I first met Eddie Epstein when I was a young undergraduate at Queens College in New York; I was enrolled in a class on modern poetry, and after that seminar, I took whatever class (and advice) Eddie offered.
Whenever I have worked with Eddie over the past few decades—as a journal editor, during Joyce conferences, at dissertation meetings—I have always thought of myself as a student of Professor Eddie Epstein. I have never stopped learning from the man, not just in terms of intellectual claims or knowledge of references but, more important, in terms of how to comport oneself, how to attune oneself to students. When you were before Eddie, you were before a great educational guide, one who would take you along on an odyssey, pointing out famous literary sites and gesturing to recent excavations but also making you stop to notice the cracks and faults in a monument’s structure.
Those of us who have had the privilege of being students in Eddie Epstein’s classes probably all remember a moment when Eddie suddenly lifted his head and voice and started singing part of a song, or when he just hummed, in tune, the score from a famous musical composition. The enormous number of songs in Joyce’s work, in particular, come alive for me when I recall Eddie’s singing them to us, more so than when I now find the tunes on YouTube or download them during class for my own students. He was able to make his voice match his explications: They were both clear, perfectly pitched, and logically relevant to the text at hand. Those moments have stayed with me over many years because they embody the absolute joy that emanated from Eddie as a teacher. When he was teaching, he attended to every part of the text, so students could understand and appreciate the multiple dimensions, the constellations of meanings, and, yes, even the limits of interpretation.
Whether quoting a line from Hopkins, or Joyce, or the Bible to illustrate a syntactic nuance or principle, Eddie maintained an ethos of [End Page 1] intellectual rigor, honesty, and curiosity. I recall on one occasion, over two decades ago, he was describing Freud’s theory of masochism while discussing Bloom in Ulysses. In a presumptuous way, a student raised his hand and asserted that Deleuze’s theory of masochism had demolished Freud’s concept. Eddie listened attentively, nodded, and said, “I don’t know that theory. Perhaps. Thank you.” And he then proceeded with his lesson. The next week, Eddie walked into class, sat down, and announced to us, “Yes, Deleuze’s theory makes sense. Here is what Deleuze actually says on the matter.” He then proceeded to inform us, with a memory that was second to none, exactly what Deleuze’s theory of Venus in Furs meant, to the best of his knowledge, but always in relation to the discussion of Ulysses before us. Eddie’s erudition, it was clear to all, was inseparable from his intellectual honesty and from a curiosity that always welcomed new ideas that were sound, persuasive, and lucidly transmissible to others. This last notion became a pedagogical protocol that has stuck with me—making sure that what I tell students can be told over with clarity. Perhaps this is what Eddie meant when he would explain to us in his linguistics classes that teaching semantics nearly always contained some fuzziness (because your personal notion of the word “justice” will not exactly match my personal notion of the word), but that syntax could be taught with much greater clarity (a word simply functions as a noun when we agree that the word can take an article, a or the, before it).
Edmund Epstein was, quite simply, the consummate educator. His passing marks a wound in academia that will never fully heal. With an astonishing range and depth of scholarship, humor, and, of course, voice, Eddie conducted his seminars and lectures as symphonies. We who were Eddie’s students wanted to take his classes not only for his knowledge of linguistics, the Bible, languages, poetry, and Modernism but also for his camaraderie, intellectual honesty...