Joseph Epstein

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Date: June 5, 2015
Document Type: Biography
Length: 6,535 words

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About this Person
Born: January 09, 1937 in Chicago, Illinois, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Aristides (American writer)
Updated:June 5, 2015

Born January 9, 1937, in Chicago, IL; son of Maurice and Belle Epstein; married (divorced); married Barbara Maher (an editor), February 27, 1976; children: (first marriage) Mark, Burton. Education: University of Chicago, A.B., 1959. Religion: Jewish. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, 1958-60. Addresses: Home: Evanston, IL.


Writer, editor. American Scholar, Washington, DC, editor, 1975-97. Visiting lecturer in literature and writing at Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, 1974-2002.


L.H.D., Adelphi University, 1988; Heartland Prize, Chicago Tribune, 1989, for Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives; Harold Washington Medal for Literature; National Humanities Medal; Harold U. Ribaloff Prize for fiction.



  • Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility, Dutton (New York, NY), 1974, published as Divorce, the American Experience, Cape (London, England), 1975.
  • Ambition: The Secret Passion, Dutton (New York, NY), 1980.
  • With My Trousers Rolled, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Anglophilia, American Style, Institute of United States Studies (London, England), 1997.
  • Snobbery: The American Version, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
  • Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, New York Public Library (New York, NY), 2003.
  • Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (part of the "Eminent Lives" series), HarperCollins/Atlas (New York, NY), 2006.
  • Friendship: An Exposé, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
  • Fred Astaire, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2008.
  • Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), 2011.
  • (With Frederic Raphael) Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2013.


  • Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (addresses, essays, lectures), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1979.
  • The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays, Norton (New York, NY), 1983.
  • Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing, Norton (New York, NY), 1985.
  • Once More around the Block: Familiar Essays, Norton (New York, NY), 1987.
  • Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, Norton (New York, NY), 1989.
  • A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays, Norton (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Life Sentences: Literary Essays, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
  • Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
  • In a Cardboard Belt! Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2007.
  • Essays in Biography, Axios Press (Mount Jackson, VA), 2012.
  • A Literary Education, Axios Press (Edinburg, VA), 2014.


  • (And author of introduction) Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1981.
  • Edward Shils, Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1997.
  • The Norton Book of Personal Essays, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
  • (And compiler) Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature, wood engravings by Barry Moser, Paul Dry Books (Philadelphia, PA), 2007.


  • The Goldin Boys, Norton (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Fabulous Small Jews, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
  • The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), 2010.

Contributor to anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories 2007 and The Best American Short Stories 2009. Contributor, sometimes under the pseudonym Aristides, to periodicals, including American Scholar, Commentary, New Republic, Harper's, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Current History, Writer, New Criterion, and Hudson Review.



Joseph Epstein has been widely praised by critics for his learned essays on American life and letters. Epstein's work has graced more than a dozen books and the pages of numerous magazines; Washington Post Book World contributor Isa Kapp deemed him a "conglomerate man of letters." As the former editor of the national honor society Phi Beta Kappa's quarterly journal, American Scholar, Epstein regularly contributed essays under the pseudonym Aristides, making a name for himself in circles both familiar and erudite. Studies in Short Fiction reviewer Rodney Stevens called Epstein "one of the few major critical voices of our time," applauding the author for bringing "wit, grace, and perception to the genre of critical letters."

A self-described "language snob," Epstein argued in an article for Commentary that "the duty of everyone who considers himself educated is to keep language alive by using it with respect and precision," while observing that the current trend is toward a "preference for the vague over the particular." Citing several neologisms used by students and professionals alike, Epstein railed against the lapse in the standard of language use that sacrifices clarity and correctness for popular and political trends. Epstein was clear about what he feels are the effects of such inexactitude: "The condition of language today is such that communication threatens to be clogged, perception clouded, the possibility for serious discourse lessened," he wrote in Commentary. Reality itself is threatened, asserted Epstein, by vague and abstract terms that obfuscate the meaning behind the words. Writing as Aristides in American Scholar, he summarized the principles behind his own language use: "Take out all language that is pretentious and imprecise, under-educated and over-intellectualized. Question all language that says more than it means, that leaves the ground but doesn't really fly. Question authority only after you have first seriously consulted it; it isn't always as stupid as it looks. Never forget that today's hot new phrase becomes tomorrow's cold dead cliche."

Epstein cites several possible reasons to explain the declining quality of literature in the United States. Stating that since World War II writers have enjoyed greater freedom from censorship, he observed in Commentary that "this new freedom does not seem to have resulted directly in any master-works or marked any towering advance in human understanding of the kind that literature at its best makes possible." Epstein also pointed to an overabundance of indiscriminate literary criticism as contributing to literature's decline. He remarked in Commentary that the goal of criticism is to "distinguish between trivial and important art, between bad and good art." He noted, however, that nearly every contemporary American writer has been the subject of at least one lengthy study, causing him to comment that criticism "is all so vastly overdone, so thoroughly out of proportion."

More than any other factor responsible for a failing American literature is writing's "nearly complete absorption by American universities," asserted Epstein in Commentary. Noting that prior to World War II the majority of writers stayed outside the parameters of the university, Epstein maintained that the trend has reversed itself. Rather than drawing from their experiences in the "great and very real world," the author declared that most writers are now "locked away" in universities where their "true subject is lost to them." The result, he wrote in Harper's, is "two full generations of American novelists who, through their college education, have been brought up on a bitter diet of literary modernism and the tradition of alienation from their country." Added to this, noted Epstein, is an infusion of politics into literature--as evident in the works of contemporary novelists such as Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon--that "does not make for a cogent or even a very readable literature." "American writing itself," he lamented in Commentary, "has never seemed less important, and more lost, than it does now."

Epstein's own writing has drawn the praise of numerous critics for his clear and cogent style. In his interview in Publishers Weekly, Baldwin described Epstein as "an author who sounds just the way he writes: relaxed, fluent, yet precisely articulate; erudite without a trace of the off-putting highbrow; conversant, in the best sense of the term; and, yes, downright funny in a surprising, impromptu way." In his first book, Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility, Epstein writes from experience about divorce in contemporary American society. Published in 1974, the book was described in a Newsweek review as a "refreshingly thoughtful, exceedingly literate, personally insightful book." Epstein has divided his book into a three-part discussion of divorce that begins with an analysis of the beleaguered institution of marriage, as well as the forces in today's society that threaten to undermine it. In the second section, he describes the legal proceedings of a divorce. He ends the book with a discussion about the effects of divorce on the individuals involved. Interwoven throughout all three parts is the author's account of his own divorce, which, reported Sara Sanborn in the New York Times Book Review, he does not view as a "creative" experience, but rather as a personal failure. "As cultural commentary," wrote Sanborn, Divorced in America "is generally perceptive and sometimes enlightening, dense with the experiences and observations of a comprehensive intelligence." While she asserted that the "book is far from profound" because it contains many well-known facts about the subject, the reviewer lauded Epstein's prose style, calling it "always fluent and easy, self-assured without being pretentious, frank without being embarrassing." Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Sonya Rudikoff remarked that in Divorced in America the author "presents situations of real feeling and immediacy" with a "poignancy" that "has all the nuance of domestic poetry about it, the poetry of making do and making the best of it with rueful dignity."

Epstein's Ambition: The Secret Passion, was published in 1980 and met with mixed critical reviews. In it, Epstein examines the changing attitudes in America toward ambition, asserting that the pursuit of ambition is no longer held in high esteem by most Americans. The author suggests a few reasons why ambition is scorned in America, citing a tradition of literature dating from the turn of the century in which ambition is treated as a self-destructive vice. Included in his discussion are several short sketches about famous Americans who were unabashedly ambitious, including Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, and Edith Wharton.

Hailing Epstein as a "discerning critic, whose muscular prose is both lucid and discriminating," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, nonetheless asserted that Epstein's book "progresses very circuitously," likening its arrangement to a "three-ring circus, with criticism, anecdote and biography doing their turns simultaneously." Lehmann-Haupt added that while the biographies are "rather too familiar," they are "nevertheless extremely pointed and lively." Writing in Time, R.Z. Sheppard stated that while he agreed with the author's observations about success in America, "the difficulty arises when Epstein attempts to stretch a valid literary observation into a broad cultural thesis." Sheppard maintained that Epstein needed more facts to prove his "sweeping statements," while commenting that the book's organization "creates confusions and repetitions." James Wolcott, writing in the New Republic, commented that he preferred Epstein's "tidy" essays, and he suggested that the author "might have written a succinct essay that could have carried a pugnacious smack" in contrast to the book's "padded sprawl." James Sloan Allen, however, writing in the Saturday Review, praised Epstein for his "graceful, learned meditations on the cultural emblems of ambition," adding that the author has "given us the image of our own entangled wishes and fears." Pointing to Epstein's broad study of ambition that includes mention of related areas such as status-seeking, snobbery, and the fear of failure, Jack Richardson concluded in the New York Times Book Review: "All of this ... Epstein has handled with a good amount of wit and with the clear, straightforward analysis of a man with a point of view."

With My Trousers Rolled reflects the author's perception of his own advancing age. Far from bemoaning his lost youth, Epstein uses his personal perspective to comment generally upon changing fashions, lowered standards in everything from the spoken word to the intellectual pursuit, and the dearth of great writers in American literature today. In a New York Times review of With My Trousers Rolled, Lehmann-Haupt wrote: "Readers can take what they like from the smorgasbord of opinions, crotchets and enthusiasms that ... Epstein serves up." Lehmann-Haupt concluded that the book "remains a mixed experience of the amusingly playful and the tediously carping."

In 2002 Epstein published another study of social mores, Snobbery: The American Version. This lighthearted work begins with the author confessing his own snobbish leanings, beginning in college, when Epstein was taught that the only worthwhile careers were in the arts, science, or statesmanship. Epstein admits his attraction to the accoutrements of better living (fountain pens, a Jaguar automobile) and owns up to "feeling pleased with himself when his son was admitted to Stanford," Alan Riding stated in a New York Times review.

Charting the history of upraised noses in America, Epstein notes that the rise of democracy blurred the old accepted distinctions and led to a concerted effort by the WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) contingent to maintain their social standing. While that effort largely failed--"WASPs surrendered with little struggle," maintains Epstein--the trappings of snobbery remain to this day, pursued enthusiastically by the middle class. Money, not breeding, is what determines today's would-be elite. Classic snobbery, writes the author, "is the calm pleasure with which you greet the news that the son of a woman you have just been introduced to is majoring in photojournalism at Arizona State University while your own daughter is studying art history at Harvard."

Epstein lists the socially favored in such categories as food, neighborhoods, pets, colleges, and professions. "The way Mr. Epstein sees it, doctors have good professions, but doctors involved in research are at the top of the food chain," commented Washington Times reviewer Carol Herman. Then there is the phenomenon of "reverse snobbery," which "amounts to proving your superiority over other snobs by embracing what they disdain, and disdaining what they embrace," Emily Eakin observed in a New York Times piece.

Reviews of Snobbery tended to emphasize the author's affable approach to the subject. Digby Anderson, writing in National Review, remarked that Epstein "is wrong too often about alleged instances of snobbery that belong to a social milieu that he doesn't understand. He cites more than one instance of aristocrats' not noticing servants and behaving as if they were not there. But if one's life is full of servants, that is indeed the only way to behave to them, at least most of the time. Anything else would turn daily life into a performance before an audience and leave no privacy at all." But Eakin held a different view, saying that Epstein "is just the man to tackle an affliction apparently as slippery as it is ubiquitous." New York Times Book Review contributor Martha Bayles took the author to task for indulging in what she called "a particularly stale form of intellectual snobbery when complaining about bright Ivy League graduates 'working in the movies or television' rather than 'going to superior law schools' or 'getting a well-paid job in a corporation.' ... Does he believe nothing worthwhile can be accomplished in 'mass entertainment'?" Still, Bayles added that "it's hard to criticize a writer who can make you laugh out loud on every third page, and who constantly debunks himself." In Herman's view, "the best parts of this book crackle with everyday observations on the sometimes unnoticed places where smugness lurks, reflected in the opening chapter on food snobbery: 'When did my dentist begin using the word pasta?'"

Epstein takes on one of the major sins in his 2003 work, Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, a book whose main virtue, according to Stefan Beck in the National Review, "lies less in explaining the vice than in warning of its danger." In this short nonfiction work, Epstein gives an overview of the topic and peppers his text with numerous quotations from writers as varied as William Shakespeare and Arthur Schopenhauer. He also views numerous movements, such as Marxism, through the lens of money envy and examines his own personal struggles with the sin. A Publishers Weekly reviewer was unimpressed with Envy, calling it "insubstantial and unambitious," and perhaps an example of an "eighth deadly sin: smugness." More favorable was the assessment of Beck, who commended Epstein's writing as a "rare alloy of sobriety, sophistication, and warm humor." Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews critic stated that "career essayist Epstein wields a nimble pen in this consideration of the 'most pervasive' mortal sin." Likewise, Booklist contributor Seaman wrote: "Epstein is a witty and thoughtful elucidator of this covert and poisonous state of mind."

With his 2006 work Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide, Epstein presents a "cogent and satisfying primer on the mind of the perspicacious Gallic theorist who discerned a new form of government in America," according to a Kirkus Reviews critic. Part of the "Eminent Lives" series, Epstein's Alexis De Tocqueville explicates the life and thoughts of the Frenchman who traveled through America in the early 1830s and thereafter wrote the two-volume Democracy in America, filled with insights to the functioning of government in the newly formed United States. Epstein's account was praised by a Publishers Weekly contributor, who remarked that the author "provides a penetrating examination of [De Tocqueville], his works, his influence, his times and what we can learn from Democracy in America."

Friendship: An Exposé, also published in 2006, "offers another philosophic and adroitly crafted scrutiny of a hard-to-pin-down yet essential aspect of human life--friendship," Seaman noted in Booklist. Epstein's exploration of the subject is, according to Seaman, "deliberately provoking," contending as it does that friends are often too needy and demanding. Epstein examines his own friendships as an index to friendship in general, and he looks at the concept of and views on friendship through ages via other assorted writers, from ancient Greece to the irascible Samuel Johnson. Writing in the New Criterion, John Gross further described the work: "For a relatively short book, Friendship packs in a great deal. The themes which Epstein addresses range from broken friendships to inequality in friendship, from the shaping power of technology to the tug of war between traditional male friendship and modern family life." A Kirkus Reviews critic found the book "as entertaining and illuminating as a leisurely lunch with a loquacious, literate friend." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly also commended the philosophical work, noting: "Epstein lucidly paraphrases and applies wisdom to his own life experience, producing a meditative memoir that is refined and modest in tone, but perhaps too hermetic." New York Times reviewer William Grimes offered another positive assessment of Friendship and its author: "Epstein, in an unfamiliar introspective vein, is quite appealing, warts and all. He's warm, if crusty on the outside, honest, unsparing and brimful of illuminating literary anecdotes." Summing up Epstein's achievement with Friendship and in his career in general, Library Journal contributor David Keymer concluded of Epstein: "For more than two decades, he has been a national treasure of wit and wisdom, pleasuring and profiting us at the same time."

In 2008 Epstein published Fred Astaire, a biography of the Broadway and Hollywood performer. In the book, Epstein combines general biographical information with a detailed analysis of the facets of Astaire's talent as an artist. In Library Journal, Katherine Litwin stated of the biography that Epstein's "passion for his subject makes this an engaging read." Reviewing the book in the Financial Times, Michael Taube called Fred Astaire "an entertaining account of the 'magical ingredients' that defined Astaire's career," and Newsday contributor Tom Beer concluded that Epstein is an "engagingly witty author."

Though it joins a thoroughly saturated canon of writer-to-writer correspondences, Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet claims to be the first example of this literary genre conducted wholly within the preserve of the Internet. Penned over the course of a year, the work chronicles the evolving friendship of Joseph Epstein and his fellow scribe Frederic Raphael. When the two embarked on the project that eventually became Distant Intimacy in early 2009, they agreed to just a few conditions: they could not meet in person or speak on the phone, and they could discuss any topic they wished. Predictably, this license results in a wide-ranging book, with Epstein and Raphael drolly discussing a range of banal topics--parents, schooling, and wives--as well as delving into weightier fare, including anti-Semitism in literature, the decline of good criticism, the state of the publishing industry, and the keys to a successful writing career. The two also expend much intellectual ammunition in assessing a host of cultural figures, including Susan Sontag, Edmund Wilson, Vladimir Nabokov, and George Steiner. As readers are invited to voyeuristically regard the evolution of Epstein and Raphael's friendship, they are given an opportunity to reflect on the nature of human communication in the electronic age and on the singular role played by art, literature, and cinema in the formation of both social relationships and individual identities.

Some critics regarded Distant Intimacy as an exercise in self-indulgence on the part of Epstein and Raphael, while others read it as an arch dialog between two impossibly learned members of the literati. In the former camp, a Publishers Weekly contributor lamented that Distant Intimacy is "sometimes overrun with anecdotes of past slights, bitter gossip, and moments of vanity--often from Epstein's keyboard." The reviewer observed that Epstein and Raphael rarely extend their merciless criticisms to each other during their insult-glutted missives. By contrast, Patrick A. Smith in Library Journal called Distant Intimacy "richly textured and highly allusive." He added that the "the artistic dialog is recommended for readers interested in high-wire intellectual discussions."

Epstein edited and wrote the introduction to a collection of sixteen portraits of exceptional teachers written by their well-known students, titled Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers. In the collection, notable figures from various fields, including physics, literature, anthropology, and music, write about the classroom presence of such luminaries as J. Robert Oppenheimer, C.S. Lewis, Ruth Benedict, and Nadia Boulanger.

New York Times reviewer Anatole Broyard praised the idea behind the book but surmised that "half of the writers, teachers and scholars who wrote these essays did not follow ... Epstein's instructions." Rather than describing how the teachers conducted class, Broyard noted, most of the writers only relate what was taught. "These are resumes, not portraits," he observed, adding: "There is no image of the man in action." Josiah Bunting III, writing in the Washington Post, contended that all of the teachers "resist effective reminiscence," making it "impossible for their essayists to convey to us, in terms really compelling, what it was that made their students admire them." Bunting asserted that the "book's value is as absorbing reminiscence rather than as useful commentary."

Epstein's first collection of essays, Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life, was published in 1979 and is comprised of fourteen selections from the American Scholar. His subjects center on life in the United States--the commonalities, quirks, language, and customs of contemporary America. Epstein's book, according to Kapp, is a "one-man revival of the familiar essay at its most genial and urbane," in which the author "tackles homely rather than earthshaking subjects: food, exercise and language, not nuclear war or the welfare state." The book garnered mostly favorable reviews from critics, who drew attention to Epstein's accomplished writing style and subtle wit. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Benjamin DeMott declared that Epstein "has a gift for apposite quotation and allusion" and is "adept at inventing amusing new uses for old epithets." Reflecting on Epstein's self-portrayal in his essays as an ingenuous and oftentimes befuddled bystander, DeMott claimed that although "the intention is always humorous, ... the reader hungers for a stronger note, less affected and more self-respecting." However, DeMott maintained that when Epstein drops his baffled persona, "he is a critic with real force of mind." Referring to Epstein's tone as "easygoing" and "neighborly," Charles Fenyvesi, writing in the New Republic, commented that the author's writings "reveal a man of exemplary sobriety, understated scholarship, and balanced judgment." Noting that Epstein's "serious thoughts" are "seldom heard here without an encouraging word of levity or a hilarious reminiscence," Kapp concluded that the essays "have to do with worldly things that affect our tastes, the palates of our minds, but they go on inevitably to an appraisal of our attitudes and the kind of people we are."

The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays, published in 1983, is a second selection of Epstein's essays from the American Scholar. "Like any good writer," reported Broyard in another review in the New York Times, "Epstein looks closely at the very things most of us hardly notice." Among the topics he covers are book dedications, clichés, sending and receiving letters, and memories of his childhood in Chicago, Illinois. Writing in the Detroit News, Bruce Cook asserted that Epstein's essays make an "eloquent and convincing [argument] for the revival of the essay form," remarking that although the author uses an informal tone, his writings "never seem thin, forced, or tricked-out." Cook praised Epstein's autobiographical pieces, while commenting that the author is not "self-servingly confessional in the manner so popular today." Referring to the spirit of Epstein's essays, Broyard hailed the author as "a cross between a flaneur, or observant stroller, and a street corner evangelist" who "confesses, exhorts, mourns and celebrates."

In Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing and Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, Epstein narrows his focus to topics built on literary themes. Published in 1985 and 1989 respectively, the collections cover Epstein's views on the state of language and literature in the United States while revealing the authors he most particularly admires. Reviewing Plausible Prejudices in the Washington Post, critic Jonathan Yardley called Epstein a "tough and demanding critic but not a mean or spiteful one" when confronted with what he perceives to be a dearth of good American literature. "He recognizes excellence when he finds it," noted Yardley, who asserted that there is little excellence to be found in contemporary fiction. Though Yardley agreed with Epstein's claim that many contemporary writers have "twisted literature to serve political ends," he took exception to the author's views on some distinctly political novels, some of which, Yardley contended, deserve more credit than they were accorded by the writer. Nonetheless, Yardley maintained: "With devastating finality, [Epstein] strips away the veneer of political trendiness with which contemporary fiction is coated and reveals the shallowness underneath."

Asserting that Epstein's "most interesting work has been his literary criticism," in his Chicago Tribune review of Plausible Prejudices, Stevenson Swanson hailed the writer's literary essays as "pieces of lasting interest." Epstein uses the publication of a book, explained Swanson, to review the author's work in its entirety. He "reads an author's works, identifies the common elements and themes, leavens criticism with biography, and tries to place the writer in his time and in the larger tradition of literature," Swanson noted. Praising Epstein for reminding him of some great, forgotten writers, as well as for deflating the "inflated reputations" of many popular contemporary authors, the reviewer reported that the author "takes his main jobs to be the upholding of standards and the restoration of literature to its former place of importance." Because Epstein frequently interjects lighthearted commentary into his essays, Swanson speculated that the author might be taken less seriously than he should be. Additionally, Swanson stated that Epstein needs to clarify some of his unsupported and unexplained assertions in order for readers to evaluate his ideas. Yet Swanson judged Epstein to be a compelling writer who leaves the readers wanting to know "more rather than less" about the writer's views.

Partial Payments, which won the 1989 Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune, continues Epstein's ruminations about the state of the modern literary canon. In a Washington Post Book World article, Michael Dirda noted: "Not quite a critic, yet more than a reviewer, Epstein is funny, smart, mildly boastful, fearless, politically conservative, narrow in his taste in fiction (give him that old-time realism) and a pleasure to read." Dirda also remarked: "There is nothing really new in anything he writes, beyond an engaging point of view and a fine prose style--neither to be sniffed at and both the hallmarks of the born essayist." Chicago Tribune contributor Karl Shapiro maintained that in Partial Payments, Epstein "comes through as the voice of the general literate reader," concluding that the modern essay "has regained a good deal of its literary status in our time, much to the credit of ... Epstein."

Epstein has continued to pursue familiar topics in books such as A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays and Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life, both published in the early 1990s. Remarking on the change Epstein's work underwent in that decade, Tribune Books reviewer Rockwell Gray wrote: "Epstein has done much to give the familiar and literary essay renewed currency in recent years. ... He has become less the polemical social critic and, probably to his readers' delight, more the ever curious spectator who carries his convictions lightly. The issues he now engages--the folly of dogmatic political correctness, the arrogance of literary theory, the fickle touch of fame--are woven gracefully into a larger concern with well-wrought work that honors the tradition of letters invoked in Pertinent Players." In a Hudson Review discussion of Pertinent Players, Thomas Filbin concluded: "Epstein's importance lies in having a willful affection for his subjects that doesn't rise or fall with the fashion. He eschews theories of literature in favor of the practice of literature, and aims to deliver a broader version of truth than the narrowness of specialization permits. ... Epstein is droll and earnest company, and even if you aren't a member of his particular sect of literature, the tour of its hall of heroes is not to be missed." Reviewing Life Sentences: Literary Essays in Publishers Weekly, a critic stated that it shows Epstein "continuing to do what he does best: gambol through the gardens of literary greats--with an occasional investigation of that ominous sink-hole above the septic tank."

Late in 1997 Epstein stepped down as editor of the American Scholar, penning his final piece for the journal's pages in the winter 1998 issue. All told he wrote ninety-two essays for the periodical and--more important--exercised control over its content for two decades. Bidding farewell to his "Life and Letters" column, he wrote in the American Scholar (as Aristides): "No writing, I have to report, has come as easily to me. I never wanted for a subject, and--capacious gasbag that I am--I always had the 6,500 words needed to cover that subject. By rough count, I have written nearly 600,000 words for this space. I have produced five books of essays from the Aristides column and am preparing a sixth. Aristides the Just? A lot closer to Aristides the Loquacious, I'd say." Epstein also commented: "I have had the most generous response imaginable from these essays. I don't know how many letters I have had from readers who appreciated them, or wished to argue with points made in them, found errors in them, or even hated them, but the number must be in the thousands. What made these letters all the more pleasurable is that I never wrote any of the essays with particular readers in mind. ... In fact, I wrote the Aristides essays and I edited the American Scholar for myself and for strangers who might happen to share my interests."

Epstein's retirement from the American Scholar did not denote his retirement from the writing life in general. Indeed, between 1999 and 2007, the author produced seven new books. The first, Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays, confirms his status as what Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper called "one of the premier contemporary American essayists." A collection culled from Epstein's magazine work, the book hints at its subject in the subtitle's word "familiar": the essays are about Epstein himself. Library Journal reviewer Ilse Heidmann noted that even when writing about such everyday events as napping and watching sports, the author infuses his books with "a great deal of wit and amusing observation." An Economist contributor singled out Epstein's musings on reading as worthy of note. "He says an odd thing at one point," remarked the reviewer. "The question implicit in reading every great writer is, 'what would he or she have thought of me?' His range of reference is always wide, but he rarely forgets himself in enthusiasm for a particular book."

In a Cardboard Belt! Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage is a collection of thirty-one of Epstein's essays, many of them humorous, the majority of which appeared previously under Epstein's pseudonym, Aristides, in the American Scholar. The subjects vary widely and Epstein touches on such diverse material as Truman Capote; his career as a teacher and writer at Northwestern University in Chicago; restaurants; the unknown creator of the bacon, lettuce, and tomato (BLT) sandwich; literature and book clubs; and why turning down the position of the U.S. poet laureate is the only way he believes a person can become known in relation to that post. Epstein also discusses the important things in his life that he considers to be fixtures and things he would prefer not to go without, including his favorite Chinese restaurant and his father. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented that "throughout, Epstein cuts the cantankerousness with wry humor and perceptive erudition." Seaman, writing again in Booklist, noted that "Epstein can also be flip, even juvenile," but went on to state that "he writes so darn well that one can't help but keep reading." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews opined that, "nice as the appreciations may be, the best fun here is in the ad hominem pastings administered to panjandrum know-it-alls."

In A Literary Education, Epstein presents thirty-eight essays that had not been published in his other collections. The works in the collection cover a variety of topics, ranging from the author's adolescence in Chicago, to the ills afflicting contemporary culture and society, to the sickly condition of the American academic and artistic worlds. This agglomeration of subjects, when taken together, are suggestive of Epstein's absolute command of the essay form and his formidable talents as a critic and polemicist. As the essays in A Literary Education make clear, Epstein holds strong opinions and is keen to punish intellectual and artistic laziness. Moreover, they demonstrate that Epstein's conservatism remains as keen as ever. Many of the entries in A Literary Education address the culture wars, in which Epstein fought on the front lines during his academic career at Northwestern University. While Epstein exhibits little interest in or loyalty toward either of the two predominant American political parties, he expresses a fierce skepticism about today's literary fashions and cultural touchstones. In a piece written in 1997, for instance, he mounts a concerted attack on the tendency among contemporary essayists to disclose as much as possible to their readers. A Literary Education gives readers access to a penetrating, incisive mind and to a trove of artful writing.

In Library Journal, David Keymer noted that while it would be unlikely for a reader to agree unreservedly with all the sentiments and opinions contained within A Literary Education, Epstein's writing "gets the mind stirring and there are few better reads than these essays. There's a place in society for gadflies." Other reviewers agreed with this estimation, with most concluding that A Literary Education is a bracing, thoughtful, and compulsively readable collection. Larry Thornberry, a reviewer for the American Spectator, gently warned that "Epstein's writing, like most French desserts, is very rich stuff. So readers are advised to take in only an essay or two at a time." In the Wall Street Journal, Danny Heitman was more unreserved in his praise and ended his review by declaring: "A Literary Education inspires hope that Mr. Epstein's good run isn't over just yet."

Epstein has done more than write about other people's fiction: he has published some himself. His 1991 collection, The Goldin Boys, presents a series of stories set in and around Chicago, Epstein's home virtually since birth. All of the stories appeared in periodicals prior to their publication together in the book, but some critics commended the way the various tales seem linked by time, place, and theme. Chicago Tribune reviewer George Garrett claimed that the stories in The Goldin Boys "show us a wonderful storyteller at work, uninhibited by his editorial habits and losing nothing by comparison with his very best work in other forms." Garrett described the title story as "a little masterpiece that sets the tone for the whole collection, even as it proves that ... Epstein's gifts are true and abundant and altogether enviable." New York Times Book Review critic Daniel Stern called The Goldin Boys "a collection of beautifully realized short stories woven from the rich experience of families, lovers and money. It is full of Chicago street smarts and large-as-life characters who sing witty, sad songs before leaving us, entertained, touched and enriched by our encounter."

Epstein returned to the short story with his 2003 collection, Fabulous Small Jews. The eighteen stories in it are all set in Chicago and feature middle-and upper-class Jews. In an interview with Robert Birnbaum on, Epstein commented that the book "tends to be about subsidiary characters, and it's an interesting way of probing the mystery of human character, which is what interests me about a lot of these stories." Birnbaum lauded "Epstein's robust sense of humor and keen eye for detail" as well as his "potent and illuminating story telling" in this collection. Similarly, Josh Cohen, writing in Library Journal, stated that "through these vignettes, a range of universal themes is brought down to earth in a touching and thoughtful way." Cohen also noted Epstein's "gentle humor" at work in such tales as "Loss of Words" and the lead story, "Felix Emeritus," about the adjustments a retired literature professor must make when he moves into an assisted-living center. For Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman, Epstein's "funny and wise stories celebrate independence, the inner life, generosity of spirit, and rolling with the punches." Further praise came from a Publishers Weekly contributor who commented: "Gratifying and genuine, this collection examines all sorts of responses to the encroachment of old age on human dignity," and from a Kirkus Reviews critic who noted that Fabulous Small Jews is "Epstein's most successful foray into fiction yet."

The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories, Epstein's third collection, contains fourteen tales about elderly Jews living in Chicago. The title tale features a wealthy widow who has designs on a widower doctor. A figure resembling Saul Bellow appears in "My Brother Eli," while "Beyond the Pale" portrays an older Yiddish writer and the young translator assigned to him. "The more familiar you are with the social, cultural and physical milieu he's describing in these stories the more you'll enjoy them, but they're definitely worthwhile even if his world is thoroughly unfamiliar," wrote a contributor to Proffering praise in Kirkus Reviews, a critic found that the collection consists of "achingly beautiful stories of growing old, searching for meaning and facing death." The critic went on to note that "Epstein writes with intelligence, wit and flair--highly recommended." Robert Birnbaum, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, observed: "The experienced characters who inhabit Epstein's world, some sentenced to death by their doctors, some widowed, some caught up in nostalgic reverie, others searching for ways to make their increasingly free time meaningful or at least passable, rarely sink into attitudes of despair and bleak numbness." According to Birnbaum, "They display good humor, and what used to be called common sense, and seem to have the one gift that the passing years do bestow upon some: patience."




  • Epstein, Joseph, Snobbery: The American Version, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
  • Winchell, Mark Royden, Neoconservative Criticism: Norman Podhoretz, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1991.


  • American Scholar, summer, 1984, Aristides, author column; spring, 1985, Aristides, author column; winter, 1998, Aristides, author column, pp. 7-16; summer, 2014, Steven Lagerfeld, "The Skeptic: A Critic's Cranky Charm," review of A Literary Education, p. 105.
  • American Spectator, June, 2014, Larry Thornberry, review of A Literary Education, p. 58.
  • Antioch Review, spring, 1990, review of Once More around the Block: Familiar Essays.
  • Book, July-August, 2002, Steve Wilson, review of Snobbery: The American Version, p. 82.
  • Booklist, February 15, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, p. 994; May 15, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays, p. 1661; July, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Snobbery, p. 1803; July 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 1863; September 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, p. 24; June 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Friendship: An Exposé, p. 10; September 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of In a Cardboard Belt! Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, p. 38.
  • Chicago Tribune, November 11, 1979, review of Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life; February 24, 1985, Stevenson Swanson, review of Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing; January 8, 1989, Karl Shapiro, review of Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, p. 7; October 13, 1991, George Garrett, review of The Goldin Boys, pp. 6-7.
  • Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 1999, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 21.
  • Commentary, August, 1976, Joseph Epstein, author column; July, 1978, Joseph Epstein, author column; June, 1980, Joseph Epstein, author column; February, 1981, Joseph Epstein, author column; March, 1982, Joseph Epstein, author column; September, 1985, Joseph Epstein, author column.
  • Detroit News, January 8, 1984, Bruce Cook, review of The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays.
  • Economist, September 18, 1999, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 3.
  • Encounter, November, 1987, review of Once More around the Block, p. 63.
  • Financial Times, November 8, 2008, Michael Taube, review of Fred Astaire, p. 19.
  • First Things, June-July, 2013, Edward T. Oakes, review of Essays in Biography, p. 64.
  • Georgia Review, spring, 1998, Sanford Pinsker, review of Life Sentences: Literary Essays p. 138.
  • Harper's, November, 1977, Epstein, author column, p. 77; January 1, 2005, Arthur Krystal, review of Envy, p. 96.
  • Hudson Review, spring, 1994, Thomas Filbin, review of Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life, pp. 123-126; winter, 1998, James Tuttleton, review of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, p. 673; autumn, 1999, Susan Balee, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 517.
  • Insight on the News, June 5, 1995, Rex Roberts, review of With My Trousers Rolled, p. 25.
  • International Herald Tribune, October 18, 2008, review of Fred Astaire, p. 21.
  • Journal of American Culture, June, 2004, Marshall Fishwick, review of Envy, p. 235.
  • Journal of Modern Literature, fall-winter, 1988, Henry Braun, review of Once More around the Block, p. 226.
  • Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1999, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 113; May 15, 2003, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 699; July 1, 2003, review of Envy, p. 892; April 15, 2006, review of Friendship, p. 389; October 1, 2006, review of Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide, p. 998; July 1, 2007, review of In a Cardboard Belt!; March 15, 2010, review of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories; July 15, 2012, review of Essays in Biography; April 1, 2014, review of A Literary Education.
  • Library Journal, May 15, 1987, Earl Rovit, review of Once More around the Block, p. 85; February 15, 1997, Ilse Heidmann, review of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, p. 136; September 15, 1997, review of Life Sentences, p. 74; June 1, 1999, Ilse Heidmann, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 113; June 24, 2002, review of Snobbery, p. 51; June 15, 2003, Josh Cohen, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 103; September 15, 2003, Gary P. Gillum, review of Envy, p. 62; May 1, 2006, David Keymer, review of Friendship, p. 106; September 15, 2008, Katherine Litwin, review of Fred Astaire, p. 57; May 1, 2013, Patrick A. Smith, review of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, p. 78; July 1, 2014, David Keymer, review of A Literary Education, p. 88.
  • Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2002, Mary McNamara, review of Snobbery, p. E1.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 24, 1985, review of Plausible Prejudices, p. 7.
  • Maclean's, July 24, 2006, review of Friendship, p. 16.
  • National Review, September 2, 2002, Digby Anderson, review of Snobbery, p. 43; October 13, 2003, Stefan Beck, review of Envy, p. 59.
  • New Criterion, September 1, 2006, John Gross, review of Friendship, p. 127.
  • New Republic, November 10, 1979, Charles Fenyvesi, review of Familiar Territory; January 24, 1981, James Wolcott, review of Ambition: The Secret Passion.
  • Newsday, November 2, 2008, review of Fred Astaire; November 5, 2008, Tom Beer, review of Fred Astaire.
  • Newsweek, July 1, 1974, review of Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility.
  • New York, July 26, 1993, Rhoda Koenig, review of Pertinent Players, pp. 52-53; August 21, 2006, Liesl Schillinger, review of Friendship, p. 78.
  • New York Times, December 29, 1979, Anatole Broyard, review of Familiar Territory, p. 13; January 16, 1981, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Ambition, p. 20; April 25, 1981, Anatole Broyard, review of Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, p. 13; October 20, 1983, Anatole Broyard, review of The Middle of My Tether; May 18, 1995, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of With My Trousers Rolled; June 8, 2002, Emily Eakin, review of Snobbery, p. A17; August 21, 2002, Alan Riding, review of Snobbery, p. B7; July 26, 2006, William Grimes, review of Friendship, p. 6.
  • New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1974, Sara Sanborn, review of Divorced in America; November 4, 1979, Benjamin DeMott, review of Familiar Territory; January 18, 1981, Jack Richardson, review of Ambition, p. 3; April 5, 1981, review of Masters; February 24, 1985, review of Plausible Prejudices, p. 8; June 7, 1987, Joel Conarroe, review of Once More around the Block, p. 13; November 3, 1991, Daniel Stern, review of The Goldin Boys, p. 10; September 19, 1993, review of Pertinent Players, p. 20; July 14, 2002, Martha Bayles, review of Snobbery, p. 11; July 21, 2002, review of Snobbery, p. 18; August 3, 2003, Diane Cole, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 16; July 16, 2006, Jennifer Senior, review of Friendship, p. 8.
  • Observer (London, England), March 29, 1998, review of Life Sentences, p. 16.
  • Publishers Weekly, December 16, 1983, review of The Middle of My Tether; March 1, 1985, Neil Baldwin, author interview, p. 82; April 10, 1987, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Once More around the Block, p. 86; February 27, 1995, review of With My Trousers Rolled, p. 93; January 27, 1997, review of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, p. 92; September 1, 1997, review of Life Sentences, p. 85; April 19, 1999, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 54; January 28, 2002, review of Snobbery, p. 174; June 23, 2003, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 46; August 11, 2003, review of Envy, p. 273; March 20, 2006, review of Friendship, p. 45; October 9, 2006, review of Alexis De Tocqueville, p. 50; July 9, 2007, review of In a Cardboard Belt!, p. 44; July 23, 2012, review of Essays in Biography, p. 45; March 25, 2013, review of Distant Intimacy, p. 60; March 31, 2014, review of A Literary Education, p. 56.
  • Reference & Research Book News, February, 2007, review of Alexis De Tocqueville.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, July 18, 2010, Robert Birnbaum, review of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories.
  • Saturday Review, January, 1981, James Sloan Allen, review of Ambition.
  • Sewanee Review, October, 1988, review of Once More around the Block, p. 89; January, 1999, review of Life Sentences, p. 157; summer, 2004, Robert L. Arrington, review of Envy.
  • Shofar, summer, 2005, Daryn Glassbrook, review of Fabulous Small Jews.
  • Spectator (London, England), March 7, 1998, P.J. Kavanagh, review of Life Sentences, p. 8848; March 16, 2013, Richard Davenport-Hines, review of Distant Intimacy, p. 40.
  • Studies in Short Fiction, fall, 1987, Rodney Stevens, review of Once More around the Block, pp. 472-473.
  • Time, January 19, 1981, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Ambition; July 15, 2002, Richard Stengel, review of Snobbery, p. 63.
  • Times Literary Supplement (London, England), August 2, 1985, review of Plausible Prejudices, p. 857; August 10, 2003, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 6; October 26, 2003, review of Envy, p. 1.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 5, 1993, Rockwell Gray, review of Pertinent Players, p. 6.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1988, Sanford Pinsker, review of Once More around the Block; fall, 1997, review of The Norton Book of Personal Essays, p. 139; winter, 2004, David Lee Rubin, review of Fabulous Small Jews, p. 271.
  • Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1987, Terry Teachout, review of Once More around the Block, p. 17; April 22, 1991, Willard Spiegelman, review of A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays, p. A10; June 17, 2014, Danny Heitman, review of A Literary Education.
  • Washington Post, May 1, 1981, Josiah Bunting III, review of Masters; February 20, 1985, Jonathan Yardley, review of Plausible Prejudices; May 23, 1999, Sanford Pinsker, p. X6.
  • Washington Post Book World, June 30, 1974, Sonya Rudikoff, review of Divorced in America; December 16, 1979, Isa Kapp, review of Familiar Territory; January 29, 1989, Michael Dirda, review of Partial Payments, p. 4; May 23, 1999, Michael Dirda, review of Narcissus Leaves the Pool, p. 6; August 6, 2006, Bob Ivry, review of Friendship, p. 3; Jonathan Yardley, October 20, 2012, review of Essays in Biography.
  • Washington Times, July 29, 2002, Carol Herman, review of Snobbery, p. 21.


  • Bookslut, (April 17, 2007), Michael Schaub, review of Fabulous Small Jews.
  •, (December 23, 2010), review of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories.
  •, (August 31, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, author interview.
  • Rocky Mountain News Online, (August 26, 2006), Traver Kauffman, review of Friendship.*


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000029583