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High Table-Talk

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 630-640 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0110

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

High Table-Talk
Robert Benson, Wedding the Wild Particular. Texas Review Press, 2012. 224 pages. $20.95 pb;
Joseph Epstein, Essays in Biography. Axios Press, 2012. xii + 564 pages. Illustrated. $24;
Philip Gerard, The Patron Saint of Dreams. Hub City Press, 2012. xiv + xiv pages. $17.95 pb;
David George Haskell, The Forest Unseen. Penguin, 2013. xiv + xiv pages. $16 pb;
Richard O'Mara, The Street Where They Lived. Alondra Press, 2011. 140 pages. $12.95 pb;
Peter Ryan, It Strikes Me. Quadrant Books, 2011. 314 pages. $44.95;
Ridley Wills II, Nashville Streets & Their Stories. Plumbline Media, 2012. xii + xii pages. Illustrated. No price provided, pb.

"There is something almost indecent," Cunningham Graham declares, "in setting forth all a man thinks and feels, without an explanation or at least a prelude of some sort. A fencing master goes through the salute, a jockey takes a preliminary canter, even divines resort to incantations of some kind before they fall a-preaching." Essays in Biography is an anthology of Joseph Epstein's occasional reviews—usually of biographies, letters, and sometimes critical books. Epstein divides the book into sections devoted to Americans, Englishmen, popular culture, as well as "And Others." The book, however, lacks and needs an introduction. Certainly prefaces confine and distort, but they also explain and place better than basket-like words that lack real bottoms. Epstein is primarily intrigued by New Yorkers, Jewish writers, cultural entrepreneurs, and the chatty English, these last always on the verge of writing great books but who specialize in shaping small memorable put-downs. He does not, for example, discuss any southern American writers. Of course the content of the book is not a failing but simply reflects an author's choice. Inclination should determine reading and writing, but good introductions probe and reveal—and often deepen enjoyment.

Essays is a once-a-night, once-a-week book, attractive primarily to flagging thinkers—aging magazine people interested in culture but who lack the energy or curiosity to read a bookshelf-bending biography. Epstein is quick with the quip, and his essays provide kernels of intellectual nourishment. "Talking," Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "is like playing on the harp; there is as much in laying the hands on the strings to stop their vibrations as in twanging them to bring out their music." Essays is composed of high table-talk, wit recollected in tranquility, the sorts of remarks that one wishes he had made in conversation but that appear only on the page. Cyril Connolly, Epstein writes, "had a taste—a propensity?, an aptitude?—for failure that [End Page 630] never left him." "Susan Sontag, as F. R. Leavis said of the Sitwells, belongs less to the history of literature than to that of publicity." "Arthur Schlesinger will probably go down in history as an unregenerate publicist for a line of progressive ideas that by the late 20th century would lose their hold on the imagination of many Americans." Maurice Bowra, Epstein writes, "was a thoroughly social being, lonely as only a deeply gregarious bachelor can be, a man by nature, of the group, the clique, the coterie." What makes Epstein appealing, yet, strangely enough, irritating, is that his judgments are usually right. Sontag is a caffeinated regional taste fast becoming stale. Connolly's pangs of mediocrity bore rather than intrigue readers, and Schlesinger has shrunk into a wilted Kennedy hierophant. Alas, the description of Bowra makes me wince, as I suspect it will make many aged readers wince—that is, those social beings among us who have slipped from almost all groups into loneliness.

Epstein is a master of quotation. Of Hugh Trevor-Roper he notes that Bowra declared that the historian "had never known adultery to do so much for a man." Trevor-Roper, Epstein himself writes, "suffered fools not at all, and one had only to disagree with him to qualify as a fool. What must have made this all the more infuriating is that he seems to have been correct much of the time." Like a diamond, bright snappy prose does not chip easily and resists sharp argument—the source perhaps of my irritation with Epstein. Of course, I...