Barbs and Bards


A Line Out for a Walk, by Joseph Epstein, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 331 pages, $21.95

No contemporary essayist quite fills the void left by H.L. Mencken. None is so thoroughly atheistic when it comes to political orthodoxies.

The American Spectator's Bob Tyrell comes close, but he speaks to an intellectual audience. Mencken spoke more to the "motormen's wives." P.J. O'Rourke can be hilarious, but he sometimes sacrifices common sense for humor, which Mencken would never do. To truly satisfy a hunger for Mencken's style of witty, well-written social comment, readers must mix a bouillabaisse of the best works from all these and other writers.

To that broth, Joseph Epstein adds some spice with flawless prose and keen observations. His weakness is that he seems too nice to exhibit Mencken-quality curmudgeonliness, though anyone who provoked Joyce Carol Oates into demanding his resignation deserves some credit.

In this collection of essays, Epstein honors Mencken's memory by taking a few jabs at modern-day prohibitionists (the antismoking fascists) and puritans (the political-correctness crowd). He refers to himself jocularly as a "Jewish anti-Semite" and claims to be speaking "in my capacity as chairman of the Committee to Re-establish Stereotypes Built on Gender." After speculating on the different gambling proclivities of various ethnic groups, Epstein thoughtfully adds, "Various anti-defamation leagues—Chinese, Black, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Texan, Rumanian—wishing to protest this paragraph may reach me at my office, care of the director, Center for Advanced Ethnic Insensitivity." Mencken must be smiling in his grave.

None of his comments are really insulting, though Epstein doesn't mind a good put-down. Indeed, one of the essays lauds the perfectly aimed barb. He lists examples from the usual suspects—Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill—but the highly literate Epstein has a sufficiently firm grasp of the esoteric to include novelist Josephine Herbst's claim that critic Leslie Fiedler looked "like one of those soft people in Turgenev."

Epstein pontificates in like fashion about the sweet taste of juicy gossip and the thrill of fame, and he offers "a few kind words for envy"—all of this without any trace of de rigueur guilt about what are, after all, character flaws.

An Epstein essay is like a conversation with an average guy, assuming the average guy has a gigabyte of literary anecdotes stored in his brain. Almost every essay includes a parade of historical figures, from the famous to the obscure, who step on stage long enough to deliver a clever quote and then move along.

In the piece on envy, we hear from Herman Melville ("Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy?") and Horace ("Sicilian tyrants could never have contrived a better torture"), and we learn that Orwell called envy "a horrible thing [which] is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it."

If name-dropping were a crime, Epstein would be facing 20 years to life. In the piece on gossip alone, the cast of characters includes: Salman Rushdie, Rushdie's American wife, Dante, Fidel Castro, Evelyn Waugh, Stendahl, Jackie Onassis, writer Isaac Rosenfeld, John Dewey, Wittgenstein, Sidney Hook, Bertrand Russell, Justice Holmes, Harold Laski, Sir Frederick Pollock, Lewis Einstein, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Louis XIV, Henry James, Marcel Proust, E.M. Cioran, the Rev. Sydney Smith (founder of the Edinburgh Review), Lady Mary Bennet, Lady Grey, Lord Grey, J.A. Murray (who worked on the Edinburgh Review), Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Ilchester, and Lord Byron.

Epstein is a compulsive quoter. One might be tempted to explore the implications of this. Is Epstein endeavoring to display his intellect? Is he merely living off the wisdom of others? What defines a good quote? Should a quote be fresh rather than pithy, if it can't be both? The answers to these questions could be the subject of a very good essay about Epstein. In fact, this essay has been written by Epstein himself. He included it in this collection ("Quotatious") in a self-analytical preemptive strike that doesn't seem entirely fair to marauding book reviewers.

Having collected the literary equivalent of sound bites for years, Epstein makes an occasional and usually transparent effort to manufacture his own memorable bon mots. Sometimes he succeeds rather nicely.

In an essay unfortunately not in this collection, Epstein knifed local politicians when he said his native Chicago "remains a city that stands in refutation of Lord Acton's maxim by demonstrating, again and again, that only a small amount of power can corrupt absolutely."

In this collection, Epstein displays his talent for metaphor (construction workers near his home "appraise passing young women with a jeweler's eye and a burglar's conscience") and for a good opening line ("Unlike every other paragraph I have written in my life, this one I am writing while wearing a red fez"; how could one not read farther into this playful piece about hats?).

Some of his lines are quite funny. When describing his gastrointestinal brush with mortality, he says his doctor "put me through an examination that steadied me in my already firm resolve to spend all my days as a heterosexual."

Some don't quite click. In an essay about his height, he says that "one of the nice things about having been Napoleon (5? 2?) is that at least no one could ever accuse you of having a Napoleonic complex."

For anyone who loves words and loves to read, Epstein's work is entertaining. But the stylish exterior of these essays masks a deeper…nothing. There's not much to them in the way of insightful comment or fresh analysis even about the simple things in life, such as confronting a social bore or buying a new hat. Each essay is a tale told by a clever writer, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Hey, he who lives by the quote, gets reviewed by it.)

This is a bit of a disappointment. Epstein is best known for his literary criticism, and at that he excels. He is editor of The American Scholar, the quarterly publication of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society. Two of his previous books, Partial Payments and Plausible Prejudices, collect some of his best critical pieces. He claims to read on average five hours a day, and the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated is well reflected in these analyses of contemporary authors.

Epstein's efforts have made him an expert on form but not on substance. He admits in a personal essay in this collection that he "would rather read a stylish book than a style-less more scholarly book on the same subject." This habit has polished his wit but possibly impoverished his knowledge. He can quote widely from Milton (neither Berle nor Friedman, he adds helpfully) to Butch Cassidy and the Brothers Goncourt, and he writes with zing but with little intelligent or original thought.

Politically, Epstein probably should be classified as a neoconservative. A member of the National Council for the Arts (the group that advises the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts), he has favored government subsidies for artists but denied that not funding someone is the equivalent of censorship. Characteristically, he chided grant recipients with this quotable assessment of their position: "We're the cutting edge. You buy the scissors."

In writing elsewhere against the oppression of political correctness, he made a humorous reference to "Dykes on Bikes," which he claims is a regular participant in San Francisco's gay rights parade, and repeated a joke likening feminists to pit bulls in terms of humorlessness. Joyce Carol Oates immediately wrote a letter to The New York Times describing Epstein's resignation from The American Scholar as "long overdue."

Literary comment, rather than social comment, is Epstein's forte. He should stick to it (though he has just published a collection of short stories that may be worth a look). He should, to borrow his words, be content to indulge his "strange passion for acquiring the knack of writing interesting sentences."

Craig Collins lives in Los Angeles.