Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Jeet Heer and Joseph Epstein

Today's post emerges emerges from an e-mail exchange I had recently with Canadian literary and cultural critic and journalist Jeet Heer, whose impromptu numbered Twitter essays have quickly become one of the platform's most interesting innovations. On Twitter, Heer is most often responding, with remarkable clarity and knowledge, to events in the news, and usually drawing on his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of both the left and right through the twentieth century, but his new book, Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays, and Profiles, is, as its subtitle suggests, wider ranging.

The book is full of interesting, well-written pieces on writers, intellectuals, public figures, cartoonists, and more. Even the briefest of Heer's book reviews often reveal a startling, yet seemingly always apposite, range of reference, and his crate-digging (as when he's discerning the influence of cartoons on Updike) and unexpected angles (such as a look at Keynes through the lens of the sexuality of economics) make for wonderfully surprising, engaging, and thought-provoking reading. He's a writer whose process of thinking is apparent on the page; he takes the reader with him, not so much as he's figuring things out but as he did figure things out through the course of writing.

The piece that Heer and I ended up discussing via e-mail is an attack on essayist Joseph Epstein. Heer opens with compliments:
Joseph Epstein is the most congenial of neo-conservatives, perhaps the only major one. He is a top-notch personal essayist, who has revived the ruminative, free-ranging tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Among more modern essayists, he's the peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal (not company he'd be completely comfortable with, sadly).
While the praise is genuine (I'm not sure there's anything in the book that's not genuine), the parenthetical is a warning: Heer is about to stick the shiv.

And, as he presents the case, it's a well-earned shiv. Epstein is a conservative, which even to a man of the far left is no sin. What Heer can't abide--and makes a damning case against--is an intelligent person letting his politics overwhelm his judgment, especially when it comes to culture:
If you know a writer's politics you can pretty much figure out how Epstein will react to him or her. If a writer is right wing or politically quiescent, Epstein will give him or her at least a respectful hearing and often high praise: the Epstein nod of approval has gone to Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin, Henry James, Barbara Pym, Max Beerbohm, James Gould Cozzens, Somerset Maughum, George Santayana, V. S. Naipaul and others of their ilk.
Heer goes on to enumerate writers of the left who have drawn Epstein's scorn, including Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Edmund Wilson. On a personal level, those lists amuse me because they're a reminder that though my politics are of the left, my tastes are fairly conservative: nearly all the writers on the first list are favorites, while most of the ones on the second I either dislike or am left cold by. Hell, my favorite writer in the world, Anthony Powell, was a dyed-in-the-wool Tory who copped to finding Margaret Thatcher sexually magnetic.

But that's what Heer says should be the case, essentially: my politics and my tastes, while not wholly separate, aren't dangerously infectious of each another. With Epstein, he quickly shows, largely through close analysis of an Epstein essay on Forster, the politics and the taste align too closely to leave us confident in either. By the time Heer has finished dismantling Epstein's essay--and in particular its overt nostalgia for the British Empire in India and its undercurrent of homophobia--it's hard to disagree with his contention that Epstein's politics have distorted his ability to actually see art (and, more important, the world) as it actually is.

Having allowed those points, which are, in their way, unanswerable, I do feel I should defend Epstein. I won't defend him on his own ground except to say that I agree with Heer that he can be a wonderful essayist. (I wouldn't class him with Woolf, but that's no slight--she gets her own tier in my pantheon.) And even last year's volume of correspondence with his friend Frederic Raphael, a largely distasteful book in which both writers come across as too self-regarding by half, offers, along with the not-to-be-dismissed pleasures of gossip (like his gleeful evisceration of his late Northwestern University colleague and former friend Alfred Appel, who "wished to be thought brilliant, suave, metropolitan, none of which he truly was"), some memorable turns of phrase (sticking to Appel: "He courted humiliation, and frequently won her"; "He is the only person I know who it is possible to imagine might have begun a composition with a parentheses."). Where I will, however, defend Epstein is as I knew him twenty years ago: as a teacher.

When I was a student at Northwestern, Epstein taught a class in the English department on prose style and essay writing, aimed at the students who, like me, were getting degrees (foolish youth that we were) in either fiction or poetry writing. I came to his class at twenty, knowing so, so little--including who he was and what his politics were. What was most striking about him from the first moment of the first class was that he treated us as if we were adults--and, crucially, fellow participants in an ongoing conversation about books and literature. In reality, we were at best just starting to rehearse a few very limited, very cliched lines in that conversation. But the sense he gave that this was a possible way to be--unshowily erudite and fully engaged--was enticing. I remember distinctly that the letters of Elizabeth Bishop had just been published, and Epstein talked about the book as if 1) we would know who she was, 2) we would know her milieu, and 3) we would also be aware of the volume's publication and significance. That his conception of that world and that conversation itself had strict, possibly even unpalatable, political limits was something that wasn't evident, at least to my ignorant eyes, at that point.

I came from a bookish, but unintellectual household. My parents were smart, educated, were readers, and it was always assumed that my siblings and I would go to college, but neither they nor the tiny rural town in which I grew up were part of the world of ideas. My high school of four hundred people gave me the tools to dive into college, but it couldn't give me the foundation of knowledge, of the literary and cultural world, that I take for granted now, and that I see comfortably assumed by the student employees I hire at the University of Chicago. So, like a lot of other students from modest backgrounds who end up at an elite university, I was figuring it out as I went, and even by the time I reached my junior year and walked in the door of Epstein's class, I had caught but glimpses of what that world could be like. And rather than standing atop the ramparts and challenging us to make an assault with the pitiful weapons of our limited knowledge, he was instead welcoming us into it by simply leaving the drawbridge down and acting like we had always been there. He was kind and engaging without condescension, and it was an act of generosity for which I remain grateful.

On top of that, he was a good teacher, at least from where I sat. I was a lousy essay writer then (you can make the call yourself about today), but I was at least capable of writing clear sentences, and Epstein recognized and encouraged that. He spotted, and praised, the truly good work that was done in the class (I still remember lines from a male student's essay on becoming more or less anorexic while a wrestler in high school: "I learned you could spit away half a pound before weigh-in.") even as he acknowledged--without the deflating gesture of explicitly saying it--that, given our youth, if he could but help us learn to build the forms we would need, experience would eventually supply credible content. I can't think of many more thankless teaching tasks than reading stacks of personal essays from twenty-year-olds week after week, but he managed to approach it with care and attention.

I don't intend to suggest that my experience outweighs the written record, or that Heer is wrong to call Epstein on out for incoherent thinking--especially when that incoherence leads him to painfully bad judgments that dismiss whole categories of experience, as with his praise for the Raj and suspicion of homosexuality. Rather, I place it in the balance, knowing that in reality there is no balance, no ultimate weighing. We all contain complexities and disagreements, all offer different sides. There's one to Joseph Epstein, or at least there in that classroom twenty years ago, that to my mind is unquestionably good.


  1. Jeet Heet is my hero.

  2. I do like Anthony Powell's words about his attraction to Mrs Thatcher.

    I continue to find Mrs Thatcher very attractive physically. Her overhanging eyelids, hooded eyes, are the only suggestion of mystery (a characteristic I like in women, while totally accepting Wilde's view of them as Sphinxes without a secret). Her general appearance seems to justify Mitterand's alleged comment that she has the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe; the latter a film star I never, in fact, thought particularly attractive. Mrs Thatcher has a fair skin; hair-do of incredible perfection, rather a dumpy figure, the last seeming to add a sense of down-to-earthiness that is appropriate and not unattractive in its way.

  3. I agree: I've always enjoyed the specificity of Powell's attraction to Thatcher. Given his interest in power, you would naturally assume that power underlies his attraction, but what he gives us instead is basically a silent film star Thatcher!

  4. Anonymous10:30 AM

    More on Joseph Epstein may be found here: