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High Table-Talk

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

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"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 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 am also envious. I wish I had written, "Englishmen, as has been said, are divisible into two groups: boys and old boys." "All things considered," Epstein begins an essay, "the literary critic and political intellectual Irving Howe is having a good afterlife." Among the brainy muscles of the Essays two moving tributes stand out—the first to John Frederick Nims, the American poet and editor, the second to John Gross, the English essayist, editor, and anthologist. Additional arteries of heartfelt pieces would have broken the fast pulse of intellectual fibrillations and led readers of the Essays to understand less but to ponder more.

In discussing Paul Theroux and V. S. Naipaul, Epstein writes...

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