- - Friday, November 2, 2012

ESSAYS IN BIOGRAPHY
By Joseph Epstein
Axios Press, $24, 603 pages, illustrated

Joseph Epstein may be the dean of contemporary essayists. In some 22 books — none of them featuring car chases or bedroom scenes — he has philosophized on subjects as diverse as divorce, Fred Astaire, gossip and “Fabulous Small Jews.” From a slightly Olympian position, for Mr. Epstein is no man of the people, the author skewers social climbers, Ivy League colleges, literary prizes and politicians.

Many of his books have dealt with subjects of universal import, such as ambition, friendship and envy. Here, he has refined his targets to people as diverse as Adlai Stevenson, Gore Vidal and Joe DiMaggio. With graceful prose and mordant wit, the author seeks to define what made each of his subjects tick.

Although his main focus is on men of letters, Mr. Epstein begins his book with an essay on, of all people, George Washington. The first president, he writes, “was a thoughtful but not a speculative man, and neither is there any serious evidence that he had a strong vision for America.” Yet he brought to the presidency “a dignity that it has not lost more than two hundred years later and under much lesser men.”

And what of Washington as a soldier? “A successful general,” Mr. Epstein writes, “does not have to be the best general in the world. All he has to be … is better than the general he faces.”

Few celebrities are more quickly forgotten in America than losing presidential candidates. Yet Mr. Epstein devotes one of his longest chapters to Stevenson, who retains a hold on the liberal intelligentsia despite two election losses to Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Stevenson’s obvious and fundamental decency,” the author writes, “as well as his insistence on appealing to reason, had something of the 19th century about them.” But he is not prepared to join the Stevenson cult. Stevenson’s lack of “any strong political vision or original political program” was his undoing.

Mr. Epstein is most comfortable when dealing with his literary contemporaries. He is sympathetic toward Ralph Ellison, whose stock is down in many quarters both because there was no sequel to “Invisible Man” and because he had reservations regarding Black Power. The author quotes Ellison as writing, “The greatest difficulty for a Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he really felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel.”

The author does not extend similar sympathy to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who is mocked for his abandonment of historical detachment in favor of a place in the extended Kennedy “family.” Mr. Epstein speculates that Schlesinger’s worship of JFK “must have been that of the bookish boy for the good athlete, of the man with thick glasses and a slight lisp for the man who always got the girl.” In Mr. Epstein’s view, Schlesinger believed that nothing done by private enterprise could not be done as well or better by government.

Schlesinger gets off easily compared with left-wing icon Susan Sontag. Mr. Epstein is scathing regarding her prose — “Her thoughts all seemed to be about herself” — and dismisses her as an inveterate publicity seeker. “Deluded to the end, ” Mr. Epstein writes, “Susan Sontag had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her true metier.”

Mr. Epstein’s treatment of novelist Saul Bellow is of special interest because he and Bellow were, at times, friends. They played racquetball and from time to time dissected the contemporary literary scene together. Mr. Epstein was privy to one discussion in which Bellow and a friend cut up an author “with all the delicacy of a Cook County coroner for the corpse of a homeless man found drowned in Lake Michigan.”

The relationship between Mr. Epstein and Bellow soured, in part, the reader is led to believe, because of Bellow’s sensitivity to criticism. “The distinction between sensitivity and touchiness is a crucial one,” Mr. Epstein writes. “So many people who think themselves sensitive are merely touchy, and Saul was among them … . A slip in conversation, or worse in print, praising the wrong writer, and you figured to be whacked.”

The career of poet-essayist T.S. Eliot demonstrates to Mr. Epstein the fragility of literary fame. In 1956, Eliot delivered a lecture on literary criticism to a crowd of 15,000 at the University of Minnesota. Eliot was like Einstein, the author writes, “in that everyone seemed to know that these men were immensely significant without quite knowing for what.” Mr. Epstein concludes that if the literary culture that Eliot represented “at his best” is a victim of popular culture, “the loss is of a seriousness beyond reckoning.”

Some of Mr. Epstein’s subjects — including Charles Van Doren, the quiz-show fraud, and W.C. Fields — appear outdated for this work. And he would have done well to have found a publisher that employs a proofreader. But Mr. Epstein’s style and wit make his subjects come alive. We, the politically incorrect, have at last found a champion.

• Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.