More often than not I find myself both thoroughly annoyed with what Joseph Epstein is saying and happily amused by the way he is saying it. Essays in Biography, his latest collection, is no exception. A staunch card carrying conservative, he seems to specialize in melting the clay feet of any liberal, political or cultural, who comes within range of the blow torch of his wit. At times his attacks seem little more than mean spirited gossip. But then, what is as delicious as a spicy dish of mean spirit, especially when well-seasoned with wit and erudition?
He writes about his contemporaries, in some cases people with whom he was friendly, at least at one time, smiling as he plants his daggers. And if you can’t dump on your ex-friends who can you dump on? Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin — all get Epsteined. Bellow, for example, praises authors in one breath and puts them down behind their backs. He is a notorious womanizer unable to sustain a relationship. Kazin is a philanderer; Sontag, clearly not a friend, ex or otherwise, most notable as a photographic subject. “Intellectuals,” he tells us, “have devised many stupid ideas, and Susan Sontag seems, at one time to have believed them all.” So much for Susan.
Liberal politico Arthur Schlesinger is so entranced by Jack Kennedy that he puts on a jacket to take his phone calls. He is “forever ascribing the views and actions of people he disagrees with to their presumed moral or psychological deficiencies.” Conservative pundit Irving Kristol taking part on a Harvard panel, on the other hand, is described as “lighting up the room with his easy wit and charming good sense.” Besides after 50 years, he remains happily married.
When he writes about historical figures, he is a bit less contentious, but still careful to introduce some note of controversy. His opening essay on George Washington begins with a discussion of the idea that the American presidency demands mediocrity. The admirable minor writer Max Beerbohm claims he has “a Jewish talent.” George Eliot’s venture into Judaica, Daniel Deronda, is one of her major novels. The snobbish, anti-semitic Henry Adams, he tells us, would have made a splendid subject for a Henry James novel.
His section on popular culture mixes essays on sports heroes like Joe DiMaggio (he doesn’t care for the character assassination in Richard Ben Cramer’s biography) and Michael Jordan (he applauds his refusal to indulge in politics) with essays on W. C. Fields and Irving Thalberg. He doesn’t care for the work of Malcolm Gladwell, but surprisingly finds quiz show cheat Charles Van Doren something less than villainous.
Most of the essays seem more like extended book reviews than essays in biography, although they are never acknowledged as such. Moreover there is no indication of where and when the individual pieces were originally published, other than a list of seven periodicals on the back of the title page. Some specific reference to the original publication of each essay would certainly be appropriate.