- A Note on Edmund Epstein
Universally acknowledged as the most brilliant member of a distinguished English department, Eddie came to Queens College in 1974 after a decade at Southern Illinois University. He had attended Yale and Columbia as a graduate student and Queens College as an undergraduate so his appointment violated the general bias against an academic nepotism that prevented most institutions of higher learning from hiring its own graduates. But Eddie was an exception, and rules, even unofficial protocol guidelines, sometimes need to be reinterpreted.
I knew Eddie from the time of his arrival at Queens College and could establish several points of personal connection. Eddie was a Joyce scholar, and I was writing a biography of Ezra Pound who had helped James Joyce early in his career so the evolution of Anglo-American literary modernism became a shared subject area. I was a Jewish European immigrant like his parents, and I had the additional advantage of a mother who had been raised in Dublin in a flat with a wooden tub. When I told Eddie that, every afternoon on the way home from school, my mother was expected to stop at the corner pub and fetch a wooden pail of stout for her father, he was charmed, fully aware that she could have figured in Joyce’s Dubliners.
Generous, humane, loved by the best of our students, he spent [End Page 225] his academic career studying, teaching, and writing about Joyce, an expatriate from Dublin who taught in the Berlitz system in Trieste and then moved to Paris where a bookseller named Sylvia Beach chose to publish his masterpiece, Ulysses, now considered the supreme artistic achievement in the art of the novel written in the English language in the twentieth century. Joyce, whose earlier work, the realistic stories of Dubliners and the more modernistic A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, had already been published, then spent several decades creating what may be considered the most ambitious fiction of any century, Finnegans Wake, a huge compendium written in a highly charged paralanguage that reinvented artistic possibilities while exploring the very roots of all language. Its problem for the general audience, however, was its incomprehensibility, a code that, like the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians or Mayans, needed to be explored and explained.
Eddie, always so unpretentious and affable, was up to such a task because he knew more about the origins of language and the etymologies of its words than any other member of my department. He taught like a rabbinical Talmudist who would not rest until he could annotate everything in reach, so his classes were often fascinating footnotes into a vital, formative past. As a colleague, he was eminently approachable and congenial, full of good cheer and encouragement, and I will always remember him as a short, rotund man full of cherubic glee and a touch of whimsy in his eyes, singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs and accompanying himself on the piano at department parties twenty years ago.
I asked Eddie to volunteer to help evaluate student eligibility for Phi Beta Kappa—a task that required the sacrifice of many hours involving the close examination and discussion of transcripts—and he generously gave us years of scrupulous commitment. When I asked him to write for American Book Review, a magazine I was editing, his reviews were incisive and penetrating. I knew Eddie had publishing experience and once, when I was having trouble finding a publisher for a book I was writing, he advised me to submit to Routledge, a fine choice for scholarly monographs but one that could not satisfy my ambitions to discover a larger audience for literature or to get paid for my efforts.
Before embarking on academic life, Eddie had worked in publishing as an editor of Capricorn Books at Putnam’s and later for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. At Capricorn, he took the risk of reprinting an allegorical fable that had only sold 2383 copies in its American hard-cover edition about children on a deserted island devolving to savagery. The Lord of the Flies was by an unknown author named William Golding, and it had been a modest...