IN HIS NEW collection of essays, Plausible Prejudices, Joseph Epstein, a pillar of what has been called the Literary New Right, appoints himself sheriff of contemporary American literature.
Spurred by anger at literary injustice--sloppy thinking and extra-literary intrusions into creative and critical writing--he enters town "ready to apprehend delinquent writers' but just a little "too late to ambush the novelist John Irving, who has already ridden into town, cleaned out the banks, and ridden out again unharmed." While it is impossible to sum up Epstein's thoughts on American fiction, criticism, and literary life in general, his general theme is that "literature is going through a very bad patch at present."
One explanation for this so-called patch is what Epstein describes as the dispersed literary culture of the United States. American literati are spread out in the hundreds of universities across the nation, and while the university provides novelists with security and stability, it also narrows the range of their experience. The result, on the page, is a glut of "fornication and fashionable ideas, which seem to be the chief forms of experience and knowledge available at contemporary universities."
Yet another consequence of university control of contemporary literature is an abundance of esoteric criticism, far removed from the substance of life and history that make literature rich and relevant. With authority that must be the envy of any undergraduate, Epstein notes the ubiquitous "demonstration of techniques for proving that reality doesn't exist. It is all very ingenious this work of structuralism, semiologists, Foucaultists; it is also all very boring."
This attack is somewhat ironic coming from Epstein, a professor at Northwestern University and editor of The American Scholar (the voice of Phi Beta Kappa), but Epstein's prose is refreshingly free of academic cant. In fact, he attempts to puncture the diseased, pseudo-critical language he calls "blurbissimo"--swollen with hyperbolic vacuity and written more or advertisements than reviews.
Another short-changing of literature and life to which Epstein object is ideology at either the heart of a novel or the core of criticism. Borrowing Clauswitz's definition of war, he accuses Doctorow and Coover of using literature to wage "politics by other means." He devotes four essays to rehabilitating the reputations of James G. Cozzens, John Dos Passo Var. Wyck Brooks, and Willa Cather, all of whom be considers unjustly neglected by the prejudice of liberal critics. Cather he "rescues" from the crown of lesbianism.
YET, STRANGELY, Epstein himself clearly judges novelists on extra-literary, political grounds, admitting, "I may be blinded by my own politics." This is an understatement. After reading a sentence such as "Like the fly and the dunghill, left-wing sociology and left-wing sociology and leftwing fiction feed upon and replenish each other," the reader may find his politics difficult to miss. In fact, most of the essays in this collection were published first in Commentary or New Criterion.
Politics, it becomes clear, is inevitably a facet of literature. The most benign, introspective meandering can always be read as an endorsement of self-centered capitalism and possessive individualism. Epstein is arguing for a particular view of life, the traditional liberal humanist ideology, when he says that gravity is essential to great literature, and gravity depends on the spiritual. Clearly, Marxism will not appeal to Epstein. Accepting the inevitability of politics in novels, even in masterpieces by Dostoyevsky or Conrad, he resists literature blind to the rich variety of life.
In his essay, "The Sunshine Girls: Renata Adler and Joan Didion," he points points to the simplistic, "unearned nibilism" these authors have adopted from the tradition of modernism Elsewhere the castigates those writers who reduce affairs of the heart to a affairs of the glands. Epstein wants literatures sustain man and make him "better." Unfortunately, the feminists and leftists Epstein attacks claim that the amelioration and richness of life lie within the conflicts of politics and gender. Quickly and predictably, the argument turns from literature to philosophy and politics.
Epstein's title, Plausible Prejudices, is a shrewd deflation of the potential objection that he is foisting his ideological prejudices on the unsuspecting reader. He makes no claim to the truth. He allows that as a critic he "can only state his belief persuasively," and impose "opinions by main force of eloquence." For this critical duel, he chooses not eternal verity but rather eloquence at forty paces. This is a wise choice, for Epstein wields a pen like the most powerful handgun in the world, and in the course of the book, blows several heads clean off. Listen to him describe John Leonard kill a party of eminent essayists, into whose company an over-generous critic placed him. Epstein too is in attendence, but of all contemporary writers I disesteem John Leonard easily heads the lists. I do not want to be of his company. Indeed, at the very mention of the name John Leonard it seemed that Montaigne threw his mantel across his shoulders and left the room, followed by Pascal delicately lifting the skirt of his vestments; Hazlitt said he had a previous engagement at the five courts, Lamb muttered something about his sister not being well. Orwell stubbed out his cigarette. Camus buckled the belt of his trenchcoat, and they were all gone.
With fewer words but equal devastation, Epstein draws a bead on Norman Mailer and plugs him as "a serious writer except when he is thinking, and the trouble is that over his long career he has been thinking a very great deal." Perhaps to quote such provocative thrashings is to suggest an intemperate, flailing harangue, but every round-house blow is prepared-with deft, critical jabs and well-documented proof of delinquency.
Although Plausible Prejudices is sometimes a book of mourning for today's readers--Epstein inexplicably ignores such Southern writers as Eudora Welty. Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy, whose works he ought to enjoy--readers who share his prejudices will laugh and cheer as he lays waste the bad guys. Even for those who don't. Epstein's prose reaches the level of artistry, and should be appreciated as such--as a thing well-made
The essays collected represent the years from 1977 to 1984. The later ones are the better crafted; Epstein seems to have hit perfect stride. Felicitous phrases, crisp construction, and clever cadences abound. Graced with wit, critical authority, and several rounds of silver bullets. Sheriff Epstein should make the literary delinquents quake.