In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2023
410 pp., 37.0
Reviewed by Scot McKnight
For two weeks, the last thing I did before I found my way to bed was place Joseph Epstein's In a Cardboard Belt! on Daniel de Roulet's hope–filled book Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World. Most nights, as I shuffled through the dark to our bedroom, I also wondered for some odd reason how I'd vary the title of Epstein's book in light of de Roulet's. I've landed upon this for the title for any collection of Epstein's essays but especially this new one: The Undiscovered Plot in (What Might Be, Who Knows?) a Plotted World.
I'm routinely stunned when I ask fellow academics if they read Epstein and they reply with "Who is he?" My answer, always and forever: "America's finest essayist." I was once in that crowd of "Who is Joseph Epstein?" readers until my colleague, Sonia Bodi, whose recommendations I have always followed, said to me, "I've found a book for you. It's by Joseph Epstein. Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays." I bought it, read it, and became a convert. That was 1999. In the year 2000 I read ten of Epstein's books and have never had a better year reading. Still, his writing isn't known as well as it deserves to be. As he puts it, "I am ready to settle for being known as a good writer by thoughtful people." Why does he settle for such non–fame? Perhaps because he reads differently: "Do many people still read—as I do—looking for secrets, for hitherto hidden secrets that will open too–long–locked doors?"
In a Cardboard Belt! collects Epstein's essays from the last few years. As usual, they are filled with wit and gossip and put–downs and no final answers to serious questions. Some are familiar essays (a division of personal essays in the tradition of Michel Montaigne, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt, which Epstein defines as a "line out for a walk"), some literary, and some about the intellectual life. But the sensational section of In a Cardboard Belt! is what he calls "Savage." Here one finds Epstein irony fueled by animus against such notables as Mortimer Adler and Harold Bloom as well as George Steiner and Edmund Wilson but also the dubious post of poet laureate for the United States. To Bloom's claim that he never revises his prose, Epstein adds that "nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim." And he says of Bloom that his "books sell without being actually read." Indeed, Mr. Epstein, that's savage.
Epstein turned The American Scholar into what it was (note the past tense), namely, a collection of the finest essays in the land, many personal and familiar. As reported in the last essay, the 92nd, he wrote for The American Scholar and rounding off In a Cardboard Belt!, Epstein was pushed off the dock by the politically correct clamor in the Phi Beta Kappa society, which owns the journal. They handed the leadership over to another fine essayist, Anne Fadiman, whose leadership also seemed not to have cut the right figure and whose own essays are now gathered into a bundle in At Large and At Small. When the new editor took over, he converted the once delightfully distinctive American Scholar into what is now yet another political commentary—and I closed my checkbook on the journal. I do what I can to find Epstein's pieces in magazines like Commentary, The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, and Nexus.
What got Epstein into trouble? Nothing much. His panache, his élan, his sardonic wit—in short, his genius and the reason I like his essays. "Life is not, after all," he observes with a penchant for speaking his unpopular mind, "a Barbra Streisand song. People who need people, I have discovered, are not usually the luckiest people of all." He didn't even need The American Scholar people. Sometimes he received letters from angry feminists who didn't think he published enough feminists. "I generally answered such letters by remarking that I thought myself without prejudice in this matter, that I was interested only in getting the best possible copy into the magazine, and that I would run good writing produced by a hermaphroditic zebra." Letters like that in the hands of the wrong person can get an editor in trouble.
Epstein is famously quotatious. The quotations emerge from his 42 commonplace books, wherein he has recorded lines from John Ruskin, Max Beerbohm, George Santayana, W. H. Auden, and Edward Shils, among many others. "Few things," he observes in his characteristic manner, "are more pleasing than to find what one thinks one's idiosyncratic views corroborated by someone whose mind one much admires." An intellectual for him is not the professor–scholar who has learned more and more about less and less, today's monograph–writing and monograph–reading academic, but the aesthetic intellectual who enjoys an intelligent conversation with other intelligent people about subjects of common interest. Above all his preference is for the intellectual, like la Rochefoucauld, who doesn't dig in his (or her) defenses too deeply.
Few are the writers who weigh in so often about weighty subjects without putting their weight down. Epstein professes no known creed. He isn't simply a stylist with irony but a man of irony itself. In his thrashing away at Adler, for whom he worked on the staff of Encyclopedia Britannica, Epstein reveals his penchant for a lack of finding bedrock philosophical truths as he observes the impact of Adler's teachings about Plato on Adler's seminar pupils: "After years of reading Plato, they seem no closer to escaping the cave than the rest of us." In the opening essay of this new collection, on turning seventy, he says that "I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet." He continues, "I suffer, then, some of the fear of religion without any of the enjoyment of the hope it brings." When his father died, Epstein found that he had left behind some 2,700 pages written in his own style of wisdom. "Although he had no more luck in this than the rest of us, there was something gallant about the attempt" of a senior citizen not finding a publisher but grinding away anyway (italics mine).
In his essay on why he is not a lawyer, Epstein closes with this: "It's a much easier job to be an investigator or critic of morality, which is what a writer does, than a lawyer, someone called upon to practice morality, relentlessly and at the highest level, day after day after day." Faced with the task of cleaning out his apartment and disposing of most of the thousands of books he had collected over a lifetime, he discusses the few authors and books he chose to hold onto. "I kept a few Schopenhauer items, including The World as Will and Representation; his unrelenting darkness for some reasons charms me." And Epstein notes that "I have three different Bibles in the apartment—a work, the Bible, I've not yet read all the way through and tell myself I must before I am hit with a most unpleasant quiz administered at certain pearly gates."
What Epstein says of John Keats can be said of Epstein's aesthetic urge: "It's a virus, allow me to add, for which medicine has not discovered a cure." And it's contagious to boot.
Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University, author most recently of A Community called Atonement (Abingdon), and a wannabe essayist.
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