTEEN or EpSTINE - and if he's read Chesterton's autobiography. I have both his new books and am raring to dig into them.

Also, I hope we'll get his collected essays one day - a nice, fat, 1,200-pager or so.

Hai Di Nguyen said...

I like Joseph Epstein but have seen him differently since he dismissed both Shakespeare & Chekhov. It felt personal, you know.

Tim Guirl said...

I discovered Joseph Epstein four decades ago through Commentary magazine. Subsequently I regularly read his lovely personal essays, under the pen name Aristides, in The American Scholar. I wonder which Aristides he chose his name from,the ancient Greek philosopher or the race horse Aristides that won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. As is common with any writer worth his salt, he is spikey with prejudices, but always a pleasure to read, no matter the subject.

JJ Stickney said...

I was a fan until the Dr. Jill Biden bs.

slr in tx said...

Anent Epstein's comment on narrowing interests, I have found that, with the passage of time, life's old pleasures offer diminishing returns, reading and listening to music providing the happy exceptions. (Was that a run-on sentence, or merely poorly punctuated?)