It was a sad shock to learn of the passing of Edmund Epstein, the long-time Joycean and professor at the City University of New York. His many accomplishments in the publishing industry and in academia have been widely covered in the press. For that reason, as one of his former students, I would like to share some personal impressions that might give an idea of the lovely man he was.
The quality that impressed me the most was his love of music. So many of his other characteristics—his perfect memory, his encyclopedic knowledge, his kindness—seemed to flow from that particular source. His graduate seminars on Joyce were famous for his singing. He would perform music-hall numbers and popular songs appearing in Joyce’s work, such as “The Rose of Tralee.” Or he would bring in recordings, often rare and transferred from obsolete media such as wax cylinders, which were usually enhanced by his own vocal accompaniment. These ad hoc performances always ended in uproarious applause. But it was his reading of the end of Finnegans Wake that moved us to tears and a standing ovation. Eddie had a marvelous talent for expressing the musicality of Joyce’s work, though in his usual modesty he insisted it was Joyce who affected us so much.
Eddie’s experience on “Quiz Kids,” a popular radio show during the 1940s in which children with high IQs answered questions submitted by listeners at home, was evident in his casual conversations. Often I would go to his office to discuss something related to Joyce, and before either of us knew it, he had made a connection to something completely different—say, the mathematical poetry of Raymond Queneau or the use of strong verbs in “The Wanderer”—which he was now dissecting in exquisite detail with apparently zero effort. Just like Joyce, Eddie had a natural capacity to find meaningful connections from the world’s cultures and languages.
The wit and humor with which Eddie conducted everything bore the same musical love that imbued his literary talk. I will never forget the story of a famously absent-minded philosophy professor at Columbia during the 1950s who once asked whether he had been walking uptown or downtown. Upon Eddie’s reply, the professor [End Page 224] exclaimed, “Ah, then I have had lunch!” There was also the oft-repeated mini-lecture on the necessity of having a dirty mind if one was to be an English major (it should be a prerequisite in the course catalog). These stories, like his beginning the Finnegans Wake seminar one year by advocating a book that perpetrates an “academic assassination” of French theory, come from a sensibility that is now largely lost in the academy.
Even after he has passed on, I continue to learn about the many more facets he possessed. The New York Times surprised me by head-lining its obituary with “Scholar Who Saved ‘Lord of the Flies.’” I knew he had worked in publishing, where he had been warned that a certain female executive would try to get him into the sack (he had books to produce with “no time for that sort of funny business”). But I had no idea that his early publishing career was just as successful as his work on linguistics and Joyce.
Eddie was such a sweet, sweet man, and I will miss him very much.