Lucky Joe

REVIEW: 'Never Say You've Had a Lucky Life, Especially If You've Had a Lucky Life' by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein (Intercollegiate Studies Institute)
April 14, 2024

I have known Joseph Epstein for almost 40 years, but until I read his autobiography, I was unaware that he is not only one of the great essayists in English literature but also an amateur juggler. That makes sense, because no one juggles words better than he: They fall in surprising ways and make you wonder how he manages to do the apparently impossible with such unflappable ease. When I first began to read his essays, and later his stories, I told myself that I would give two fingers to be able to write that well.

What makes his essays great is, first of all, that they are never boring. Epstein has read more than anyone I know, and his judgments about literature are always insightful. In addition to cultivating a sparkling style, he conveys what he calls his most heartfelt "message": "the seriousness and joyfulness of literature." The sheer delight of reading his prose provides immediate proof.

Alexander Pope famously defined "true wit" as "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," but Epstein offers aperçus that I would never have thought of. Often enough, he ventures opinions that, even in less censorious times, would irritate those who cling to platitudes and proprieties. "I am a writer," he explains, "and what was the point of writing if not to express one's own views without fear?"

Epstein has been called a conservative, but that is only because the shallowness prevailing among the well-educated is usually leftist. What he really is is an exposer of bullshit in all its smelly varieties. Nobody is better at revealing disguised snobbery or pretentiousness. When Epstein wrote an article poking fun at Jill Biden's insistence that people call her "doctor," the English department in which he had once taught was petty enough to remove his name from the departmental website. Once Epstein's deflating wit unexpectedly helped him. During an interview to be editor of the American Scholar, a position Epstein thought he had no chance of getting, he was asked what he would do for the young. "I'd let them grow older," he replied. Perhaps, he speculates, that was why he beat out several more eminent candidates and went on to edit the magazine for three decades. Under his guidance, and with the help of two editorial assistants to whom he gives most of the credit, it went from a dull repository of famous people's otherwise unpublishable scribblings to a scintillating quarterly that I, for one, could not wait to read.

Epstein began each issue with a personal essay under the byline Aristides, the ancient Greek who was ostracized for being annoyingly just. These contributions transformed Epstein from an author of articles into a classic essayist, whom Jacques Barzun compared to Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. Epstein's prose style, Barzun explained, "bears the same relation to good talk that theirs did 200 years ago. They were accused of writing Cockney English because they had given up 18th century diction and captured the tone of contemporary speech without reproducing its vagaries." Epstein's accomplishment was all the more impressive "because modern talk is pedantically abstract and cluttered with voguish phrases." Epstein eliminated such phrases, along with various irresponsible "weasel words," from the American Scholar.

The first secret of wit is timing: Great witticisms, which reveal the unnoticed but telling contingencies of the present situation, must be thought of on the spot. That is all the harder to accomplish in writing unless one can create the impression that one's prose is absolutely spontaneous. If it feels labored, worked over, or assiduously polished, what Castiglione called sprezzatura is lost. I used to wonder how Epstein makes readers feel that he is present talking with them until he confirmed my hunch that he really does just write down what he is thinking as he is thinking it. "I couldn't wait, you might say, to see what I had to say," he explains, and so he shares his readers' surprise. That "you might say," as if he were searching for words, conveys that he actually is.

In Alexander Pushkin's story "Egyptian Nights," an Italian improvisatore gives performances where he composes brilliant verses on the spot on any theme his audience might suggest, and that is what Epstein seems to do in prose. He writes about a vast range of topics, without having planned in advance what he will say. "I wrote my divorce book, as I seem to have written all my books, without an outline, but instead composing one paragraph after another, on the assumption that if my paragraphs are interesting, so will my book be." For readers, it is as if they were present at the creation, watching him brilliantly recover momentarily false steps—like an accomplished juggler.

Epstein's books are really long essays, and his essays in turn follow the logic of anecdotes, a form that he has mastered better than anyone I have ever read. Anecdotes work when they are not just amusing but also make an important point. Several concern Epstein's mother, whose down-to-earth wisdom could not have differed more from today's obsession with self-esteem. When nine-year-old Joseph told her he was bored, she replied, "If you're bored, knock your head against the wall; it'll take your mind off your boredom." And when Joseph, who never earned a higher degree, nevertheless landed a job teaching at Northwestern University, his mother said, "That's nice, a job in the neighborhood." A paragraph of pointed anecdotes introduces her:

Odd though it is to say so, I am less than sure what my mother thought of me. I am fairly certain that she never read any of my books or magazine articles. Once, when I called to tell her that a book of mine won a $5,000 prize from the Chicago Tribune, she said, "We get that junk in the mail all the time. I just throw it out." Another time during a phone conversation with her, I heard typing. "Mother, are you typing while talking to me?" She answered, "Why not? I don't need all my attention to carry on a conversation with you." Reaching her on the phone after I hadn't called for four or five days, she began by saying, "Hello, stranger," which sounded like the beginning of a Jewish joke.

No wonder Epstein grew up equipped with an A+ bullshit detector. His father evidently had one, too. Collecting small debts owed to him by deadbeat customers, he explained that it's not the principle of the thing, it's the money.

The most deeply moving passages of Epstein's autobiography concern his family. After his divorce, he raised not only his own two sons but also his ex-wife's by an earlier marriage. He loved them all dearly and is deeply hurt that the stepsons do not contact him. Still sadder, his younger son Burton died of a drug overdose. Today people speak of "coming to closure," Epstein remarks, but one never comes to closure over the death of a child. Burton left a daughter, Annabelle, whose mother was African-American, and it is hard to hold back tears at the wonderful relationship Epstein developed with his granddaughter whom he and his wife Barbara cared for each weekend. When as an old man (I hope he forgives me for calling him that) he broke his femur and was confined to a wheelchair, Annabelle and Epstein's older son Mark, who actually kept a second home in the area so he could visit his father, came to take care of him. "I felt the full benevolent force of family," Epstein explains, "and a fine feeling it was."

Epstein's wit can also be, in addition to humorous, emotionally moving because it is usually self-deflating. He is the opposite of a show-off, which is why his most successful book, Snobbery, proved so appealing. Rather than take full credit for his many achievements, he stresses how indebted he is to older people—Sidney Hook, Hilton Kramer, and especially Edward Shils—who for some reason took him under their wing. I might as well say that he played the same role for me, so that I was profoundly moved by his comment that in his three decades of teaching at Northwestern I was the only friend he made.

In our therapeutic age, which Epstein loves to make fun of, we expect autobiographies to whine, but Epstein's never does. "I have spent most of my life on the sidelines, glass of wine in hand, entertained by the mad swirl of the circus put on by humanity, trying to figure out what is and what is not important in life." He concludes, "I have, from time to time, put down the glass and … written up my findings. Chief among them is that the world, for all its faults, flaws, faux pas, remains an amusing place. Life for me in its variety, its richness, its surprises and astonishments has not come near to losing its fascination."

Never Say You've Had a Lucky Life, Especially If You've Had a Lucky Life
by Joseph Epstein
Free Press, 304 pp., $29.99

Gary Saul Morson is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University and author, most recently, of Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (Harvard).