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A Man of Letters

A Man of Letters

Joseph Epstein’s notable writing career continues with his autobiography.

Michael Mandelbaum

The term “man of letters” denotes someone whose life and livelihood are bound up with literature. He (or she) is usually a critic but almost always more than that: an essayist, a journalist (although not a reporter for a daily newspaper), sometimes a writer of fiction, occasionally a poet as well. The role–a combination of a job and a calling–presupposes an audience of some size: that is, a reading public–to be sure, never more than a modest fraction of any society–with sufficient interest in serious literature and serious ideas to support those who produce them and comment on them.

The first and greatest of the Anglo-American men of letters, Samuel Johnson, wrote essays, poetry, biography, and fiction, and spent a number of years compiling a dictionary. Dr. Johnson, the name by which history knows him, was also one of the great conversationalists of his or any era (he lived from 1709 to 1784), a judgement made possible by the fact that his conversation was recorded and published by his friend and biographer James Boswell. George Orwell (1903-1950) would qualify for the designation on most counts, but he was far more interested, indeed actively engaged, in the politics of his day than others whose careers fit the description. Perhaps the best-known American man of letters, in his time, was Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), a critic and diarist who also wrote fiction and intellectual history as well as essays and books on subjects ranging from the proper way to translate Pushkin’s classic Russian poem Eugene Onegin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The female writers who can be said to have taken on the role of man (perhaps better, "person") of letters in recent decades include the essayists and novelists Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) in the United States and Hilary Mantel (1952-2022) in England.

Time and change have substantially eroded the conditions in which men of letters have flourished. Universities have colonized literature, the novel–a central concern of the men of letters of the past–is a diminished art form, and the digital age has reduced attention spans while flooding the world with images that crowd out the printed word. Still, at least one American man of letters remains.

Over six decades, Joseph Epstein has produced a steady stream of essays and criticism, as well as full-length books on such topics as snobbery, friendship, and Fred Astaire. Of his thirty books, almost half are collections of previously published essays on mainly literary topics. One of the earliest, Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989), is a representative example of these collections. It includes essays on nineteen individual writers that initially appeared mainly in Commentary magazine in the 1980s. Together, they illustrate the breadth of his literary interests. They consider writers as varied in the circumstances of their lives and the styles and subjects of their writings as Matthew Arnold (1822-1878), a poet, critic, and essayist and a formidable man of letters himself; Marguerite Yourcenar (1908-1987), a Belgian-French novelist who became the first woman to be elected to the French Academy and lived for the last four decades of her life on Mount Desert Island in Maine; and S.J. Perelman (1904-1979), an American humorist best known for his short essays in The New Yorker magazine. Each of Epstein’s essays tells the reader, clearly and concisely, who each writer was and what his or her major concerns and most important works were. Each offers, as well, Epstein’s acute and customarily generous but never uncritical appraisals of what each person wrote. The essays serve as both introductions to and assessments of major figures in the literary culture.

Now he has published an autobiography, recording a life generally free, as he himself says, of wrenching drama beyond the kinds of vicissitudes that affect all lives, but not at all devoid of interest. Like all of his writings, Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life, Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life is gracefully written, witty, unpretentious, and engaging. It includes affectionate recollections of his parents, a wry account of his schooldays (through his first year of college his preoccupations were sports and gambling, not literary or intellectual pursuits), a history of the jobs he has held, and portraits of notable friends now largely forgotten but deserving of being of being remembered, among them the art critic and founder of The New Criterion Hilton Kramer, the philosopher Sidney Hook, and the sociologist Edward Shils. Other than the author himself, the book’s most important presence is the city of Chicago, where he has spent almost all of his life.

One theme that emerges from the book is familiar to anyone of a certain age. The city and the country in which he grew up in the 1940s and 1950s differ in many ways from the Chicago and the United States of today, and not all of the changes over the intervening decades, he makes clear, qualify as improvements. Still, the tone of the book is anything but gloomy. Summing up what he has learned, he writes that “the world, for all its faults, flaws, faux pas, remains an amusing place” and that “Life for me, in its variety, its richness, its surprises and astonishments, has not come near to losing its fascination.”

By way of illustrating how lucky his life has been, Epstein records his few, and, in the greater scheme of things, minor regrets: not having developed a better tennis game, for example, and not having learned to read ancient Greek. One ambition, however, he has more than fulfilled. In order to get a job teaching courses at nearby Northwestern University (his mother called it “a job in the neighborhood”) he had to give a talk to the faculty of the university’s English department. “The talk I gave,” he writes, “was on the man of letters, which was what I fancied myself becoming . . .” Become one he did, and this book, published in the second half of his ninth decade, as well as the continuing flow of reviews and essays under his byline, give reason to hope that he will perpetuate the tradition of the man of letters for some time to come. 

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Titans of the Twentieth Century: How They Made History and the History They Made – a study of Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, and Mao, which will be published in September.

Image: Cover image of Joseph Epstein's Never Say You've Had a Lucky Life: Especially If You've Had a Lucky Life (Free Press), superimposed over a book page graphic (Unsplash: Patrick Tomasso).

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